Doc Yale

American Exceptionalism
The Unspoken Myth Behind the Ideology
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1 Quote misattributed to Sinclair Lewis. Original Trump photo by Gage Skidmore.

 

Gary McVicker

 

Author’s Introduction: Although I can’t claim to truly understand the phenomenon myself, I am nevertheless fascinated by myth and how it works in human society. Myth has served as the social and cultural foundation for tribes, cults, civilizations, nations, and institutions throughout human history. We are drawn to myth; it unites us with common identity and determines what we stand for, but it also disguises what often lies behind its curtain. It empowers and enriches the few over the many, and can even impart a sense of human superiority over the natural world, or superiority of one group over another.

 Myth is communicated through stories and symbolism designed to evoke awe, fear, anger, or pride - the stuff of solidarity. Frequently, there are “enemies” and “threats” involved. We bond together out of fear of “them” or ‘it.” Myth persists beyond truth, empathy, objectivity and reason; these, in fact, are its enemies.

 Today, we are surrounded by myth. Advertising, politics and religion all pursue similar strategies designed to have us accept what each wants us to believe. Most of it is rather harmless, and some is quite beneficial. But when religion, political ideology, and ethnicity are joined together under a common identity of nationalism, we potentially have a very dangerous condition, especially when that identity is pitted against an “enemy of state,” either external of internal. It is my opinion that myth is primarily why we find our country so deeply divided today. Because of myth, and the way it has been used politically, we no longer seem capable of constructive dialogue and idea sharing, as required of us in this democracy.

 I believe that one ideology in particular has purposely sought its own patriotic identity by wrapping itself in the flag, touting a very limited interpretation of the Constitution, and blurring the line between government and religion, all with the purpose of gaining a commanding control over our government. This ideology is founded on the most fundamental tenants of Capitalism and the Free Market. It seeks a willing and needy workforce, one that works cheaply and is independent of government entitlements. It seeks access to cheap and abundant natural resources; hence the incessant attack on federal public lands, which, according to it, should be in private ownership. Many of the functions of government should also transfer to the private sector, including public education and prisons. Ironically, it would still fund those “private” functions with tax dollars. All of these goals and more are represented as being “truly American.”

“Government is the problem, not the solution.” Thus, many of the laws, regulations, and government oversight that were successfully used for most of the 20th Century have been repealed or replaced to allow the Free Market to properly function. Yet, as recently as 2007, history has told us many times over that relying on the judgements of individuals who have an eye only on short-term corporate profits does not work well for the good of the larger society or the environment; in fact, quite the opposite.

 Over the last forty years, our laws and institutions of governance have been eroded and compromised to the point of becoming almost ineffectual in pursuit of this ideology. Our political institutions have become so dominated by big money and corporations that, as citizens, we feel helpless. We have heard and been led to believe so many lies and conspiracy theories about our government that many of us no longer know what truth is, or where to find it. Even the media is now under attack as being untruthful and non-patriotic. All of this and more comes at a time in human history when truth concerning human relationships toward each other, and with the natural world, are more important than ever. We are living in the heyday of political mythmakers, and the greatest of them all now occupies the White House.

Senator Patrick Moynihan said not that many years ago, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” We now have “alternative facts?”

Having watched all of this unfold over those same forty years, and out of my own frustration at where it has led us, I wrote the following paper a few years ago, well before the election, or the campaigns leading up to it. In reading it now, it seems prophetic. Only a few statements have been added to make it more current. It is only one point of view, but perhaps one that has not been presented thus far. Myth, after all, is very hard to see through. That is by design. (March, 2017)

The fundamental but unspoken myth is that the United States of America is an exceptional nation founded and built by free enterprising, white Christian males. This myth can be expanded to include related myths such as:“God is a White Man”; “America as the ‘Shining City on the Hill”: “White Superiority”; “Man’s Dominion over Nature”; “Government is the Enemy of Freedom”; and “Fear of ‘One World Government”.

