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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.


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 and Democratic speakers throughout the conventions, but also, suggesting the underlying sameness of the avowedly different political discourses of both parties as they pertain to the status of the United States in the now globalized context, [End Page 292] the purely, i.e. excessive, celebratory nature of these references. Indeed, in keeping with the above statistics (and the spectacular representational excess intrinsic to the exceptionalist logic of American exceptionalism, it was as if both the Republican and Democratic spokes-persons in behalf of their party’s right to rule over the next four years were vying over which party was more exceptionalist than the other. For the sake of convenient and brevity, however, I will restrict the following critical commentary on the American political class’s staged use of the term “American exceptionalism” throughout the Republican and Democratic presidential conventions of 2012 to the exemplary speeches of two spokes-persons from each party: Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida, on the one hand, and Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts (now Secretary of State) and President Barack Obama, on the other. But before undertaking such a critical commentary, it will be necessary, if all too briefly, to render present and visible that which is spectrally absent in the speeches defining America of the contemporary American political class. I mean, the long and sustained history of violence, theoretical and practical, against human life that the emergent genealogical New Americanist studies, by way of what Edward Said proleptically called a “contrapuntal reading,” have disclosed to have been perennially closed off and disavowed by the celebratory discourse of American exceptionalism


As Donald Pease has shown, the phrase “American exceptionalism” was, ironically, first used by Joseph Stalin during the Cold War to identify an American communist group, called “the Lovestoneites,” as heretical to the international agenda of communism:

American exceptionalism has been retroactively assigned to the origins of America. But the term did not in fact emerge into common usage until the late 1920s when Joseph Stalin invented it to accuse the Lovestoneite faction of the American Communist Party of a heretical deviation from party orthodoxies. Stalin’s usage of the term as a “heresy” is helpful in explaining why exceptionalism was reappropriated as the core tenet of belief within cold war orthodoxy. Since Stalin had excommunicated the Lovestoneite sect for having described the United States as exempt from the laws of historical motion, to which Europe was subject, cold war ideologues transposed American exceptionalism into the revelation of the truth about its nature explained why the United States was exempt not merely from Marxian incursions but from the historical laws Marx had codified. As the placeholder of a communist heresy, American exceptionalism named the limit to the political provenance of the Soviet Empire. As the manifestation of [End Page 293] economic and political processes that negated communism at its core, the “heresy” constituted the primary means whereby U.S. citizens could imagine the nullification of communism.2

Pease’s ironic genealogy is accurate, but his emphasis on the Cold War provenance of the term “American exceptionism” should not obscure the historical reality (to which Pease also adheres) that the polyvalent onto-political ethos to which the term refers has its origins much earlier in the American Puritans’ complex self-understanding of their Exodus from the “Old World” to the “Promised Land” of the “New World.”3 I mean, more specifically, in their Calvinist providential view of history, which, bending the exegetical directives of orthodox—“typological” or “figural”—Christian interpretation of the Old Testament and the New Testament to their purposes, enabled them to read their historical condition and their vocation as the ultimate fulfillment of the Old Testament Israelites’ divinely ordained exodus from Egypt, the land of “fleshpots,” to the “Promised Land” of Canaan. To put it succinctly, the American Puritans, following the directives of their figural Biblical exegesis, viewed themselves as “exceptional”—as a youthful people elected by God to undertake His “errand in the [New World] wilderness” to fulfill the rationalizing work abandoned by the Old/World, a world that, in forsaking the Word in favor of the World, had become old, decadent, and tyrannical—that is, “over-civilized.”

This understanding of American exceptionalism is, no doubt, the historical source of the simple meaning implied by the contemporary American political class (and the American public) when it invokes the term to refer to the United States’ moral superiority over the other nations of the world. But, as the New Americanist scholarship makes clear, this understanding is an immense oversimplification that obscures the dark underside of its positive assertions. As Sacvan Bercovitch, a proto-New Americanist scholar, points out in his ground-breaking American Jeremiad (1978), the fundamental problem of the American Puritans was the problem of recidivism or blacksliding: how to maintain the absolutely necessary convenantal community and, at the same time, the youthful energy which was the imperative of their calling [End Page 294] or vocation. For the “errand in the wilderness,” as such, was a civilizing vocation, which is to say, a labor the fruits of which made life in the wilderness easier, more comfortable, less strenuous. This was the essential ontological and cultural paradox that the exceptionalism of the founding Puritans faced, and, according to Bercovitch, overcame in their behalf and in behalf of the future of the American national identity, by way of the ritualization of the “Americana Jeremiad”:

