Sunday, September 15, 2013

Is America Exceptional? Check your Response

As one born in the United States (specifically a small city in southern Ohio), the influence of various rich traditions, and being someone who is fairly open-minded and respectful of the vast diversity that is all around me in the world, I have grown to find objectionable the notion of exceptional-ism as it is conventionally attached to the United States. Much has happened since Alexis de Tocquevill (Democracy in America, 1840) first attached this term to describe the America he witnessed. Much has changed since Whitman’s Democratic Vistas, which read, “Other lands have their vitality in a few, a class, but we have it in the bulk of our people.”

Our democracy is weakened, especially on the over-bearing federal level, where it seems to be boiled down to a vote of two rascals every four years who have their coffers filled from the real power, the corporations that embody the few and reap the most (i.e., a plutocracy). Our political culture has declined into a massive pit, far from the rich tradition and ideas of America’s past, e.g., liberty, egalitarian, individualism,  republicanism, populism and  laissez-faire. The problem is not solely government; it is government in the
hands of corporations and vice-a-versa.

Marx warned about capitalism at its worst and unchecked. The higher return on capital means that the share of profits rises and the share of wages falls, and soon the mass of the population is not earning enough to buy the goods capitalism produces. And that’s exactly what’s been happening over the past years: ever increasing income inequality, leading to ever weaker aggregate demand – temporarily disguised by an unsustainable credit binge – leading to collapse. You don’t have to be a communist to see that this is so. We should all be Marxists today.

Of course, the argumentum ad ignorantiam is the “belief” that American is exceptional because it’s the “most powerful” nation on earth with reference to its military. I guess so, when you spend 10 times more than the second highest spending nation, China. The US is like the small king in the movie Shrek with the super-sized castle, “over-compensating for something.” Since 9/11/2001 it has been apparent that the US is exceptional in its anxiety. Of course, we cannot see this. Case in point is the recent revelations about the NSA who have steeped so low as to gain access to almost all digital communication of its own citizens—that’s pretty desperate—outright neuroses. Will we ever come to terms with the fact the world has always been dangerous. We must grow up.

One way to take back America is by one kind of purchasing power at a time. Dump the corporation; realize advertisements are deceptive (typically propping superficial motivations such as image and convenience)—at what price? A good place to start is growing your own food and/or buying local. Another is using alternative transportation, especially in urban/city trips. The U.S is the least exceptional country when it comes to the percent of all urban trips by type of transportation and probably one of the most exceptionally overweight and unhealthy counties in the world.

Source: John Pulcher, “Public Transportation”, in Susan Hanson and
Genevieve Giuliano, The Geography of Urban Transportation, third
edition. (New York: The Guilford Press, 2004). p.216. Data are from 1995
and cover all trip purposes

Of course, it is more dangerous to ride a bicycle when our communities are filled with cars that are lethal weapons. Turning the tide on the decline of our democracy means taking control one purchase, one step, one pedal at a time. It requires doing the harder thing, which in the long run is the “better” thing. Walking verses driving means breathing “better”. Riding the bus to work means “better” relaxation (e.g., time to read or to talk to someone). Riding a bicycle means “better” time (think about it). Taking such bold steps mean changing our practices so that we have more power over our lives and the corporations less.

Tocqueville was right, “The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens. . . The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”  

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