We’re Not So Exceptional

I was not at all surprised when I read that Clay County School Superintendent Charles Van Zant Jr. was trying to siphon money to pay for pet projects supporting his political point of view, that “American exceptionalism” is real, it should be taught in schools, and textbooks should be rewritten to reflect that belief.

Though the idea of “exceptionalism,” American or otherwise, is a myth, I don’t blame Van Zant for believing it’s true and trying to teach this fantastic idea to schoolchildren. That’s because part of what makes us human, one of the things we all share, is that we want this fantasy to be true. People, all people, want to believe they’re special. That the gods they believe in are real, that their country will stand forever, their children are destined for greatness, their football team is the best, their ancestors were superior, and the things they build will last forever.

Unfortunately, overwhelming scientific and historical evidence points in the other direction. The truth is, there are six billion of us on the planet, which makes us common, and there’s very little difference, if any, between us, our religions, our countries and our ideals. If there is such a thing as “American exceptionalism,” then ask yourself why we’re in the throes of the identical dynamics that have brought low a dozen or more great powers that, like us, had every reason to believe they, too, were exceptional. The answer is, while the American experience has taken place in a different time and place than Rome or Spain or Babylon, ultimately, people are people.

The globe is littered with remnants of civilizations which have already completed the exact same cycle America is in today. Detroit is the first ruin in the U.S. to be abandoned; it won’t be the last. All over the U.S., there’s crumbling infrastructure and unsustainable development sure to meet the same fate. In fact, there’s an undeniable and identical cycle that befalls all civilizations — especially great ones — and all the evidence shows we’re in the very midst of that downfall. Another symptom of this decline, of which many of us are keenly aware, is the bloated state of government and the parasitic nature of the economy of Washington, D.C.

Who would argue that our capital has become infested with lawyers, lobbyists and brokers who do no practical good for the country? Ours is not the first great capital city to be choked by a parasitic economy threatening the nation’s well-being. Rome, Athens, Alexandria, the Hague, Madrid and Antioch, to name only a few, were capitals whose parasitic economies signaled a nation (empire, city-state) in decline. The Spanish, in a desperate effort to save the “Castile from the growth of a monstrous Capital that was draining away [its] lifeblood,” according to Kevin Phillips in his book “Arrogant Capital,” attempted to move the capital city, to no avail. “Reformers continued to fulminate in vain against the growth of an unchecked Capital,” Phillips continues. Sounds like the Tea Party or even the Occupy Movement. How can America be “exceptional” when the dynamics being played out here have been played out dozens of times in the past in other parts of the world? This is the first of many flaws with the idea that America is different, better, than other countries.

Another cornerstone to the idea of “American exceptionalism” is a dedication to the Judeo-Christian ethic, implying there’s something particularly special about these two religions and their ethics. There are many problems with this assumption; most notably, many of the same prohibitions in those religions also appear in both Sumerian and Egyptian codes, which predate Mosaic Law by 1,000 years or more. And monotheism was a well-traveled idea by the time the Jews assembled the Old Testament around 600 B.C. In addition, the notion that man had no understanding of morality for the first 100,000 years of his existence, and then Moses showed up with his stone tablets and set everyone straight, is laughable. If that weren’t enough reason to disavow the idea that the Judeo-Christian ethic is “exceptional,” modern scholarship has completely discredited the New Testament, proving it’s nothing more than a fable. Don’t take my word for it; read the book “Zealot,” essentially a compendium of modern scholarship on the subject.

Some devotees of the idea of “American exceptionalism” would argue Judaism and Christianity are superior to Islam, saying the Quran contains passages advocating violence against non-Muslims. Christians who suggest the Old and New testaments are void of the exact same idea aren’t familiar with their own religion. There are 10 million Muslims in America; why aren’t they running around engaging in jihad against Christians? Given all this, it’s easy to conclude there’s no difference among religions. In fact, I’d go one step further and say there’s no such thing as religion, only culture, and what is culture but circumstance?

I came to this conclusion quite by accident. I like to read, especially about history, but I have a terrible memory. Because of that handicap, I’m always trying to boil what seem like complicated phenomena down to their essence. It’s easier, after all, to remember one big idea than a million little ones. This probably sounds a bit ironic and sad — someone with an interest in history who cannot remember anything. However, as is often the case, our shortcomings often lead us to opportunities otherwise missed.

The lesson I have learned from all the reading and thinking about history is that people do the same stuff over and over; therefore, we can draw the conclusion that people are basically the same. What accounts for any differences between people isn’t something as innate and ephemeral as dedication to a certain religion or which continent their ancestors came from, but a result of their circumstances, including geology, geography and geopolitical forces. In fact, if you give folks roughly the same set of environmental circumstances, their “civilizations” will develop in exactly the same ways, go through the same processes, come to the same conclusions and end in exactly the same ways.

How else do we explain the similarities between peoples of the Eastern and Western hemispheres? The Mongols were horse people who followed game across the Asian Steppe on horseback, lived in makeshift huts, and held religious beliefs and rites of passage, which were almost identical to those of various American Indian tribes. The Aztec, Maya and Inca built roads and pyramids, mummified the remains of leaders and prominent members of society and enslaved captured tribes for labor just like the Egyptians did. They also shared an interest in astronomy and had political and religious hierarchies, which included rulers, usually male, claiming legitimacy through a blood relation to god(s). There was no cross-cultural germination of ideas. These people were separated by oceans for 10,000 years, and they ended up creating eerily similar institutions, buildings and civilizations.

One cynical, possibly accurate, reason that the idea of “exceptionalism” still exists, despite all evidence to the contrary: It is a rationale for the haves to continue their reign of superiority over the have-nots. It gives one group justification to do something that’s wrong, like making unjust war. It’s much easier to convince a nation that it’s a good idea to kill members of another nation if we think we’re better than they are. In the editorial cartoons of American newspapers before World War I, Germans were portrayed as inhuman creatures and called Huns. Ironically, a dozen years later, Germans were doing the same thing to the Jews as a rationale for taking all their property and turning them into slaves or worse. Even earlier, popular media in America engaged in the same kind of disparagement of African-Americans in an effort to convince the nation that blacks were inferior, making it just to enslave them and/or worse.

Today, though a lot more subtly, the media engages in the same sort of manipulation. This time, the people painted as “exceptional” are the wealthy. This props up the idea that the growing economic gap between rich and poor is perfectly natural. If you’re wealthy, then you’re “exceptional”; if you’re not wealthy, you’re “unexceptional” and don’t deserve access to healthcare or education. CEOs are treated as folk heroes. Bill Gates is portrayed as some sort of wizard rather than just a motivated guy who was in the right place at right time. When the wealthy break laws, they rarely go to prison.

This tendency to want to believe in “exceptionalism” lurks in each one of us. It’s ironic that part of what makes us identical is the fact that we all want to believe we’re not. That it is false is not the only reason we should resist the transmission of the idea of “exceptionalism” to future generations: It’s a dangerous idea. At various times in history, it’s served as the rationale for war, genocide, imperialism and the enslavement of one group of people by another.

Mongar is a Jacksonville resident living on the Westside.