We Are Not Special, and There Is No Happy Ending: The Blood-Drenched Darkness of American Exceptionalism

Thursday, July 22, 2010
By Paul Martin


You may not regard the two propositions in my title as deserving of any special attention. You may think, entirely correctly, that if we as Americans are special, it is only in the way that any human being is special: that each of us is unique and irreplaceable, that each of our lives, and the lives of all of us, demand reverence for the unrepeatable value of a person’s brief passage in this world. And you may recognize, also correctly, that certain actions lead to destruction and loss in a manner and on a scale that forbid correction and amends, that on some occasions we can only accept the certainty of negative consequences that cannot be avoided. Human beings may be capable of remarkable, even wondrous achievement, but limits are inherent in existence itself. Sometimes those limits mean that wounds will never heal, that the pain will never end.

If you view these observations as unremarkable, even mundane, that is because in certain crucial respects, you are an adult. Such a healthy perspective — “healthy” designating that which proceeds from demonstrable facts — enables us to see the extreme nature of the delusions necessitated by an unquestioned belief in the myth of American exceptionalism. Despite the events of the last decade, the myth remains the heart of American culture, of American politics, and of the American State. Our politicians still regularly assure us that “America is the last, best hope of Earth,” and that “the American moment” will extend for the entirety of “this new century.” Americans remain “the Good Guys: “The emphasis is not only on ‘Good,’ but on ‘the’: we are the Good Guys in a way that no one else is, or can ever be.”

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