All of my life I have lived with a familiar mantra: “America is an exceptional country. The United States is the last, best hope of mankind.” Since Donald Trump is president, perhaps this statement will finally draw the ridicule it surely deserves.
What is an exceptional country? Shouldn’t it be a state that does not put itself first; that is, a country that rejects self-interest? In our age of alleged realism, it might sound absurd to say that a nation cannot be concerned with anything but self-interest. What examples do we have of nations acting on the world stage to promote human rights, for instance, before acting on behalf of their own? At present, none. But in 1940, nearly eighty-years ago, there was one: Denmark.
In October 1943, the people of Denmark, with the sanction of their monarch, King Christian X, ferried scores of Jews across the Baltic Sea to neutral Sweden. More than 7,000 Danish Jews-nearly the entire Jewish population of Denmark- were saved. This was done in defiance of Denmark’s Nazi occupiers. Over two weeks, Danish fisherman and their families ferried Jews under cover of night. This was exceptional.
I am an American who has spent much of his life studying American history. I have family
members who are veterans and one who even helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp. I know many personal histories of abolitionists, civil rights activists, and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that aided Republican Spain in its fight against Franco and Fascism in 1937. There are countless stories of individual Americans doing extraordinary and exceptional things on behalf of human rights. Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Wendell Philipps are some of the more celebrated examples. I do not dispute the capacity of Americans to be exceptional. What I do dispute is the myth that the United States is and always has been an exceptional country. For this I find no evidence, certainly not when I considered the track record of the American state.
The detainment of asylum seekers at the Mexican-American border is but the latest case
of the United States behaving like other countries with poor records on immigration and human rights. The Trump Administration resembles the Hungarian and Italian governments in their handling of Syrian and North African refugees. The United States is doing what states have long done: imposing arbitrary rules and violence against vulnerable individuals and their families. I am sure readers of this sheet are by now familiar with stories of children being kept in tent cities while their parents are sent -separately- to federal detention facilities, awaiting prosecution. Why? Because of a new “Zero Tolerance” policy for those entering the U.S. illegally. The U.S. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has also redefined the grounds for seeking asylum, declaring that women fleeing rape, sexual assault, and sexual violence are ineligible as sexual predation is a “private” matter. This despite the fact that “private” is a meaningless designation when it comes to criminal conduct according to the U.S. legal code.
But in case readers are tempted to rule the Trump Administration as an exception to an
exceptional American past, I would merely draw attention to the drone war of the Obama
Administration against the people of Kashmir, a story covered by the CBC. Or the Bush
Administration’s invasion of Iraq on fabricated and illegal grounds. Or the first Bush
Administration’s “police action” in Panama. Or the Reagan administration’s support of the Contras in a series of illegal -and unconstitutional- operations against the Sandinista Government and people of Nicaragua. Or the Nixon Administration’s invasion of Cambodia along with its saturation bombing campaigns against Laos and North Vietnam. Examples are legion and take us back at least as far as the destruction of North Korean cities during the Korean War, the atomic drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the fire bombing of Tokyo and Dresden, and the U.S. war against the people of the Philippines at the turn of last century. Slavery and genocide against Native Americans notwithstanding.
Exceptional is as Exceptional does. If the United States deserves plaudits it is for its Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. The U.S. Government should live up to these documents.
Let the myth of American exceptionalism die. Then, perhaps, Americans can begin to tell a more truthful story about ourselves, our relations with one another, our neighbors, and the world.
Jeremy Nathan Marks is a writer, teacher, poet, Socratic educator and podcaster based in London, Ontario with his partner Michelle and two young daughters.
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