For a Kinder, Gentler Society
American Narcissism:
The Myth of National Superiority
  • Wilber W. Caldwell
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American Narcissism: . The Myth of National Superiority
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Americans have much to be proud of, but national pride can cross the invisible boundary that separates benign patriotism and malignant nationalism. The author surveys the evolution of Americans’ grandiose view of themselves — and the contrasting impression created in the wider world.


About the Author

Wilber W. Caldwell is the author of several books of social commentary that look at American society through various lenses including history, architecture, food and philosophy. Earlier titles include The Courthouse and the Depot: The Architecture of Hope in an Age of Despair, a study of railroad expansion and its effect on public architecture in the rural South 1833-1910; Searching for the Dixie Barbecue: Journeys into the Southern Psyche, a humorous look at the world of barbecue and contemporary rural Southern culture; and Cynicism and the American Dream. A photographer as well as a writer, he lives in the mountains of northern Georgia.

About the Book
Nationalism is not unique to America: it was invented with the birth of modern nations. But nationalism is unique in America. Americans conceive themselves and their nation to be incontrovertibly...
Nationalism is not unique to America: it was invented with the birth of modern nations. But nationalism is unique in America. Americans conceive themselves and their nation to be incontrovertibly superior to the other peoples and nations of the earth. When does national pride cross the invisible boundary that separates benign patriotism and malignant nationalism?

Historically, American notions of superiority spring from myths of the unique regenerative power of the new land; from visions of chosen-ness, mission and high destiny; from the indelible legends of frontier self-sufficiency; from the confidence and self-reliance needed to succeed as immigrants; from a powerful sense of America’s isolation and uniqueness; from the realization of abundance; and finally from the perceived universality of American ideology.

This predisposes us to a distinctively virulent strain of nationalism unlike that found in almost any other modern nation. As the unipolar moment fades into memory, this sense of unquestionable superiority — expressed through politics and foreign policy — does not play well before the global audience. In fact, it never did.

Drawing on sources from within the academic disciplines of history, sociology, political science and foreign affairs, the book seeks to decode scholarly jargon and lay bare this corner of the American mind for the benefit of a wider readership.

The discussion is organized in four parts:

  1. Nationalism

  2. The Evolution of the American Superiority Myth

  3. The Presumption of National Superiority

  4. Tolerance And Plurality

In America today, notions of national superiority are far more deeply ingrained and far more potentially ruinous than most of us imagine. This is a journey that slides from reason to emotion, from individual liberty to mass tyranny, and from humanity to inhumanity.

This book will interest readers of US history, current events, and social commentary; and all who wonder, “Why do they hate us?”


Preface

It would be futile to attempt to convince a North American, although the contribution his nation has made to the evolution of liberty and utility has undoubtedly been substantial, and should rightfully qualify as a universal contribution,...

It would be futile to attempt to convince a North American, although the contribution his nation has made to the evolution of liberty and utility has undoubtedly been substantial, and should rightfully qualify as a universal contribution, indeed, as a contribution to humanity, it is not so great as to cause the axis of the world to shift… José Enrique Rodó in Ariel, 1900.

Ariel, the extraordinary work of Uruguayan author José Enrique Rodó, remains virtually unknown in the United States but over a hundred years after its publication it is still widely read and quoted in Latin America. It is a book of seemingly timeless insight. Rodó’s generous turn-of-the-century praise of the best qualities of the United States still accurately describes our national strengths today. Likewise, his descriptions of our national self-congratulatory arrogance and blind evangelical nationalism remain every bit as apt at the beginning of the 21st century as they were a hundred years ago. While in one breath Rodó praises US ingenuity, in the next he wonders why we don’t simply presume to rewrite the Holy Bible, inserting ourselves on the very first page.