Those who use these myths to their political/ideological advantage profess that:

  • Wealth is a measure of individual exceptionalism.
  • Exceptionalism should have the greater voice in public policy, with wealth being a form of free speech.
  • Exceptionalism thrives in the free market, not in government
  • Exceptionalism however does exist in our military, which therefore is not thought of as part of “government.”
  • Exceptionalism is curtailed by excessive law, regulation and taxation, and by redistributing the personal wealth it creates to less exceptional people.
  • Government action aimed at serving the larger social interest doesn’t encourage individual initiative, but discourages it and creates a sense of entitlement. But no such entitlement is acknowledged for the extensive subsidies and tax benefits extended to corporations and the wealthy.
  • Government serving the interests of individual exceptionalism serves the greater good (trickle down).
  • Government acting to serve the larger interests of society doesn’t promote freedom, but diminishes it. Self-interest works (Ayn Rand).
  • The free market is self-regulating, if left alone by government to act on its own.
  • The individual is best served by family, not by government or community.

Promoting the myths to serve the ideology:

Although seldom openly stated, the above myths are widely held as true in American society.  The historical linkage between Christianity and capitalism is well documented, as is the origin of that connection in Europe. Its genesis for what was to become the United States was imbedded in the views of the first colonists, who saw the land as something to be wrested away from the Indians so that they could be put to God’s higher and better use.Today, these myths are used with purpose: To establish a firm political hold on the country to support as much unfettered capitalismas possibly. The building of these myths for that purpose began in response to the New Deal in the 1930’s, and was again boosted in response to the environmental laws passed in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Capitalism thrives on cheap labor and abundantly available ‘natural resources.” Along the way, “IN GOD WE TRUST” was adopted as the national motto, and “UNDER GOD” added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Today in the United States, there are places where it is openly advocated from the pulpit that true Christian faith, coupled with risk taking in business ventures, will inevitably lead to monetary wealth. Government is seen as an unnecessary hindrance to that equation. Some even believe that government will be rendered unnecessary by the Second Coming. The cultural and social linkage between capitalism and Christianity is broad and well established in various white populations of the United States, as is the idea that American exceptionalism is God’s gift to a free and enterprising people. One member of the U.S. Supreme Court openly declares that “we are a Christian nation.” Militarism is also configured into this belief system, even though we were warned of the consequences of a “military industrial complex” by President Eisenhower in the late 1950’s.

Developing and mobilizing an electorate supportive of these myths, and their related beliefs and tenants, have been made relatively easy by this history, and the ongoing crossing of the line between government and religion in right wing politics:

  • Symbolize the ideology with the flag, the bible (God’s will) anda gun; then characterize any alternative as un-American and, indeed, socialist or even communist in nature.
  • Profess that government, except on a very limited basis “as provided for by the Constitution,” is a threat to our “freedom.”
  • Represent these positions with anger and refuse to debate them publically with people of opposing views; doing so causes them to unravel in the face of objectivity, knowledge and reason.
  • Once in office, work to make government ineffectual and transfer its functions to the private sector as much as possible.
  • Finally, allow the national debt to grow to such proportions that it will inevitably lead to defunding many of the unwanted government functions.

The Results of more than 30 years of pursuing the ideology are:

  • Election of people who hold disdain for government, and who act accordingly once in office.
  • Decline in government performance often due to political placement of personnel who don’t respect the agency’ role, coupled with incessant public attacks on the “excesses of government.”
  • Diminishment of those laws and/or institutions of government thought to impede free enterprise, and the enlargement of others thought of as defending the national interests.
  • Growing national debt due to limiting taxation while increasing costs of military armament and foreign adventurism, including significant off-budget spending.
  • Corporations writing their own regulations and enjoying other, non-publically disclosed privileges within the processes of government.
  • Unwillingness of corporations and the wealthy to invest in repair of the nation’s infrastructure.
  • Erosion of public confidence in the institutions of government.
  • Deep, intransigent political divisions.
  • A breakdown of the division between church and state.
  • Redrawing homogenous White voting districts favoring the ideology.
  • Efforts to disenfranchise the minority vote.
  • Great and growing disparity in wealth distribution.
  • Lack of civic dialogue concerning many issues.
  • Big money controlling elections and public policy.
  • The poor (often minorities)stereotyped as lazy and criminal.
  • Racial profiling in law enforcementand an intolerant judicial system.
  • A greater sense of hopelessness among the nation’s poor and lower income people.
  • Elitism and authoritarianism.
  • Denying science or information thought to threaten free enterprise and/or religious beliefs.
  • A recent near global economic collapse as a result of removing certain legislated controls (i.e. Glass-Stiegel Act) over the financial markets.
  • Growing dependency on social services whileCongress cuts related funds.
  • Using taxes to rescue financial institutions that have become too powerful to fail.
  • Corporations gaining the same standing as citizens, including religious preference, which allows personal interpretations of biblical law to supersede national law.
  • Unchallenged corporate welfare.

