When the Puritan John Winthrop told British colonists in 1629 that America would be as Christ’s ‘city on a hill’, he meant it as a warning, ‘the eyes of the world upon us’ signifying that their behavior must be above reproach - or ‘exceptional’.
For almost three hundred years, two oceans kept the United States isolated from the give and take between neighbors on other continents. America remained alone and proud of it, interacting with other nations only to ensure that they served our needs, bought our products and agreed with our definition of freedom. Now we find ourselves worryingly alone, as the rest of the world coalesces around our former enemies to tackle the 21st century’s challenges. How could such a transformation happen?
America’s rejection of Otherness began with the Pilgrims, who exiled individual religious dissidents from their colonies. When they eventually threw off a British king, they created an enduring suspicion of both government and foreigners: in 1798, the first of several legislative acts codified that exceptional American trait with the four Aliens and Seditions Acts targeting Americans suspected of sympathy for a foreign power.
As I outlined in my 1989 book Une autre Europe, un autre Monde, published in France with a grant from the Centre National du Livre, there is also a fundamental difference between American and European definitions of democracy that stems from their diverging views of freedom. The American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of Human Rights lay down the same legal protections, but the young nation’s pursuit of happiness left mutual responsibility out in the cold, in contrast to Jacobin France’s proclamation of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’.
That motto swept across the world and eventually much of Europe and the Third World to build welfare states. In America, however suspicion of both government and foreigners endured: the notion of equal opportunity spawned by the natural wealth available to all foreclosed any notion of equity, in a powerful political tradition that denies the community’s responsibility for its citizens well-being. As government became a tool of capital, the drive to the West fostered entrepreneurship, while the less daring became ‘wage earners’. The progressive movement that came into its own with the fight against slavery was a victim of that trajectory. In 1917, Congress renewed its drive against all things foreign with another Sedition Act, and in 1918 it passed the Espionage and Aliens Act, which contradicted the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that:
“Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
The media’s loss of independence contributed powerfully to this development. The New York Times’ nineteenth century definition of purpose was beyond reproach (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_York_Times):
"We shall be Conservative, in all cases where we think Conservatism essential to the public good;—and we shall be Radical in everything which may seem to us to require radical treatment and radical reform. We do not believe that everything in Society is either exactly right or exactly wrong;—what is good we desire to preserve and improve;—what is evil, to exterminate, or reform."
However, as advertising chipped away at lofty ideals, journalists were tamed to serve corporate needs. In the nineteen thirties, President Roosevelt was a member of the upper class, but like Lenin, Mao and later the Castro brothers, he knew that robber capitalism was leaving too many people out in the cold. The corporate-owned press conflated his New Deal with socialism, and socialism with ‘foreign’, strengthening right-wing resistance to progressive ideas.
In 1938, that resistance led Congress to create the infamous House un-American Activities Committee, unleashing what became known as a ‘witch hunt’ against suspected Communists, with Senator McCarthy doing likewise in the Senate. The ideological crime of leftists was enhanced by the conviction that they were ‘beholden to a foreign power’. Uncritically reported by the media, terrifying machinations lead to hundreds of ruined careers and several suicides. Sixty years later, legislation that deprives children of illegal immigrants born in the United States of citizen-ship, flouting centuries of Roman law known as jus sol, descends directly from the fear of Others and in particular foreigners that has held sway since the days of the Pilgrims.
As pride over victory in two world wars gave way to fear of ‘the Communist threat’, information about the wider world virtually disappeared from the media, and criticisms of that lack continue to be answered with finality that ‘the American public is not interested in foreign affairs’. While the rest of the world knows that fascism unabashedly serves the few, while socialism is at least intended to serve the many, America’s corporate-owned press deliberately confounds these two ideologies to justify condemning a religion that requires a daily act of charity.
The legal sidelining of our two hundred year old egalitarian constitution, amended only twenty-seven times, began with a 19th century Supreme Court clerk’s stroke of the pen that granted corporations the advantages of personhood. Money and perks have always been used to make government responsive to certain interests, but in no other country has this practice been codified. American enemies of solidarity recently shut down the government for two weeks in their efforts to kill Obamacare, as a world universally committed to universal free healthcare looked on in astonishment, and religious conflicts exacerbated by a lack of equity raged on.
The paranoia that defines the United States could have faded during the rebellious sixties, but the flamboyant raiments of the counter-culture’s political message only succeeded in fanning the flames until it was ‘born again’ under the neo-conservatives. Finally, we got Wall Street Wizards who divided us into consumers and debtors, as they bankrolled the plundering of the world’s wealth. In contrast to the rest of the world, America’s elegant architecture of checks and balances relies on volunteers for services that should be met by society as a whole, while right wing propaganda fosters a lazy attitude among government employees, reinforcing the impression that it is wasteful. We are only ‘citizens’ when we vote, and if needed services are not profitable, ‘we’ don’t get them, because they cost ‘tax-payers’ too much. The media blackout has been carried to such an extreme that Americans today are oblivious to the fact that the world is marching on without them under foreign iterations of the Pilgrims’ ethos.
Watch Putin’s English language channel (rt.com) for a few days and you will realize that capitalist Russia, far from throwing the solidarity baby out with the Communist bath water, sees itself as a social democracy (albeit with a less developed civil society than Western models), still convinced that society must protect its individual members from want (to use Franklin Roosevelt’s famous but long forgotten phrase). And in a supreme irony, today it is Russia that defends the principles that Washington had enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (modeled on revolutionary France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen) specifies that: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
More powerful than any man in the White House, Putin keeps his oligarchs in check, nurtures Russian Orthodoxy while encouraging moderniza-tion in the federation’s Islamic republics, and promotes traditional values while rejecting mindless consumption. Putting past squabbles aside, Russia has joined with China in a formidable opposition to America’s international agenda.
In America, individualism reigns supreme, yet the notion of each person’s intrinsic worth, based on his conscience, which I call internal authority, is ignored. Not only have we eliminated the individual’s say in how her money is spent, we have accepted the idea that we cannot afford solidarity to ourselves. Enchanted by cinematography, which makes the most unlikely fantasies seem real, and distracted by primitive soaps, Americans have abandoned most of their internal authority to the daily spin intended to save them from the big bad world of solidarity.
After more than fifty years of successful democratic socialism in Europe, Americans are still being told that only market capitalism is compatible with individual freedom. Hence the advent of whistleblowers, whose latest avatar is Edward Snowden. During the Vietnam war, American resisters found refuge in Canada: today as the 1% labors to make the 99% redundant, (see Charles Derber and Yale Magrass’s The Surplus Americans) they reveal government secrets from safe-havens in Moscow or Berlin, both capitals of former enemies...
While recognizing capitalism’s claim to creativity, the BRICS, plus most of Latin America and much of Europe, are united in their call for an end to state violence, decisive steps to save the planet from global warming and solidarity. Yet refusing to recognize that no country has achieved a fair distribution of wealth without government involvement, the United States continues to issue orders from its imaginary City Upon a Hill, oblivious to the fact that the world below is no longer listening. Touting American exceptionalism, Washington’s politicians are no different from Islamist clerics who promise their followers 72 virgins in paradise.