The sad fact is that the America of today is even more arrogant than the America that Rodó described in the days of Manifest Destiny and gunboat diplomacy that followed the blatantly jingoist raid that Americans euphemistically refer to as the Spanish American War. Indeed, the events of the 20th century have served to reinforce the national myth of superiority. The establishment of unparalleled industrial might, military victories in two world wars and on both sides of the globe, and the staggering economic defeat of Communism in the Cold War all have combined to cement America’s presumption of national superiority and to increase her prideful arrogance. However, these are merely the most recent chapters in a long history of escalating national illusions of pre-eminence and blind national egoism.

Are these presumptions of superiority a product of a runaway nationalism? Or, conversely, does this vigorous nationalism spring from deep-seated convictions of national superiority? The answer is yes to both questions. The relationship between nationalism and traditions of national superiority is circular. That is to say, feelings of national exceptionalism are a universal characteristic of nationalism; and historically embedded national superiority myths and self-serving notions of universal mission fuel the growth of potent varieties of nationalism.

Americans have been, and are today, exposed almost from birth to a particularly virulent strain of nationalism unlike that found in other modern nation. The resulting affliction stems from an unswerving faith in national superiority and uniqueness that is deeply ingrained in the American mind. Historically, these notions of superiority sprang from myths of the unique abundance and regenerative power of the new land; from visions of chosen-ness, mission, and high destiny; from the indelible lessons of frontier self-sufficiency; from a developing sense of American isolation and uniqueness, and finally from the perceived universality of American ideology. In some of us, nationalist feelings are intermittent or limited, but few of us are immune, especially in times of anger, sentimentality or fear; and those of us who strive to cure ourselves do so in full recognition of our affliction’s strength and ubiquity. In spite of, and perhaps because of, our many strengths, practically all of us as Americans share this particularly prideful, unlovely and potentially fatal weakness. In one form or another and to some degree or another, we carry national pride across the invisible boundary that separates benign patriotism from malignant nationalism. Such a crossing constitutes a journey from reason to emotion, from individual liberty to mass tyranny, and from humanity to inhumanity.

This book is an effort to define and diagnose this national disease, to explore its historical, psychological, political, and cultural causes and effects, and to prescribe a cure.


Introduction

Making the World Over In America’s Image

The perspective of José Enrique Rodó, that is to say the view from Latin America, is a very good place to begin our inquiry. In the beginning, Spanish colonials in Latin America shared with their contemporaries in the English colonies to the North an...

Making the World Over In America’s Image

The perspective of José Enrique Rodó, that is to say the view from Latin America, is a very good place to begin our inquiry. In the beginning, Spanish colonials in Latin America shared with their contemporaries in the English colonies to the North an intoxication born of the promise of the New World. They too breathed the air of freedom that blew across virgin lands and promised new beginnings. They too harbored the heady ideals inherent in the possibility of throwing off the yoke of a reactionary and intolerant Old World with its feudal remnants and dead-end societies. Only a few decades after the American Revolution, most of Latin America broke free from Spain, enthusiastically seeking to copy more progressive political and social models in France, England, and especially in the United States.

However, this was not to be on the southern continent; “the vacuum between law and reality was too vast, ” and tyrants rushed in to fill it: Santa Anna in Mexico, Rosas in Argentina, Francia in Paraguay. Still, Latin American liberals continued to enthusiastically admire the United States, even though the Monroe Doctrine, which had initially seemed to protect them from Old World colonial intervention, soon became a barrier, depriving liberal revolutionary causes the European help they needed and isolating budding national cultures from the riches of European civilization.

Latin Americans’ admiration of the U.S. was soon disappointed. In the 1840s, the United States openly revealed her arrogance by voicing the audacious thesis of Manifest Destiny, based on her long-incubating perceptions of “a providential and historically sanctioned right to continental expansion.” After her defeat of Mexico in 1848, the U.S. annexed what are now Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and California. This action was justified as “the inevitable fulfillment of a moral mission, delegated to the nation by Providence itself.” However, when the Constitution did not follow the flag into Old Mexico, it was clear that U.S motives were territorial and did not include an effective liberation of their southern neighbor. Not surprisingly, the view from the southern hemisphere suddenly revealed a “Jekyll and Hyde” America, “a democracy inside, an empire outside.”

