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So totally not-racist Tennessee tea partiers don't want public school textbooks to mention that the founders owned slaves, or that they stole land from Indians.

The material calls for lawmakers to amend state laws governing school curriculums, and for textbook selection criteria to say that “No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.”

Fayette County attorney Hal Rounds, the group’s lead spokesman during the news conference, said the group wants to address “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another."

I love that: "intruding on Indians." He makes ethnic cleansing sound rather gentle, as if they cut in front of Indians in the checkout line.

Okay, so he's a bigot and an idiot. But we shouldn't pretend the effort to whitewash U.S history --  and the reality of the country today -- is confined to the hard right. The Tennessee teabaggers are believers in a racist, fundamentalist form of that popular religion called American Exceptionalism, whose adherents believe that the U.S. is at least a uniquely good country and quite possibly the best. Evidence to the contrary must be downplayed or hidden.

Exceptionalism shouldn't be confused with patriotism. I love my wife but don't presume to believe she's the greatest woman in the world (Top 20 maybe). Exceptionalism is as powerful as those other great American faiths, Christianity and capitalism.  

Of course, these three great faiths overlap. Many American exceptionalists argue that the United States is uniquely good because of Christianity and "free"-market capitalism. Some fundamental American exceptionalists come right out and say that it's the God-given right of the United States to dominate the world. More moderate American exceptionalists don't bring God into the mix; even Dubya seemed to come to the conclusion that he'd erred by calling his War of Terror a crusade. But American exceptionalists of all stripes, from fundamentalists to liberals, argue that it is both the right and responsibility of the United States to impose its faith in "free"-market capitalism on pagan countries far and wide. Sometimes we deliver "the good news" via bombs, sometimes via the International Monetary Fund, but there aren't many in DC who dissent from the tenet that we should spread the neoliberal gospel.

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According to this piece, the term American exceptionalism was born in Moscow in 1929 when Joe Stalin and his comrades used it to denounce the American Communist Party for believing the United States needed to take its own path to revolution. Over the years, American conservatives adopted the term, primarily for the purpose of denouncing the patriotism of Democrats. It's a way of calling them traitors without using the word.  

For today's Republicans, it's a way of calling President Obama black without using the word. Mitt's claim that the President apologizes for the country is the socially acceptable form of birtherism. The last two books published by Newt (who says it's a "historical fact" that the U.S. is "the most extraordinary nation in history") are A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters and To Love America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine. Not that he always so coy about what he's up to.

As a black man, the President presumably has a heightened awareness of the darkness in the nation's soul, and has attempted to fashion a less chauvinistic variation of American exceptionalism, arguing (probably inaccurately) that people everywhere view their countries as exceptional. This prompted John Bolton to call him the "first post-American" president.

Barack Obama is an American president, finally. It just doesn't pay politically to question the faith, not when 80% of Americans think the United States is the "greatest country in the world." Recall the outcry when Dick Durbin committed heresy. So President Obama is compelled to call his country "the greatest force for freedom and security that the world has ever known." A different black leader, one who unfortunately was never president, called his country "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world." Tomato, tomahto.

American exceptionalism is dangerous for non-Americans. This "Christian" country doesn't practice the golden rule in foreign policy. For the people in those countries the United States bombs, strong-arms, and generally fucks with, the United States is exceptional indeed. If they did to us what we did to them, we would blow the world to dust.

The more honest exceptionalists -- those who acknowledge U.S. actions overseas -- tend to defend them by citing our noble motives. To suggest a moral equivalence between the U.S. and its enemies is blasphemy, punishable by rhetorical stoning. Victims of American imperialism, especially the dead ones, can be forgiven for not applauding our admirable intentions.

American exceptionalism is also dangerous for Americans and not just because of blowback. It prevents Americans from seeing the uncomfortable truths about their country. It's a form of denial. Many Americans continue to believe in the myth of upward mobility. And the myth of American generosity. And the myth that the country has the best health care system in the world. And the myth that this country cares about children...

For politicians, especially incumbents, the temptation to prettify American reality is irresistible. President Obama is reportedly very fond of an essay by a neocon entitled The Myth of American Decline, which helped inform his State of Union address. It's hard to fault him: He's a president running for reelection, and sunniness sells. But it probably doesn't create an opening for the kind of action needed to un-fuck the country.

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There's a strain of American exceptionalism that anti-exceptionalists might find appealing. Or at least acceptable, in the way that atheists can tolerate liberal Christianity. It's the strain that focuses on the idea of America. The idea that the United States is supposed to be the home of the free may itself be exceptionalism, but it's a form of exceptionalism we can use. The nation's ideals are a promise, a contract. The oppressed can and do cite the contract and call on their government and their fellow Americans to make good on it.

I like Springsteen's first three albums, but I prefer the realism that came after. Bob Geldoff once said, "The magic rat did not drive his sleek machine over the Jersey State line." But then came Darkness, and ever since Bruce has been taking a good hard look at his country. "I try to chart the distance between American ideals and American reality," he says.

Another great American artist wrote about the contradiction between what the United States is supposed to be and what it is. American never was but "America will be!"

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!

Originally posted to david mizner on Mon Jan 30, 2012 at 05:27 PM PST.

Also republished by The Rebel Alliance and Frustrati.

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