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Complex Superiority Complexes


A recent column by Roger Cohen in the Times brought up again the idea of how, why and whether the United States is uniquely deserving of respect for its use of advantage and power, as compared to other dominant nations/ states of history.

Many begin such considerations by referencing personal experience, making either an affirmative or negative argument. Comparing the US to other nations, however, in terms of prejudice, class and arrogance is just fine as long as individual anecdotes acknowledge historical distinctions.

The U.S. was the inheritor of a few good Enlightenment traits and a whole bunch of rotten, exploitative assumptions, slavery being the main soul-killing bequest.

For some 400 years the American continents were, effectively, European satellite states, subject to the rape of all their resources and their inhabitants for the benefit of white ruling classes back home in Spain, Portugal, England, Holland, France...In only 9 decades from the founding of this country, our bloody catharsis over slavery had passed. The inherited evil could not survive because the U.S. constitution was precisely the "house divided" to which Lincoln alluded; the elements of prevailing justice contained therein made the Civil War inevitable.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Europe had outlawed slavery. Who needs that messy institution when you have a pristine class system in place where the poor and ignorant know how lucky they are to serve the well-born? America's battle for equality continues haltingly, but we have ultimately achieved a level of inclusiveness still unimaginable in most of the world. (Loving Josephine Baker and Louis Armstrong in Paris while hating Algerians is part of a still-repeating pattern of European disingenuousness in race relations.)

And, even in the midst of two ugly wars, we in the West are woefully ignorant of the cultures of class and ethnic superiority fielded by traditional Asian societies.

The fact that the United States succeeded in establishing a nation with neither a king nor a state religion made it an incredibly forward model that Europe only slipped into after two world wars and, for some, one Cold War. 

Yes, America has an arrogance in place of a turmoil-generated resentment common to cultures pushed around for centuries by European entitlement and exploitation. It's a habit of denial that keeps us thinking we can do anything, even as that thing (insert your least-favorite intervention here) is sometimes very wrong. But the arrogant pieces of American culture are nowhere to be found in the constitution--except for that free speech part. Capitalism is a tradition-based institution--also inherited--which is sometimes disconcertingly raised to divine status; two-party politics is the result of habits and alliances that have worked for those who play, but which may someday evolve into a different form; religious power in politics is mercurial in both its intensity and effectiveness, depending upon the last scandal involving a churchman.

And all the bloviating on this subject which resurfaces regularly, including my own, is a direct result of the infectious, constitutionally guaranteed right to speak which has also just recently made its way to perhaps 40% of the world. We had it from the start, and none of our own would-be silencers has finally had his way.

So, yes, the U.S. is different, and mostly better as a leader toward smashing stratification and division, if only because we are arrogant enough to believe in our dreamy concept of never-ending possibility to "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity..."

Posted on Monday, January 4, 2010 at 11:00AM by Registered CommenterCoEternity | CommentsPost a Comment

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