In the November issue of The Atlantic, the editors asked scholars, politicians, novelists, artists, and others to look ahead to the future of the American idea. Joyce Carol Oates got right down to business:
How heartily sick the world has grown, in the first seven years of the 21st century, of the American idea! Speak with any non-American, travel to any foreign country, and the consensus is: The American idea has become a cruel joke, a blustery and bellicose body-builder bulked up on steroids, consequently low on natural testosterone, deranged and myopic, dangerous.
As for our freedoms, Oates quotes D. H. Lawrence:
Freedom … ? The land of the free! This the land of the free! Why, if I say anything that displeases them, the free mob will lynch me, and that’s my freedom. Free? Why, I have never been in any country where the individual has such an abject fear of his fellow countrymen. Because, as I say, they are free to lynch him the moment he shows he is not one of them.
(If not “lynch” precisely, how about “crucify in the media”? The ravenous tabloid press and ever-more-ominously “mainstream” media have become the lynch mob of contemporary times, pummeling those guilty of the most innocuous blunders with the ferocity with which they pummel outright criminals.)
What is most questionable–indeed most dangerous–about the American idea is its very formulation: that there is a distinctly American idea, standing in contrast to Canadian, British, French, Chinese, Icelandic, Estonian, or mere human ideas. Our unexamined belief in American exceptionalism has allowed us to imagine ourselves above anything so constrictive as international law. American exceptionalism makes our imperialism altruistic, our plundering of the world’s resources a healthy exercise of capitalism and “free trade.” From Childhood, we are indoctrinated with the propaganda that America is superior to other nations; that our way of life, a mass-market “democracy” manipulated by lobbyists, is superior to all other forms of government; that no matter how frivolous and debased, our American culture is the supreme culture as our language is the supreme language; that our most blatantly imperialistic and cynical political goals are always idealistic, while the goals of other nations are transparently opportunistic.
One woman’s truth is another man’s treason, and many in the indoctrinated, frivolous lynch mob Oates described would dismiss her truth as mere America-bashing. Of course it’s America-bashing. America needs to be swatted upside the head. As Mark Twain observed: “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”