American Exceptionalism and the Value of Prosperity

American Exceptionalism and the Value of Prosperity

(A version of this article was published in Blogcritics on April, 2009)

I

In her recent article, “We Need To Demand Our Country Be Given Back to We the People,” SJ Reidhead had the temerity to suggest the United States of America and the Roman Republic were the only two entities in the history of humankind that stood head & shoulders above the rest. 

“Both were synonymous,” she writes, “with power, order, and the promotion of civilization.”1

II

The author drew severe criticism, and the article became a kind of free-for-all, a ready-made platform for expressing all manner of views on whatever subject. As one commenter had put it,

X used it as an opportunity to talk about political philosophy. Y is using it as a springboard for dry, cynical humor. Z reacted with his usual fervor against any criticism of the administration. If all you have is a hammer, the saying goes, every problem looks like a nail (see comment #42).

At the base of these arguments was the notion of “American exceptionalism” — an idea that’s no longer sustainable irrespective of its past credentials. Understanding the conditions which render it obsolete is the first step toward understanding our present situation and the direction in which we’re heading.

III

I take it as axiomatic that “We the People,” the subject matter of Ms. Reidhead’s article, has been a myth from its very inception. Direct democracies have fallen into disuse since the fall of the Athenian Empire – a loosely-held federation of city-states. Representative democracy – arguably an English invention having its roots in Magna Carta – was meant to extend the limits of direct democracy and citizen participation through representation. But it also amounted to a kind of dilution. 

IV

There was another rub, besides. Who were the citizens, and how comprehensive was the concept? Can we honestly say that the representation was thorough enough to include “We the People?” 

Indeed, for all the extension of voting rights to previously disenfranchised groups – women, freemen, and slaves – can we seriously maintain that our representation in Washington, exercised every two or four years, is a meaningful one? 

Which raises a natural question: What took us so long to wake up to this sobering reality, which now hits us like a ton of bricks? Why haven’t we seen it sooner? The answer, I suggest, lies in the economic freedoms once enjoyed but now lost. It provided us with a blind spot – a requisite kind of illusion not to see our political freedom for the myth that it was.

V

Never underestimate the power of prosperity to overshadow all other aspects of the individual’s life. With economic freedom and financial independence, there come a wide variety of freedoms: the freedom to move, to change jobs, to send your kids to better schools, to live in communities you deem desirable, and to associate with whom you want to associate. 

In addition, you can also

  • become a respected member of your community
  • belong to the right kind of clubs and voluntary associations
  • exercise your push and pull with the local officials
  • procure favors and quid pro quos in return for generous donations to the right organizations and causes

In light of all this, political freedoms pale by comparison. 

VI

Indeed, even the middle- and the working class have enjoyed a measure of those freedoms. Admittedly, the sphere wasn’t quite as extensive – in the worst-case scenario, amounting perhaps to nothing more than offering a diversion (sugarcoated, besides, by the illusion of “the consumer’s choice”). Even so, it was sufficient for everyone concerned to take their eye off the ball. No longer!

VII

And this makes a point about American exceptionalism (see earlier article on the subject). For indeed, political institutions alone can’t cut it without the attendant notion of American prosperity — without considering the period of unparalleled prosperity that has been an integral part of the American experience until now.

Say what you will, but you can’t measure greatness if you exclude the economy in which nearly all can share. It was so for the Athenian Empire, the Roman Republic, and the British Commonwealth. And it’s no different with the US.

VIII

It was only a century ago that Rudyard Kipling published his famous poem, “The White Man’s Burden.” Despite strong ironic undertones, Kippling’s poem was generally accepted in England and America as an exhortation of sorts, justifying imperialism and colonial conquest as a “noble enterprise.”

The British Empire was at the height of its powers back then — politically, economically, and culturally. And so was America until recently. Well, today, it’s just as passé as America is about to become.

Welcome to the New World Order, the sequel!

NOTES

1. In their infinite wisdom — intellectual property be damned! –the publishers of Blogcritics have decided to streamline their website by purging it of all articles by past contributors who no longer remained active. To put it bluntly, they relegated them to a dustbin! When I inquired, they informed me that everyone adversely affected had been notified of the forthcoming action, but it wasn’t so. In my case, I had to plead with the owners to have all my articles reinstated once I discovered they were no longer online – which they promptly did. I doubt, however, whether others have been that lucky. In any event, I apologize to the reader for the broken links.  

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