Of course, Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's Magazine, isn't your average middle-American of a commentator: He specializes in eloquent contrariness, in asking the irreverent questions and saying the sometimes bitterly cynical things that most of his social peers would not dare utter. In a trenchant essay in the November Harper's, Lapham criticizes the so-called doctrine of American exceptionalism--the nexus of words and images that lulls us into believing in America's manifest destiny; the empty rhetoric that deems us simply the "greatest nation on Earth," with no qualifications or further explanation needed.
Lapham writes that he'd been primed to address this topic even before Sept. 11, having attended, a few days earlier, a screening of excerpts from the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers at the New York offices of the Council on Foreign Relations. Lapham found this latest triumphalist World War II film (which follows a company as it makes its way from the Normandy landing across occupied France) fatuously self-congratulatory, filled with "easy arrogance and witless boast." His fellow audience members--bankers, lawyers, journalists, military officers, and so on--loved it. "Here were people well-placed within the hierarchies of American business and government," he wrote, "captivated by the iconography of the Pax Americana but incapable of imagining, or unwilling to acknowledge, a world other than the one they had inherited from John Wayne and Ronald Reagan and Stephen Spielberg, a world in which America was not only inevitably victorious but also universally loved, its motives always pure, its principles always just, and its soldiers always welcomed by pretty French girls bearing flowers."
Only a generation or two past the governmental lies and military atrocities of Vietnam, it seems that most Americans have reverted to the naive belief that, indeed, our motives are always pure and our principles always just. Counterevidence is not hard to find. Lapham quotes a 60 Minutes interview with Madeleine Albright in which the then-secretary of state, discussing U.S. economic sanctions against Iraq, characterizes the death of 500,000 Iraqi children by malnutrition and disease as a price worth paying to obtain American objectives. A nation fueled by such hubris, Lapham suggests, will of course be caught short by the horrific evidence that not all people view the United States as a force of unequivocal goodness and light. "No sum of historical justification can excuse the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon," he writes, "but neither can we excuse our own arrogance behind the screens of shock and disbelief."
I was grateful to read this piece. For a month, my grief over the fate of my homeland, and especially my beloved New York, has been accompanied by the fearful knowledge that these terrorist attacks will inevitably bring out the worst and most craven in some people, as surely as it has brought out the best and most heroic in others. I find myself unsettled more than comforted by the large flags flying from nearly every house here in my majority-white, solidly churchgoing, undoubtedly freedom-loving South Baltimore neighborhood. I suspect that here it is not wise to voice even a measured assessment of the U.S. government's partial complicity in creating the global political breeding ground for terrorism (e.g., its cynical, oil-driven relationship with Saudi Arabia, a repressive, corrupt state that has turned a blind eye to terrorism so long as it doesn't happen within its borders), or to raise even the slightest reservations about our current bombing campaign.
So while I was born and raised in the United States and experience very few day-to-day reminders that my parents came from Someplace Else, I breathe a sigh of relief when a Lewis Lapham uses the power of his high-status position--and his symbolic "neutrality" as a white man--to articulate unconventional views. No one is going to confuse him with a Pakistani supporter of jihad, so he can more easily afford to offend the unthinkingly unified mainstream.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, I heard a few thoughtful people express the hope that this unprecedented trauma would bring Americans back into the world community, would inspire a complacent, comfortable, often apathetic U.S. population to re-engage with global issues. That's one possible path. Another possibility is that, in our grief and fear, we will succumb even further to an unthinking "American exceptionalism," an arrogant belief that our traumas and tragedies are somehow more painful and more important than those of other nations. god bless america, say all those signs on highway overpasses and billboards and Web sites and television ads. I wonder why no one ever posts a sign asking this allegedly omnipotent deity to bless the whole miserably unhappy and deeply fucked-up world.
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