How ‘American Exceptionalism’ Is Exploited to Justify War and Exploitation
Writer and activist David Swanson discusses his new book Curing Exceptionalism with TRNN’s Ben Norton, exploring how American nationalism and the myth of US superiority is used to justify hyper-militarism and capitalist oppression.
BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News. I’m Ben Norton.
This is part two of my interview with the activist and journalist David Swanson. We’re discussing his new book “Curing Exceptionalism,” which is about the disease, if you will, of American exceptionalism. In the first part, we discussed how American exceptionalism is ultimately a political ideology that does not have its basis in empirical facts. We talked about how according to international metrics, so many metrics, poverty, incarceration, public health, inequality, education, the United States is nowhere near the top. And in fact, not only is it nowhere near the top of other developed imperialist nations, but also just internationally in general, for the entire world, when it comes to things like incarceration, the U.S. is totally at the bottom of the list of the entire world.
In this part we’ll be discussing the damages caused by American exceptionalism, and then we’ll also discuss what David thinks are some solutions. The cures, if you will, to American exceptionalism. David Swanson is a journalist, activist, organizer, and educator. He is the director of the peace group World Beyond War. He is also the host of Talk Nation Radio, and the author of several books. Thanks for joining us, David.
DAVID SWANSON: Glad to be here.
BEN NORTON: So in Part 3 of your book you know you discuss the dangers and the damages of American exceptionalism. What do you think some of those dangers and damages are?
DAVID SWANSON: Well, we touched on this a bit last time. I think that when you limit your thinking to one country and identify one country as the source of all wisdom and development, then the fact that much of the rest of the world’s wealthy countries have more or less figured out health coverage doesn’t matter, doesn’t enter into the debate. Or that they’ve figured out gun violence. So we have these endless theoretical debates about what would happen if the police didn’t have guns, or if you had laws banning automatic weapons. And the fact that other countries have done it and you can observe what the results have been doesn’t enter into it. So the fact that the rest of the world has figured out better directions in terms of criminal punishment, moving away from mass incarceration and retributive justice, you know, we’re, we’re impoverished.
We’re deprived of these sources of wisdom and these experiments in social advances by limiting our understanding to the United States. And the same thing deprives us of, of world history. You know, people in, kids in U.S. schools are taught almost entirely U.S. history, and as if it’s the only history that matters. We’re taught that, not just that the U.S., but we, identifying ourselves as the U.S. through eternity, we defeated the British in the revolution for freedom, as was necessary, without any mention of Canada, or Australia, or anywhere else that didn’t, and why it was better to have a war or not. We defeated slavery with a civil war, with no, no mention that much of the rest of the world defeated slavery without a civil war. And so we we’re encouraged to support as having been right and necessary anything that the United States did, even if it was a much more mixed picture when you consider the rest of the world.
And so this habit of thinking then makes you prone to go along with whatever the U.S. government now says must be done is justified and necessary. And of course you’ve been trained, conditioned as a robotic little fascist to pledge your obedience to a flag, so that if somebody waves a flag, you are less, you know, able to, to see through what you might otherwise have been able to see through because they’re waving that flag at you.
BEN NORTON: Well, actually, this is a great segue. I was going to mention this. In Part 3 of the book you have a section on flag worship. And this is something that I’ve noticed traveling internationally. You know, growing up in the United States, being a U.S. citizen, we often have this internalized notion that the kinds of not just nationalism, but the kinds of jingoism and chauvinism we see in this country are somehow natural. The idea that every time you go to school in the morning you, in high school in particular, you have the national anthem. There are U.S. flags everywhere in this country. There’s this, you know, extreme nationalist fervor everywhere you go.
But when I’ve traveled internationally I’ve noticed that, it depends on the country, but in many countries you don’t actually see that many national flags. You don’t really hear the national anthem that much. And in the countries where this is beginning to become more popular, this is usually a far-right political movement that’s leading. What comes to mind is India. In India there’s been a big national debate about whether or not they should make it mandatory, legally, which the ruling BJP government has been trying to do, in movie theaters for people to stand up before the movie during the national anthem. And of course, the BJP government is very, extremely right wing. It is a Hindu nationalist government that is extremely bigoted against Muslims, Dalits, and minority groups.
So we see that when there are parallels in the world into the kind of nationalist fervor we see here, it’s far-right fascistic movements. And specifically, in this section of your book, you have an anecdote which I think is very telling, of when you were speaking at a high school. And you talk about specifically the national anthem and the U.S. flag. Can you provide a little background about this anecdote? I think people will find it very enlightening.
