If the American people were to wake up to the wisdom of the words above, we would realize - as some undoubtedly have already come to suspect - that America’s perceived greatness and its near-global hegemony stand atop a house of cards. As even the Chinese dictator Mao Zedong could clearly see, American dominance was and continues to be “a paper tiger… unable to withstand the wind and the rain,” the foolish man who builds upon a foundation of sand instead of rock.
Much of this underlying weakness is ignored because of the haughtiness of the ruling political class, made evident by the continued lack of accountability in the government in facing up to America’s major systemic problems: police brutality, suppression of the right to peaceably assemble, lagging school systems, child poverty and hunger, the obscene costs of higher education, and the titanic military-surveillance matrix. All of these problems have occurred and intensified under what many refer to as the “Pax Americana,” and, adding to the already paralyzing ironies, are almost all issues of illiberality and lack of resources in what we are told is the freest and wealthiest nation in the history of, well, history.
I am interested here in pointing out the two major contemporary reasons that the heart of America is being steered on a treacherous course toward a wider downfall. The first culprit is American exceptionalism, the religion of the patriot and the tool of many a phony statesman to remold the sensibilities and good intentions of the common man. While the civil religion of American exceptionalism should ring warning bells in the minds and hearts of American evangelicals, they tend to be one of the main proponents of its pillars and precepts. Instead of worshiping God, our timeless, loving Father, so many Americans profess a form of Christianity which aligns itself nigh-inseparably with the fleeting, hateful interests of the modern federal government. It is one thing to believe that the maxims of liberty and equality of man at America’s founding are ideas worth continuing, and it is quite the opposite thing to mock God with blind reverence for the rusting hull of our ever-growing ship of state. One way that we as citizens can work to clean the barnacles from her side and help her push past these choppy waters is to recognize that we have a problem. This may seem simple, but American exceptionalism thrives when we do not ask simple questions like: “where are my tax dollars going?”; “why do so many other nations hate us?”; “would I trust the people I vote for to watch my kids for five minutes at Wal-Mart?” This last question brings us to the next large part of the problem.
The other guilty party in this “haughtiness dilemma” is the President of the United States. Not simply the current chief executive, mind you. In reality, all of our nation’s Presidents since the Second World War have either overlooked America’s harmful trajectory or been actively complicit in it. It is a prerequisite of the office since its founding to appeal to some form of American exceptionalism, but this can come in forms less putrid than its modern manifestations. It can come in the form of calls to live up to the noble ideals of our Declaration of Independence or in calls to hope and the perseverance of community after disaster strikes. The latter occurred briefly following the attacks of September 11, 2001, and far more recently in the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd murder. However, both times were short-lived. The character of the people had been poisoned by the prevalence of American exceptionalism; its rabid supporters and those who see its evils manifested cannot long see eye to eye. Disappointingly, it has been so long since America has had a President who consistently works to build hope and community at home or abroad that a good number of people alive today have not lived in such an America. I know I certainly haven’t had that experience, even when I was too young to remember such things. Presidents certainly have their shining moments; even those of the “polished turd” variety. Southerner President Johnson signed landmark civil rights legislation. Radical cold-warrior President Nixon opened talks with China and established arms limitation treaties with the Soviet Union. Regardless, one thing that holds modern Presidents together is their hubris and inability to let haughtiness give way to humility. Even when a President is forced to apologize when scandals see the light of day, they keep working on their next schemes behind closed doors.
The lack of humility and honor in the modern executive branch is exemplified in its current leader, President Trump. Something new is happening; where Presidents once put on at least a facade of apology, President Trump has realized a level of executive arrogance that causes him to feel no need to admit to his wrongs. Instead, he gloats and spins tales that are often so absurd that they cannot be disproven by traditional means. This should not necessarily be an issue in a republican form of government, but President Trump wields the simplistic and worshipful rhetoric of American exceptionalism like few others; he certainly wields it well enough to keep a vast proportion of eligible voters convinced that things like health-care reform, defense spending reductions, or a less violence-prone policing system are steps toward the rebirth of Joseph Stalin.
I do not propose that the solution to a marvelous new America would be to give up all vestiges of American national pride. Pride in the incredible scientific and industrial achievements and founding values of the United States is something that I never give up despite my misgivings about America’s modern violence, corporatism, and hypocrisies. I propose the rejection only of the core tenets of American exceptionalism doctrine. Devotion to a flag and an anthem and a powerful President obscures the uses of critical thinking, reasoned judgments, and the right of the people to decide their representatives and their destinies. Faith should be placed in the Almighty who died for our sins, not in the power of a hellishly equipped military to exert our will on the unwilling. Schools should pass out more Constitution booklets instead of pounding the Pledge of Allegiance into our children's’ impressionable heads. Before our President holds up a Bible in the streets, his government should guarantee that those same streets are not the sites of police shootings or chemical attacks on the peaceably assembled.
Those in command and in places of privilege on board the Titanic when it sank were those most confident in its invincibility. They were also the least likely to perish should anything go awry. They plotted full steam ahead into the abyssal night despite reasoned judgement. Their level of “Titanic exceptionalism” was unchecked. Before our national vessel is torn asunder by the mass on the horizon, we the people must reject American exceptionalism for a reasoned love of nation; nation not as a machine of progress, but as a community meant to seek domestic tranquility and promotion of the understanding of the equal station naturally given man by his God to all nations, not as their barbaric invaders but as their willing company.
Konrad Hodgman is an ACN Peace Scholar and currently sits on the ACN Steering Committee. He is a Junior at Ashland University majoring in International Political Studies, Political Science, and History with a minor in Ethics.