A half-century later came the Spanish American War, and the United States gobbled up Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines. Again, the Constitution did not follow the flag, and again the seizure of these lands was justified by the now expanding doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which by the 1890s included not only the right to continental expansion but also the providential obligation to “lead the world to new and better things.” In response to the ensuing Filipino insurrection, Senator Platt of Connecticut voiced the national self-justification in a letter to President McKinley, “God has placed upon this government the solemn duty of providing the people of these islands a government based on the principle of liberty, no matter how many difficulties the problem may present.” It was the first exercise in a lesson that the United States has yet to learn. Despite all evidence to the contrary, most Americans, then as now, arrogantly believed that “American sovereignty would be a blessing to any land.” For Latin America and for much of the rest of the world, the result of this misguided notion was that the United States “desatanized Spain while satanizing itself.

Rodó is clear in his assessment of all of this, and his appraisal is still valid today:

As fast as the utilitarian genius of that nation [The United States] takes on a more defined character, franker, narrower yet, with intoxication of material prosperity, so increases the impatience of its sons to spread it abroad by propaganda, and thinks it predestined for all humanity. Today they openly aspire to the primacy of the world’s civilization, the direction of its ideas, and think themselves the forerunners of all culture that is to prevail.

American histories of today bear out Rodó’s critique. According to US foreign policy historian Michael Hunt, “America entered the 20th century with three images of Latin America at their disposal,” that of a “half breed brute” to justify American “aloofness and predatory aggressiveness,” a feminine image to cast the US as “ardent suitor and gallant savior,” and that of the infantile and often Negroid Latin, to justify America’s “tutelage and stern discipline.” In each case, Hunt explains, “Americans stood in relation to Latinos as superiors dealing with inferiors.” Hunt goes on to assert that, as the 20th century began to unfold, the United States used these images to rationalize and support “the ripening claim of the US to the role of leader and policeman of an American System of states.” With Europe fenced out by the Monroe doctrine, Hunt continues, “American policy makers, with inherited pretensions of superiority over Latinos and with ever-increasing power to make good on these pretensions, moved steadily toward making the hemisphere a US preserve.” Today critics of contemporary US foreign policy in Central and South America still make the same charges.

But Rodó’s critique is not at its heart political, it is cultural. He considers it unthinkable that the US should presume to complete with Europe on a cultural stage.

At the bottom of this rivalry with Europe lies a contempt … that is almost naïve and the profound conviction that, within a brief period, they [Americans] are destined to eclipse … [Europe’s] glory and do away with its spiritual superiority…. It were useless to seek to convince them that the fire lit upon European alters, the work done by the peoples living these three thousand years … makes a sum that cannot be equaled by any equation of Washington and Edison.

ike many contemporary foreign critics of American culture, Rodó is scathing in his assessment: “… in the ambient of America’s democracy there are no heights so lofty as to escape the flood of vulgarity.”Later on, he is quite specific as to the nature of this vulgarity: “the negation of great art, strained brutality of effect, insensibility to soft tones or an exquisite style, the cult of bigness, and that sensationalism which excludes all noble serenity as incompatible with the hurry of this hectic life.

At the start of the 21st century, Rodó’s assessment of the “vulgar” culture that the United States strives to export still rings true for many critics. This is particularly poignant because, although the blatant American imperialism of the turn of the last century is now only a memory, today the nation’s policies evidence more insidious brands of imperialism: cultural imperialism, economic imperialism, moral imperialism, the imperialism of ideology. All are spread by the same national arrogance, the same cock-sure certainly that we are right.