DAVID SWANSON: I think I know what you mean. I mean, I had written an article about the take a knee protests, and I had been invited to speak at a forum at a big private high school in San Antonio on that topic, at which I was the one and only person who took a knee for the national anthem, despite the fact that some of the other panelists expressed some agreement with that movement. But I, I mentioned there what you’ve just been describing, that you can go to many countries and never see a national flag. And if you do, feel free to ignore it, not be required to salute it or pledge allegiance to it at the at the risk of being suspended from school, or losing your professional football career, and so forth.
And you know. this is, you mentioned also that that India and other countries have trends in this direction. And this is what you see through my book and through my experience with many U.S. policies. Many bad ones, where the U.S. should be ashamed of being near the top of the list, including mass incarceration, for example, where the U.S. influence is spreading them to other countries. And this is, in fact, the one area where the United States is right at the top, is an influence, is in the reach of Hollywood films, is in what’s described by some people as soft power. And so I hypothesized in the book what it might be like if the nation that was doing the best in education had the most influence on other countries in terms of education, and the nation that was doing the best at criminal justice had the most influence, rather than the United States having the most influence for a number of reasons, including the professionalism of Hollywood and the reach of the English language, and so forth and so on, whether or not its policies are actually the best ones with which to be influencing the rest of the world.
I mean, I would like to see the United States come down in the list of countries for, for imprisoning people in cages, not because other countries start doing it more, but because the United States starts doing it less.
BEN NORTON: Absolutely. And then, finally, in the last part of your book, you discuss cures for American exceptionalism. And actually, one of the parts of the subtitle of your book is: What can we do about it? So how can we cure exceptionalism? What do you think are ways that Americans can resist this jingoistic, nationalistic sentimentality that is extremely pervasive in our culture?
DAVID SWANSON: Part of it, we can’t cover all of it here, but part of it is related to that word, ‘we,’ in that subtitle, and what we choose to mean by it. You know, I’ve seen in the past week people who did everything they could to prevent any more missiles going into Syria say ‘we just bombed Syria,’ when we didn’t. And there’s a problem with that, with identifying yourself with the U.S. government, even if you do pay taxes to it, even if you do vote, imagining that you share the same interests as the Pentagon, and that you can talk about national interests as your own, and use the word ‘we’ to describe what it does while you oppose it.
I mean, we don’t use this kind of talk on other issues with the U.S. government. We don’t say, you know, we just taxed my budget to the extreme here on tax day, or we just seized part of my private property, or we, no, we say the government did things when the government does them. Except when it comes to war. Then we say ‘we,’ and I think we ought to mean my, my friends, my family, my community, my locality. In some senses, ‘we,’ living inhabitants of this planet, who all share certain survival interests together. But much less so ‘we’ at the national level, which is no less arbitrary than creating and defining and identifying with a race or a gender, to identify yourself with a flag and a national government in its military. That’s one problem to start addressing and start doing some thought experiments to see if you can think your way through to identifying with, with a different group, smaller and larger.
You know, another technique that I recommend in the book is, is role reversal. You know, imagine if North Korea 70 years ago had divided the United States with a line across it from sea to shining sea, and created a militarized zone, and a South United States and a North United States, and bombed 80 percent of the cities of the North United States flat, and imposed military rule on the South United States and refused to allow reunification or a peace agreement. And now, North Korea has, you know, a crazed leader threatening fire and fury at the North United States. If you lived in that North United States, and the country that had killed your grandparents, walled you off from your cousins, starved you with a blockade, and had this lunatic threatening nuclear war against you, your own government might have lots of major flaws and blood on its hands. But what would you think about that government that was threatening you? Would you think that it was properly enforcing the rule of law on the globe, or would you think otherwise? And so I offer, you know, numerous such examples and ways to create your own examples to try putting the shoe on the other foot, and seeing how it feels.
BEN NORTON: Well, that’s actually a very good point. And specifically, I think I agree with you that we need to understand that nationalism, when it is an oppressor group, when it is a powerful, hegemonic group that is imposing this kind of nationalistic ideology, it is frequently used to try to divide the class differences, to try to encourage inter-class solidarity, so rich people, poor working class people together, as if they’re all part of the same group who all benefit from the same policies, when in fact as you mentioned we aren’t the ones who benefit from these wars, from these military occupations, from mass incarceration. It is a small segment of us. It is the 1 percent, the rich, who own the corporations that are selling weapons, that have private prisons. And frequently American exceptionalism, as you detail in your book, is used to try to cover up those class divisions and encourage this kind of class solidarity when in fact there shouldn’t be any.
But unfortunately, here we’ll have to end the interview. It’s a very fascinating book. You should check out David Swanson’s “Curing Exceptionalism.” It’s very easy to read, good detailed book. A lot of great research and talking points that you can learn to push back against some of these myths. Thanks so much for joining us, David.
DAVID SWANSON: Thank you, I appreciate it.
BEN NORTON: And I’m Ben Norton reporting for The Real News.