Shattering the myth of American greatness
Many politicians on both sides of the aisle often use the worn-out concept of American exceptionalism to further their own agendas. Simply mentioning that “America is the greatest country in the world” is generally enough to work any voting pool into an incoherent froth of narcissistic self-love.
The truth, however, isn’t pretty. The United States no longer leads the world in many of the categories that have historically been used to compare the relative wealth, freedom, and happiness of countries, except one: defense spending.
This, in itself, might not be something to be proud of. In 2014, the United States will have spent over $550 Billion dollars on defense. Just for perspective, the next-highest spender is China, whose defense budget comes in at a whopping $126 Billion.
In fact, the United States spends more money on its defense than the next 5 countries on the global list combined. Many will inevitably argue that the main reason for such massive expenditures is to keep global sea-lanes open through the iron fist of the US Navy. I will not debate the absolute necessity of guarding trade between nations, however, in the post-Cold War era, is the almost unilateral effort really worth it?
Another disturbing category that the United States, the country that American convservative politicians claim is “the land of the free”, leads the entire world in is number of individuals, per capita, who are incarcerated. Per each 100,000 individuals, the US incarcerates 716 people. Ironically, this number is far higher than that of countries like Russia and China.
In the U.S., these countries are generally portrayed as Communist dictatorships that thoroughly enjoy sending millions of their own citizens to gulags and work camps. In reality, Russia incarcerates 484 people per 100,000. China’s rate is even more staggering, 170. These are facts, regardless of the narrative still taught to children in American schools.
Furthermore, the deplorable state of the American education system provides yet another example. The US ranks 30th in the world in math scores, 20th in reading, and 23rd in science. American students are regularly outperformed by their European counterparts, many of whom exist in systems wherein the state funds allocated for their education can follow them from school to school. This has created an environment where schools that are ineffective quickly lose their student populations and are shut down.
In other areas, the United States doesn’t even rank with some countries considered to be outside of the “first world”. The U.S. isn’t even in the top 25 countries for infant mortality, in other words the US has 6.7 deaths per 1,000 live births, this puts America out of the top 30 countries on the list. In terms of overall healthcare efficiency, the United States sits at 46th in the world. These statistics are by no means exhaustive and I encourage all readers to do some of their own research.
Groups like the Tea Party claim that the United States has lost its way and must return to the fundamentals that made it the greatest country in the world in the past. The question one must ask then is, has the United States ever really been the greatest country in the world?
Many cite the examples of American participation in both world wars as evidence. Regarding the First World War, it is evident that the United States had little desire to enter the war from the beginning. In fact, the U.S.government saw it as perfectly alright to let the powers of Europe slaughter a good portion of an entire generation for three years while lending money to the belligerent nations to perpetuate the meat grinder.
Furthermore, once the U.S. Army did join the war, American soldiers quickly proved themselves to be inexperienced, undisciplined, and devoid of competent leadership (many did not fire a rifle for the first time until they reached the front).
American children are often given the impression that the U.S. Army swooped in to save cowardly French soldiers who eventually refused to go on the attack (leaving out the fact that the French and British had already been fighting for years and that the Nivelle Offensives had significantly weakened the morale of the French Army). This war helped to begin the American military as we know it, but by no means did it win a quick and glorious victory.
In the Second World war, the Roosevelt administration attempted much the same isolationism that characterized Woodrow Wilson’s pledge two decades earlier to “keep America out of the war”. The United States allowed the German army to take over much of Europe and North Africa while staying quiet.
It was not until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 (an obvious insult to a nation of “exceptional” Americans) that Uncle Sam got off of his couch and went to the aid of those nations he had fought side by side with only a few years earlier. That being said, the American contribution to the war was significant and once it was over the US government spared no expense to canonize its veterans. The same inflated narrative, formed after the First World War, that America had saved weak Frenchmen who surrendered at the first sight of German uniforms was only intensified in the eyes of the American public.
During the Cold War, the United States solidified its place as one of the foremost world economic and military powers and turned itself into an enemy of Communism. The concept of American exceptionalism was useful toward the end of defending capitalism and free enterprise. The U.S. military even became mired in multiple violent conflicts around the world because of this narrative, the most controversial of which was the protracted and illegal war in Vietnam, which ended in extreme embarrassment for Americans and the “exceptional” ideology of global capitalist dominion.
Last but not least, the wonderful American excursions into Iraq and Afghanistan plunged both countries into chaos and poverty (and coincidentally restarted the Afghan opium trade which had been shut down by the Taliban).
The invasion of Afghanistan was supported by many who used the events of September 11, 2001 as proof that “exceptional” Americans had to save face and put down all those who opposed them. In Iraq, the narrative claiming that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and that he was supporting Al Qaeda took the forefront. When these were exposed as misleading, American exceptionalism came to the rescue once again and U.S. troops were re-tooled as liberators “freeing” the Iraqis, one bullet at a time.
This narrative truly is a “one-size-fits-all” type story. Whatever action politicians need to justify can be made acceptable and popular simply through the effort of re-framing the issue in terms of “freedom” and “liberation”. These are simply words and they derive their meaning from the great American bed-time story.
The U.S. has had quite the long history of hate, corruption, murder, intolerance, ignorance, inequality, ineptitude, and oppression, no matter how much the pundits and politicians of today wish to white-wash the history books. This is also true of every nation on the planet. It is clear that America is not necessarily the greatest country in the world (and by no standard the most free), if it ever was in the first place. This narrative may, indeed, be harmful, as it promotes ignorance of real-world facts. If Americans want to stop being seen as fools by the rest of the world, the fairy-tale of exceptionalism needs to be the first thing to go.