Many nations fear the United States practices a contemporary brand of “soft imperialism,” which is engulfing the world under the auspice of economic globalization. Inherent in these fears is the notion that globalization carries with it inevitable Americanization. At the same time, a broader globalization debate rages as to whether American-led globalization will save the Third World or simply exploit it. In spite of such fears, and despite the setbacks, the public remains convinced that eventually all nations are destined to fall into step and adopt “the American way.” All the while, we decry the rigid fundamentalism of our enemies while we remain utterly blind to our own.

Very early on in the American experience, citizens began to harbor the notion that American institutions, values, and way of life were so superior to those of other nations and that their spread throughout the world was inevitable. Despite the now-obvious pluralistic nature of the modern (or postmodern) world, such ideas still engage the American mind. In 2002, US State Department Planning Director Richard Haass, described what he called the doctrine of integration. Its aim is to integrate “other countries and organizations into arrangements that will sustain a world consistent with US interests and values and thereby promote peace, prosperity, and justice.” These “arrangements” involve ideas thought to be universal like the rule of law, human rights, private property, and religious tolerance. It is believed that this kind of integration will lead to prosperity, liberalization, and democratization and thus to peace and stability. Surely, this is all well and good and very much in line with America’s core values. Still, such a scheme is grounded in the idea of the superiority of our values and the assumption that our culture and institutions will follow on the heels of reform.

For many Americans, the inevitable world victory is as simple as the facts of economics, commerce, and material progress. “Our population, our wealth, … our manufacturers, and our agricultural resources are all so expanding that the commercial relations of this country will be such that they must come and go with us.” Here is the full-brown myth of national economic superiority exuding a shameless pride, the self-satisfied musing of a people who feel that they have materially acquitted themselves so admirably as to “prove their superiority over all peoples.

Others are convinced that the United States possesses “the most perfect form of government ever devised by man;” that US institutions, moral fiber, and ideology are so superior to those of other nations that all will fall prey, not to force but to a superior population, changing their customs until, one by one, the entire world will be drawn to our civilization, our laws, and our culture. As George Boutwell pompously and incorrectly wrote in 1869, “Other nations take by force of arms, ours by force of ideas.”

Over the years, the halls of Congress have continued to ring with the same arrogance that inspired Boutwell in the 1860s and inflamed Rodó in 1900. Senator Beveridge waxed poetic in 1898, “Our institutions will follow on the wings of commerce. And American law, American order, American civilization, and the American flag will plant themselves on shores hitherto bloody and benighted, but, by those agencies of God, henceforth to be made beautiful and bright.” Or as Tyler Dennett put it in 1922, American policy is “adopted in great ignorance of the actual facts … and in a blissful and exalted assumption that any race ought to regard conquest by the American people as a superlative blessing.

All of this blindly overlooks the undeniable fact that the transfer of institutions, laws, economic systems and social mores, not to mention entire cultures, from one people to another is not a simple matter. Rodó points to the great fallacy of the evangelical American superiority myth by quoting the 19th-century French historian Jules Michelet: “the transferal of what is natural and spontaneous in one society to another where it has neither natural nor historical roots, …[is] like attempting to introduce a dead organism into a living one by simple implantation.

None of this is intended to imply that the original core values put forth in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution do not represent important steps toward a universal common good. Certainly, Americans have good reason to be proud and to be faithful to the causes of universal liberty and equality. However, such faith must be tempered with a realistic and therefore modest sense of our own significance. We must openly approach the world in a quest for knowledge and certitude, acknowledging that American ideals, values, institutions, and the American way of life are works in progress, not consummate Ultimate Truths.

Still, Americans are sure that they, like Woodrow Wilson, have seen “visions that other nations have not seen,” and that, accordingly, the United States’ mission has always been to become the “light of the world.” Indeed, from the very beginning, the American national identity was built on audacious visions of chosen-ness, destiny, and mission. Ronald Reagan was not the first nor the last in a long line of entrenched American visionaries to proclaim American exceptionalism, with its missionary implications of the Puritan “city on the hill,” no longer a stationary beacon, but an active force, the “leader of the free world” directing its forces against “empires of evil.

