If there is anything more fundamental to the American psyche than the “American dream” it is the belief in American Exceptionalism. In its simplest form, American Exceptionalism is the idea that America holds a special status among nations. This idea of exceptionalism presumes that American leadership rests not on the strength of the ideas America puts into practice or the benefits America extends to its people, but instead is merely predestined — like the bloodlines and rulership of a monarchy.
To be sure, a certain degree of nationalist fervor is present in most countries. However, America’s self-proclaimed exceptionalism goes beyond mere unity of common purpose or pride of achievement. Instead, American Exceptionalism is an invented fiction detached from even the ideas of democracy or capitalism. It is an arbitrary world order where American supremacy is believed to be inevitable. This begs the question of who we consider “American” in the first place — all too often it has meant “white elite.”
American Exceptionalism is a doctrinal descendent of Manifest Destiny — another doctrine of special status used to justify the bloody genocide of Native peoples and the annexation of Native American land. At the root of this special status lay white supremacy and the belief that Anglo-Saxon whites, through some magical divine providence, held greater claim to lands than did Native peoples who had lived on these lands since time immemorial. Yet, this crusade of slaughter has, through whitewashing of historical record and Hollywood “cowboy and Indian” dramas, been transformed into heroic legend. Even more reprehensible, the nation engaged in this land theft to, as Andrew Jackson put it, “extend the area of freedom.” What one does and what one says are often very different things. Greater weight should always be placed on what one does.
While America espoused freedom, liberty and God-given inalienable rights, it massacred the peoples of one continent and enslaved that of another; depriving the first of their land and culture and denying the latter their humanity. To rationalize these misdeeds, America lied about the barbarism and sub-humanism of the people America slaughtered and subjugated. To believe a lie, is to subject oneself to an especially putrid type of cognitive dissonance. To disabuse oneself of the lie, the lie must be confronted and reconciled. Sustainable growth and progress can only happen after affirming truth. America must affirm the truth of its history to ever escape the fits and starts of failed racial harmony and its impact on America’s ability to continue leading the world in any substantive way. If we fail to do this, America will only lead and only be exceptional in its own mind, pitied and shunned by the rest of the world.
Growth and innovation, whether that of an individual or an entire people, relies on truth. Rational decision-making requires an accounting of facts. After all, what is fact-finding if not a search for truth? Adhering to dogmatic fictions, like American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny, malforms both history and the present. Facts and truth are sacrificed and rational decision-making is rendered impossible. The vacuum created when facts and truth are sacrificed are filled with lies. A nation that feeds its people a steady diet of lies eventually robs them of the ability to reason. The people become careless because their beliefs about who they are and the place they hold in the world do not match reality.
If the lies are consumed long enough, outsiders who espouse the truth will be met by the people with anger, the people will feel entitled to the lies. This predisposition and entitlement to lies, even in the face of facts and truth, is especially strong when a people’s entire conception of who they are and who their fellow countrymen are rests on others among them being subjugated and sidelined from fully competing for the American Dream, another invented fiction (one fit for examination at another time).
Even as the nation faces unprecedented disease and death at the hand of a global pandemic, too many levels of American society have chosen to reject science, to reject the assistance and guidance of international medical bodies and to reject the methods other nations have used to successfully contain outbreaks. Instead, too many Americans turn to irrational, magical thinking and conspiracy theories that reinforce the lies they feel so entitled to — the lies that comfort them in the belief that no matter the tragedy that might befall them, they can rest in the comforting belief that they, through some magical providential right, matter more than other groups of people.
This belief, especially as of late, has always hindered American progress. One need not look further than America’s healthcare system. Caring for the health of a population is a challenge faced by every nation. Some of the so-called developed nations manage this challenge much better than others. America, in large part due to the idea of American Exceptionalism, has been unwilling to adopt successful models and learn from other developed nations. Instead, we hear our politicians, often times republicans, cite the need for a “uniquely American solution.” These empty statements are too rarely examined and challenged. Far too many Americans believe that a given idea or solution is fundamentally flawed or a “bad fit” for America, all because that idea derives from outside U.S. borders. Any individual who rejects all ideas not derived from a narrow quarter of his or her choosing is doomed to never reach his or her full potential. Likewise, a nation incapable of adopting the proven means and methods of others has turned its back on growth and invited at best, stagnation and at worst, decline.
Others have attempted to reframe American Exceptionalism as something falling closer to the truth. As the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama — before exiting the world stage amid rising right-wing fanaticism— sought to place diversity, inclusivity and immigrant stories at the center of American Exceptionalism, hoping to weaponize the doctrine against the very principle it was created to cloak and defend: white supremacy. In Obama’s America, the nation staked its claim as world leader on the strength of its ability to shape shift and be made better by the diversity of its constituent parts, constantly challenging old guards, and projecting its open-society model throughout the world. As Greg Jaffe wrote in the Washington Post, Obama’s framing of American Exceptionalism “embraces the darker moments in American history and celebrates the ability of the unsung and the outsiders to challenge the country’s elite.”
President Obama sought to tell a truer account of American history, but without directly addressing the fact that a lie had been told and that the lie had been sustained since the founding and shaped the bulk of American folklore. It was a non-confrontational approach by a pragmatist who believed sentiments about race had continuously changed and improved over the course of his life. To be fair, this was true in a real sense. Indeed, the youthful, melting pot coalition that had carried Obama to the White House in 2008 and 2012 optimistically believed the country was ready to take a pen and redline its history like an encouraging professor — adding nuance, but not reflecting or ruminating on the past for too long before moving on, and drafting a new way forward, together. That new way forward, at least for the time being, appears to have been interrupted by self-entitled mobs, detached from reality, demanding the same folklore of lies and empty shows of patriotism that have served as sustenance their entire lives. Eight years of exposure to a tepid version of truth would appear to have literally driven many Americans insane.
Yet, as deeply frayed as the American fabric appears to be, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has managed to mainstream its way into popular approval. The movements most vocal opponents, Donald Trump and the republican party, continue to reach new heights of public disapproval as they espouse hate and stir up racial resentment— their hold on power buttressed by foreign adversaries who would condemn America to death by its own hand. With chants of “Black Lives Matter”, a new America pounds the pavement insisting on America’s rebirth. Unlike the non-confrontational optimism of the Obama years, today’s movement insists that America look in the mirror and address its lies. In retrospect, the Obama years may come to be seen as a grave period of missed opportunity. It was a period where America could have adopted truth-telling alongside rising principles like diversity. Instead, America’s old guard went a different, more irrational direction. It repeatedly met Obama and the new America’s olive branches with vitriol and resistance.
Debates about the role of police, confederate statues, confederate flags, southern heritage, history books, Juneteenth, Christopher Columbus and so much more are not simply one-off skirmishes or even merely connected under the auspices of “racial tensions.” These struggles over narrative and history have everything to do with the lies America has told, the lies America believes and whether America, steeped in death and despair, will rise during the unlikeliest of moments to confront and reconcile its true original sin — not slavery — but the lie it told itself that made slavery a possibility to begin with. The lie that white lives matter more.