- The New American Exceptionalism
Donald E. Pease has been both a proponent and a staunch critic of American studies. From his early work in Visionary Compacts (1987) to his work reshaping American studies in his co-edited volume The Futures of American Studies (2002) to his Duke University Press book series—“New Americanists”—Pease has played a significant role in leading scholars in the field to rethink the assumptions that have grounded the very idea of the field. The topic of his newest book advances this work in substantial ways by providing readers with insight into the connections between the narrative ideologies of America, the exercise of state power, and the construction of national identities and notions of citizenship.
It would be safe to say that American exceptionalism has been at the heart of American studies scholarship—either as desideratum or object of critique—since the founding of the field. Pease, however, has done far more than either reinforce or disparage American exceptionalism. Instead, via a critical method that combines the insights of psychoanalysis, political theory, and cultural aesthetics, he has exposed the particular ways that American exceptionalism functions as a state fantasy—a fantasy that operates through both the will of the state and the imagined national identities of its citizens. The key here is the combination of America as exemplary, unique, distinctive, as a global ideal, and America as a state of exception that has consistently abrogated the rights of the citizenry in favor of expanding power. The New American Exceptionalism offers readers a chilling glimpse into the latest iteration of the myth of U.S. America. As Pease explains it, the “political efficacy of the fantasy of American exceptionalism is discernible in its supplying its adherents with the psychosocial structures that permitted them to ignore the state’s exceptions” (14).
Drawing on his considerable knowledge of early modern U.S. culture, Pease’s work begins after World War II when the U.S. entered into the Cold War. He shows how this moment required a major redefinition of what made U.S. America exceptional. One of the keys to understanding Cold War exceptionalism, he claims, is understanding the specific ways that the ongoing state of fear caused by the U.S.-Soviet dynamic and the National Security State transformed the myth of America. The Cold War ushered in an era [End Page 411] when many of the ideals of America were limited in order to protect the idea of the ideals of America. Free speech was curtailed, for instance, in order to protect the idea of free speech, just as the defense of American freedoms led to their greater regulation and control. Central to this shift was the changing function of the citizen, who no longer participated in constructing America, but rather had to simply defend it.
What interests Pease in this analysis is why citizens would willingly cede their rights in order to protect an idea of American exceptionalism that became progressively distant from their experience of everyday life. He explains this development as a psychosocial process whereby the citizen fantasizes an active role in the suspension of rule such that they imagine themselves as agents of rather than victims of the National Security State. “Rather than protesting against the state’s abrogation of its rules, U.S. citizens fantasized themselves as the sovereign power that had suspended law in the name of securing the nation” (33).
After an introductory chapter that lays out this critical process, Pease’s book then goes on to trace these changes through a series of key historical moments. Chapter 1 focuses on the inauguration of the New World Order under President George H. W. Bush. In this chapter, Pease reads the efforts of Bush against disruptions in the narrative of American exceptionalism found in the Rodney King affair, the Vietnam Syndrome, and the narrative of Hiroshima. Chapter 2 is framed by two events: the Waco massacres of April 19, 2003 and the Oklahoma City bombing of April 19, 2005. Here, Pease uses these bookends to analyze the antagonistic political constituencies...