Star Parker and the Dangerous Myth of American Exceptionalism

Today’s Leesburg Daily Commercial brings us a classic example of the right-wing’s arrogation unto itself of the claim to American patriotism. Very cleverly, and very cynically, the right has presented itself as the defender of American values and cultural heritage, thereby enabling itself to accuse anyone who dissents from its worldview of being un-American. Tragically, this dangerous distortion of our national discourse has gone largely unnoticed and unchallenged by progressives, and has not been questioned by the electorate. Fans of George Carlin, however, have known about it for years, as has anyone capable of understanding statistics.

The myth of American Exceptionalism is exceptionally dangerous. It prevents us from even acknowledging, let alone attempting to address and – gasp! – actually solve genuine national problems. In order to solve problems, one must first recognize that there is a problem, but if America is already the greatest country on earth then there can’t be much wrong, can there? In this way, the Rick Perry National Anthemmyth of American exceptionalism acts as a profoundly conservative force, in the classical sense of keeping things the way they are. And for a corporate oligarchy that has figured out how to profit enormously at everyone else’s expense, this is a tremendously useful concept, ensuring subservience among the masses. It must be noted that the Democratic Party – that other great servant of the oligarchy – is also guilty of employing the same rhetoric, as any keen observer of our war-mongering, Peace Laureate president may have noticed. But the GOP has almost literally made this leitmotif their theme tune, with each of their recent non-debates featuring truly disturbing levels of patriotic fervor. Their way is the American way; only a traitor would ever question it!

Of course, the need to present the United States as the best country in the world inevitably requires a certain amount of factual legerdemain. After reassuring us that “there is something special going on here,” Star Parker proceeded to compare America’s GDP per capita – the universal benchmark of (material) living standards – with that of the European Union. Naturally, this particular comparison came out in America’s favor, and most of the readers of the Daily Commercial will have gone away from the article suitably impressed with the superiority of their country and, by implication, its entire way of life.

Unfortunately, Parker has been a tad disingenuous. The European Union is not, despite the dreams of certain idealistic statesmen, a proper country in the same sense as the United States. It is a curious hybrid that most closely resembles a confederation, not a unified political system. Some members have joined the single currency, some have not. The EU has expanded at a rapid rate over the last couple of decades, with many new members being admitted from the defunct Warsaw Pact region. There is a huge difference in living standards between the most highly developed members and some of these newer states, and not everyone in Europe thinks it was particularly smart to admit these less-developed economies so soon.

For those of us who care about objective facts, the United States is not number one in terms of GDP per capita, and has not been for a long time. The countries that currently rank above it, according to a 2010 report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are, in order from the top: Luxembourg, Norway, Qatar, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, Denmark, Australia, Sweden, and the Netherlands. The U.S. is number 10, only slightly ahead of our neighbor to the north (you know – those crazy people who believe in socialized medicine.) If the EU as a whole were to be ranked, it would indeed be much lower than the U.S., but the IMF does not regard the EU as a sovereign nation, and nor do the World Bank or the CIA, which both produce very similar rankings in which the U.S. performs the same or worse. Note also that even if we use Star Parker’s logic, there are still several countries not in the EU that have higher living standards than the U.S. Cor blimey, cobber! Crack open a Foster’s and throw another steak on the barbie!

Of course, “we’re number ten” doesn’t make for much of a rallying cry. Nor would several other international comparisons that we could cite, such as the level of gun violence, the percentage of our population that is incarcerated, or health-care outcomes such as infant mortality and life expectancy. (But, you say, we have the best health care system in the world! Sure we do. That’s exactly what you’re supposed to think.) We’re simply not interested, as a self-deluded nation, in comparing ourselves against objective measures of reality. We live in a fantasy land where everything is hunky-dory, where the apple pie is freshly baked, and the good guys always win. We regard the majestic bald eagle as our national symbol, yet we are in many respects more akin to an ostrich with its head stuck firmly in the sand.

If you think this article is unpatriotic, I have two responses for you. First, the facts don’t lie (but Star Parker does). Second, if you really care about your country, then you should want it to be all it can be. If it isn’t performing well in certain areas, if some things need fixing, then figure out what’s broken and make it right – just like you would with a classic car. Pretending that everything is fine when smoke is belching out of the tailpipe and the engine is knocking under acceleration is not a smart approach, is it? Our country is indeed a classic, designed by brilliant constitutional engineers who were years ahead of their time. It deserves to be maintained by political mechanics who see problems coming long before the head gasket splits. Merely admiring the emblem on the hood becomes an absurd indulgence when the vehicle no longer runs.

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