By John Stang
One of the dominant traits coming from the right over the last 20 years has been this idea of American as a nation like no other, given by God to the rest of the world. The argument here is that the U.S. has a unique history that is different from rest of the world. Usually, one hears claims such as: America never had colonies, everyone immigrated to the U.S. and there were not ethnic divisions, and the constitution was, itself, a miracle. Admittedly, there are events in the history of the U.S. are are unique and the founding documents had were revolutionary. But, this is not the whole story. Christopher Hitchens takes on this “divinely inspired” myth about the U.S.:
Of course, with any Eden there must be a serpent and an original sin. In the American case at least, Thomas Paine knew quite clearly what it was. The vile stain of slavery was present at every point, just as the awful profitability of cotton, and the easy availability of unpaid human labor from the African trade, corrupted the ideals of the new republic from the very first. In the end, the reckoning for this historic crime led to a war in which much of the ill-gotten wealth was squandered. On the other hand, that same civil war led to the triumph of capitalism and the expansionist state, with the new republic soon becoming an empire in all but name in the Philippines, Cuba, Haiti, and Puerto Rico.
Especially to the extent that it starts to look like a loyalty oath, I think that the underlying question here should be dismissed as rash or stupid or both. Is the United States “chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world”? Anybody claiming to have the answer to that question—as George W. Bush once seemed to do—would be a fool.For a start, what would be his sources of information? And how good a historian would he be? In the long view, very few of the survivors of the Roman Empire would have predicted that the inhabitants of the frozen and backward British Isles would be among the next builders of a global system, but so it proved. And there was no question that the British or English, especially the Protestant fundamentalist ones, believed that they had God on their side. In fact, I know of no European state that doesn’t have some kind of national myth to the same effect. The problem, as everybody knows, is that not all these myths can be simultaneously right.
Tearing down mythical history about the U.S. is not a hard thing to do. The U.S. is like any other nation, it has a history in which some parts are good and some parts are ugly. The job of a historian would be to objectively analyze each event and put it within the context of a timeframe. The other way to interpret events is through the prism of a political paradigm. If one is trying to rally a base of people who believe the U.S. should be and deserves the right to be the dominant power in the world, then pushing a narrative that emphasizes greatness and manifest destiny is the better way to go.
One other point to mention is that historical exceptionalism often trades off with foreign policy hubris and overcompensates for a slow fall. If the U.S. public opinion considers itself above the rest, then it will be easy to believe that all decisions abroad are good ones, which is not always the case. With a crumbling infrastructure, a frustrating political system, and an economy that is is shambles, maybe hiding behind a national mythology gives people hope that the future will be brighter tomorrow, and who doesn’t want that?