With such visions comes a warning: “the adoption of political and social values … as a framework for national identification is possible only if these values are based on some source of apparent ultimate truth which confers on them absolute validity — if they can claim universality.” If Americans unflinchingly believe that theirs is the single principle of Absolute Truth representing the universal interests of humankind, then any opposition will appear either criminal or inhuman.

As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. puts it, “Those who are convinced that they have a monopoly on Truth always feel that they are saving the world when they slaughter heretics. Their object remains the making of the world over in the image of their dogmatic ideology — their goal is a monolithic world, organized on the principle of the infallibility of a single creed.” If Americans are so egotistical as to believe that their nation with its gleaming lamp of Ultimate Truth is the envy of the world, then they will perceive no wrong in trying make the world over in America’s image, by whatever means. However, the world is a very complex and diverse place, and Ultimate Truth is a highly elusive and unstable substance. Thus, these are not only very arrogant ideas; they are also very dangerous ideas.


Table of Contents
Preface Introduction: Making the World Over in America’s Image Part One: Notes on Nationalism Chapter 1: Nationalism T

Preface
Introduction: Making the World Over in America’s Image
Part One: Notes on Nationalism
Chapter 1: Nationalism
Toward a Definition of Modern Nationalism
The Birth of the Modern Nation
National Identity
Chapter 2: Types of Nationalism
A Brief History of European Nationalism
The Characteristics of Integral Nationalism
Part Two: The Evolution of the American Superiority Myth
Chapter 3: The New World
The Myth of the Garden
The New Canaan
The Frontier
Chapter 4: Chosen-ness, Mission, and Destiny
The Finger of God
The Light of the World
Steward of Enlightenment
Novus Ordo Seclorum
Chapter 5: Ideological Superiority
Ideology and Inflexibility
Immigrants and Ideology
Individualism and American Exceptionalism
Chapter 6: The Arrogance of Abundance
Liberty, Equality, and Property
The Triumph of Laissez-faire
The American Economic Miracle
The Myth American Technological Supremacy
Chapter 7: The Arrogance of Isolationism
Early American Isolation
The Monroe Doctrine
Isolationism in the Twentieth Century
Chapter 8: Manifest Destiny and Continental Expansion
The Roots of Manifest Destiny
The Emancipator of Mankind
Geographical Predestination
American Continental Expansion

Chapter 9: Manifest Destiny, and American Imperialism
A New Departure
The Spanish American War
Unlocking the Resources of the World
The White Man’s Burden
Chapter 10: The Leader of the Free World
World War I
World War II: Superiority Confirmed
The Cold War
The Means of Violence
Chapter 11: The Arrogance of Power
American Interventionism
Superiority and American Ruthlessness
The Arrogance of Power
The Arrogance of Unilateralism
Part Three: The Presumption of National Superiority
Chapter 12: The Myth of American Superiority
Exaggerations, Overestimations, and Obsessions
Uniqueness
The Myth of Anglo-Saxon Superiority
Racial Myth and National Stereotyping
Chapter 13: Blind Faith
The Psychology of the Masses
Universalism, Nationalism, and Patriotism
Part Four: Tolerance and Plurality
Part Four: Tolerance and Plurality
Chapter 14: In Search of American Humility
Humility and Ideology
Humility and Pluralism
Toward American Cultural Humility
Bibliography
Index


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Pages 196
Year: 2006
LC Classification: E169.1.C19
Dewey code: 305.800973--dc22
BISAC: SOC002010
BISAC: HIS029000
BISAC: SOC503000
Soft Cover
ISBN: 978-087586-467-9
Price: USD 22.95
Hard Cover
ISBN: 978-0-87586-468-6
Price: USD 28.95
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