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  • American Exceptionalism in the Post-9/11 Era:The Myth and the Reality
  • William V. Spanos (bio)

GOT HIM!Vengeance at last!US nails the bastard

—Front page headline caption of a photo of Osama bin Laden, New York Post (May 2, 2011)

The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than “that which appears is good, and that which is good appears.” The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearance without reply, by its monopoly of appearance.

—Guy Debord (1977)


The phrase “American exceptionialism” has become pervasive both in the discourse of the American political class (both of the Republican and Democratic political parties) and in the academic discourse called American Studies since the bombing of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon by al-Qaeda in September 11, 2001. As the sociologist Jerome Karabel has observed, the term became popular in American political circles since the Ronald Regan administration and its Cold War against Soviet communism, “but what is new in recent years [since 9/11/01] is that public expression—which had come to mean in popular parlance that the United States is not only different from, but superior to other countries—has become something of a required civic ritual of American politicians. This new definition of American exceptionalism [End Page 291] has coincided with an exraordinary increase in public discussion of the term, with reference in print media increasing from two in 1880 to a stunning 2,580 this year [2011] through November. What might be called the ‘U.S. as Number One’ version of ‘American exceptionalism’ enjoys broad popular support among the public. According to a Gallup poll from December 2010, 80 percent of Americans agree that ‘because of the United States’ history and the Constitution—the United States has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world.’ Support for this proportion varied somewhat along party lines, but not by much: 91 percent of Republicans agreed, but so, too, did 73 percent of Democrats.”1 What is missing in Karabel’s accounting, however, besides a definition of American exceptionalism adequate to its importance as a contemporary American cultural symbol, is a dimension that renders these statistics deeply disturbing to anyone authentically interested in the political health of the peoples of the United States: the simultaneous emergence to prominence of a very significant and growing body of academic writing in the United States—now, thanks to its decisive impact on American literary and cultural studies, called “The New Americanist Studies”—that is genealogical in intent and has as its purpose to disclose the invisible underside that the American exceptionalism ethos has systematically disavowed from its beginnings. I am referring to the history of violence against America’s others inaugurated by the American Puritans in the name of their belief, modeled on the Old Testament Israelite Exodus from captivity to the “Promised Land,” in their “election” by God and their divinely sanctioned “vocation“—their “errand in the [New World] wilderness”; continued through the period of Westward expansion under the aegis of “Manifest Destiny”; to the Cold War (including the devastating ten year hot war in Vietnam); and, most recently, the United States’ “War on [Islamic] Terror” in the wake of the bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by al-Qaeda on 9/11.

These disturbing statistics—and the astonishing absence of reference in the speeches and in the media’s reportage to the quite visible emergence in academia of a genealogical transnational discourse whose purpose is, minimally, to modify the exorbitant celebratory claims of the myth of American exceptionalism and, maximally, to disclose the systematic violence that is intrinsic to its logic and practice in behalf of envisioning a more humane global polity—were dramatically manifest in both the spectacle-oriented Republican and Democratic national conventions that nominated Mitt Romney and Barack Obama as presidential candidates in the election of 2012. What could not possibly be missed by the American public was not only the pervasive—indeed, systematic and ideologically determining—use of the term “American exceptionalism” by both Republican...


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pp. 291-323
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