Manifest Destiny

A girl listens to Republican vice presidential candidate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan speak at Westlake Recreation Center on September 4, 2012

Imagine telling a child in his most formative years that he is superior in every way. He is, you assure him, a child of destiny, invested by God with skills and resources denied all other children. He is unique, extraordinary. He is exceptional.

Most likely, such overindulgence would ultimately impair the child with megalomania, narcissism, religious zealotry if not messianism, and an acute intolerance of anyone who does not humor his delusions. Untreated, he is likely to age into a state of permanent adolescence and social isolation.

I often think about this whenever the US presidential campaign exposes symptoms of America’s own cult of exceptionalism. The disasters inflicted by ex-president George W. Bush - an unnecessary war and a global financial collapse to name just two - and his successor’s lackluster performance have done nothing to dispel the myth of America as not only a global power but a higher one. In his bid for the presidency, the Republican Party’s Mitt Romney makes rote declarations that America is “the greatest nation in the world.” His rival, President Barack Obama, scorned as an unbeliever in American divinity when he ran for president four years ago, is now an enthusiastic congregant. Last week, he told Democratic Party regulars that “providence is with us, and we are surely blessed to be the greatest nation on earth.”

Of course, Americans has always had an evangelical faith in their “manifest destiny,” that elegantly imperious term for the country’s continental thrust westward in the early nineteenth century. Had they satisfied themselves with settling California and the Oregon Territory, the notion of American exceptionalism might not be so malign. Since then, however, a host of politicians and presidents eager to expand US hegemony have successfully played the “New Jerusalem” card. In 1898, Teddy Roosevelt described American empire as the only thing standing between “liberty and civilization” on one side and “tyranny and savagery” on the other. A century later, President Bush implied his counter-terrorism policies were inspired by God.

Delusions of American exceptionalism stifles candor, doubt and serious enquiry in the making of domestic and foreign policy while fostering arrogance, paranoia and belligerence. By definition, for a country to be truly and uniquely favored by the Almighty its adversaries must be agents of Satan. (A corollary of good is that it cannot exist without evil; as the preacher-politician proclaims in the play Inherit the Wind, “If St. George had slain a dragonfly instead of a dragon, who would have remembered him?”). It also serves as a kat-like stimulant to distract voters from the demands of complex and pressing issues. As Financial Times columnist Edward Luce wrote this week, both President Barack Obama and his Republican Party challenger, Mitt Romney, are “indulging in a national denial.” Better they should explain how they would salve America’s myriad debilities than bother with jingoist paeans to its sublimity.

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