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The American century: That was then

The next time you hear a politician insist that America is exceptional, think of it as a secret confession that we aren't.

December 02, 2011|By Tom Engelhardt
  • Tea party activists attend Glenn Beck's 2010 rally in Washington. President Obama and his would-be GOP presidential opponents have touted American exceptionalism in recent speeches. (Jim Lo Scalzo / European Pressphoto Agency)
Tea party activists attend Glenn Beck's 2010 rally in Washington.…

If you want a gauge of an America on the downward slope, you could look at the recent poll commissioned by the newspaper the Hill, in which a startling 69% of respondents said they considered the country to be in decline. Or you could just consider the soaring language of this season's presidential candidates. Mitt Romney, in a recent Republican debate on foreign policy, was typical, insisting that "this century must be an American century" in which "America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world."

President Obama too is prone to the overheated language of American exceptionalism, announcing frequently his intention to ensure that the 21st century is "another American century."

As a 67-year-old, I grew up in a post-World War II era that, by any measure, was the height of the first American century. As much of the rest of the developed world struggled to rebuild devastated cities, the United States couldn't have been more exceptional, a one-of-a-kind country in producing the big-ticket items both of peace and of war, often from the same corporations.

Back then, there was no need for presidents or presidential candidates to get up and repetitively reassure the American people of just how exceptional we were. It was too obvious to state. After all, when you've really got it, you don't have to flaunt it.

So, the next time you hear any politician insisting that this country is American century-style exceptional, think of it as a kind of secret confession that we aren't. These days, you can feel the uncomfortably defensive snarl (or whine) that lurks in the insistence that our country isn't just another powerful nation in political gridlock and economic trouble.

Think here, if you will, of Rambo's muscles, which were in their own way as much a confession of insecurity as Romney's talk of exceptionalism. Back in the day, the screen western or war hero — Gary Cooper or John Wayne — might be strong and silent, but brute physique was the least of his attributes. He wasn't overmuscled or cartoonishly outsized. As a man of that true American century moment, he didn't have to go out of his way to emphasize his hero-hood and his physical power.

Rambo arrived on-screen in the post-Vietnam War years as a creature of American defeat. It was a time when strong and silent wasn't convincing enough anymore, when a literal arms race seemed necessary, when the pecs of American power needed to be overblown to be overshown.

Romney and crew are, verbally speaking, the Rambos of this 21st century American moment. And their version of nonstop exceptionalism fits well with another strange repetitive feature of the present landscape: the exaltation of the American soldier as a hero of heroes, an exemplar for the nation.

Much of this would have rung weirdly indeed to the ears of Americans in my childhood. They had their own set of outsized fears, but they still lived in a country with a citizen army that a draft ensured just about everyone took part in. Like mine, most families then had at least one WW II vet. And yet no one talked about greatest generations or American heroes or, like President Obama and George W. Bush before him, "the finest fighting force in the world" (or "that the world has ever known"). The soldier was simply an American.

Now, in the world of the all-volunteer Army, with the U.S. permanently, if remarkably unsuccessfully, at war around the world, the military largely exists in a separate sphere, with many Americans having no direct link to the wars being fought in their name and the soldiers who are fighting them.

Yet today, supporting the troops (or "America's warriors," as they are now often called) has become a near-religious duty. This recurrent insistence on their need for support should, like Romney's exceptionalism, be viewed as another kind of secret admission.

After all, the greatest mistake of our era was undoubtedly this: When the Soviet Union suddenly disappeared in 1991, our leaders imagined that they had achieved a kind of American victory never before seen. Where, for centuries, there had been two or more great-power rivals, there was now only the sole superpower (or even hyperpower) of planet Earth, with no significant threat anywhere.

To some, it looked as if this were, by definition, a second post-WW II moment of American exceptionalism. Mistaking military might for global power, they didn't notice that the mightier superpower of the Cold War was also heading slowly downhill in a cloud of self-congratulation. The rest of this grim story we are now living.

Long gone is that American moment and the "century" that went with it. Decline is upon us, and every assurance that it isn't only serves, however subliminally, to reinforce that reality. At whatever pace, our "warriors" and "heroes" are coming home to a distinctly unhappy, unheroic and insecure country, lacking in jobs. In the meantime, our leaders doth protest too much.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, "The United States of Fear," is just out.

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