Status:

Wrapping an ideology in the flag and rationalizing it with narrowly drawn, self-serving interpretations of the Bible and/or the Constitution can lead to an electorate dangerously akin to religious fanaticism; in this case, one driven by nationalism and misguided ideals of “freedom”and “free enterprise.” Fear of “them” is incorporated in the message as a way to heighten loyalty to the core values purportedly being defended.This is the process of myth building, a process designed to serve the interests of a few who desire power over the many.

History is full of examples, many that still influence human culture and society today. It is a process for separating, not uniting us, and for gaining blind loyalty to a power system, be it political, religious, or corporate.

With several decades of an ever growing network of information designed to serve this ideology already behind us, coupled with a no holds barred political agenda to gain control of both state and federal governments, an electorate has been created that may be incapable of seeing issues other than through a mentality of fear and distrust. There is little or no sense of inclusion. Both national and international issues are presented with a patriotic flare of “us versus them.” International matters are to be addressed through a show of unilateral military strength when necessary, not through negotiation and international cooperation, while solutions to national issues include the sealing of our borders, incarcerating offenders under increasingly rigid law enforcement, and denying social services (both governmental and private) which, in the view of this electorate, do not comport with religious doctrine and/or the rules of free enterprise (it’s up to the individual, not society, to succeed or fail).

There are even ongoing efforts to rewrite science and history textbooks according to the underlying myths mentioned at the beginning of this paper. At least one member of the Supreme Court holds that the Constitution is a “dead document, implying that national laws pertaining to matters such as education, civil rights and environmental protection should be left to the states. This same thinking is carried to the nation’s public lands: that they should be transferred to the states and, from there, privatized to the degree possible.Paradoxically, these agendas are being pursued under the auspices of a more limited government, while blaming the other side for increased national debt. The consequence of all this is evident in the breakdown of our nation’s capacity to govern. There is reason for concern that our system of government, itself, is at risk.

Gun advocacy must also be considered in the context of this ideological enterprise. Once again, fear and misinformation play key roles, with hoarding of both weapons and ammunition growing by leaps and bounds the result. We now have a highly armed citizenry that continues to be driven and influenced by political and gun rights propaganda designed to anger and mobilize. There is even reason to believe that members of White supremacy groups use the military to receive training, which then is taught to other members of their cults. Add to this potentially deadly scenario the growing intolerance and fear of Islam and the risks become even more palpable.

 More than a generation has been indoctrinated by the propaganda that has developed around this ideology. The success of the myth and the strategies used for promoting it are evident by the capturing of two of the three branches of our nation’s system of government, itself designed to avoid ideological dominance, but instead to serve a represented and inclusive democracy. A charismatic leader to further advance this ideology will almost certainly be presented to the nation as a candidate to secure the third branch.

The people behind this ideology have fostered an electorate driven by White-Christian centric, fear based patriotism, but behind the guise of patriotism lies the cloistered politics of greed and self-interest. Behind the scenes, the real agenda is to align government with the interests of business, which now includes the nation’s banking and financial systems.  Neither that agenda, nor the politics of fear that have been fostered within American society to support it, are capable of addressing the most critical questions facing the nation today, some of which affect the whole of humanity. Indeed, the ideology does not even allow such questions to be asked.

Gary McVicker is a former Natural Resource Manager, a landscape photographer. a writer,  and a naturalist.  .