The American Puritan jeremiad was the ritual of a culture on an errand–which is to say, a culture based on a faith in process. Substituting teleology for hierarchy, it discarded the Old World ideal of stasis for a New World vision of the future. Its function was to create a climate of anxiety that helped to release the restless “progressivist” energies required for the success of the venture. The European jeremiad also thrived on anxiety, of course. Like all “traditionalist” forms of ritual, it used fear and trembling to teach acceptance of fixed forms. But the American Puritan jeremiad went much farther. It made anxiety its end as well as its means. Crisis was the social norm it sought to inculcate, The very concept of errand, after all, implied a state of unfulfillment. The future, though divinely assured, was never quite there, and New England’s Jeremiahs set out to provide the sense of insecurity that would ensure the outcome. Denouncing or affirming, their vision fed on the distance between promise and fact.4

Though Bercovitch does not use the term, his ontological insight into the origins of the American exceptionalist ethos was indeed ground-breaking. But, as I have shown elsewhere,5 in arguing in behalf of the priority of the Puritan thesis on the origins of the American national identity against the then dominant frontier thesis inaugurated by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner at the time of the official closing of the frontier and institutionalized by the American Myth and Symbol School—Henry Nash Smith, F. O. Mathiessen, Leo Marx, R.W.B. Lewis, among others—during the Cold War in the name of American exceptionalism, Bercovitch was blinded by his ontological insight to the political implications of the American exceptionalist ethos.

Indeed, Bercovitch’s overdetermination of the ontological foundation of the Puritan “progressivist” vocation concealed to him the ideological affiliation between the Puritan thesis and the history-based frontier thesis. For what is suggested by attending to the Puritan paradox—that the civilizational errand necessarily produces over-civilization—and the jeremiadic solution—the instigation of perpetual rejuvenating anxiety-provoking crisis in the covenantal community—is that both these historical theses concerning the origins and hegemonic exceptionalist character of the American national identity have America’s intrinsic need for a perpetual “frontier” or “enemy” in common: an Other—an alien/inferior entity on the other side of the always [End Page 295] moving dividing line between Good and evil, Settlement and wilderness, Civilization and savagery, that “threatens” the divinely ordained errand and must, therefore, according to the imperatives of this exceptionalist logic, be eradicated by violence in behalf of the errand. The separation of church and state enacted by the American Constitution in the eighteenth century changed nothing as far as this exceptionalist paradigm is concerned. In the post-Revolutionary period—the time of American expansionist history overdetermined by the Myth and Symbol School—the providential ontology of the Puritans was simply secularized. It became Manifest Destiny: God’s Providence became History. Under its dispensation the alien native Americans that occupied the vast wilderness of the West were “doomed”—destined by “History” to extinction—just as the native Americans were who occupied the “wilderness” of the Massachusetts Bay colony. In fact, Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History is a late nineteenth century American jeremiad: in expressing anxiety over the official closing of the Western frontier, he was tacitly calling for the extension of the (imperial) frontier into the Pacific—the globalization of American exceptionalism that ended in the occupation of the Hawaiian Islands and the imperial Spanish-American War.

This pattern of American exceptionalist practice, aptly called “regeneration through violence” by the proto-New Americanist Richard Slotkin,6 continued throughout the period of westward expansion to the present day. In the late nineteenth century, following the closing of the frontier, it was epitomized by Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). In this quintessential American a novel, Twain’s protagonist, Hank Morgan, wakes from a blow to the head inflicted in a fight at the Colt Firearms company in Hartford Connecticut, where he works as a supervisor, to find himself in sixth century feudal England, a world that, from his modern American (exceptionalist)—scientific- technological- industrial- republican—perspective, appears to him at first to be a lunatic asylum in its amalgam of tyranny and primitivism. Characterizing himself at the outset of his sojourn in the essential binarist language of American exceptionalism—“I am an American…a Yankee of the Yankees—and practical; yes, and nearly barren of sentiment, I suppose—or poetry in other words,”7 he reads his transformed condition as the sign of his American calling—a history ordained vocation (errand) committed to bringing the spectacular ameliorative techno-scientific and republican fruits of his self-reliant modern America to this benighted feudal world. In the process of technologizing and industrializing Arthurian England by way of his superior, because practically derived “magic,” however, Morgan’s “Americanizing” project is met with resistance by the magician, Merlin, who, to the Connecticut Yankee, represents superstition—the outmoded Old World mode of knowledge intrinsic to primitive societies [End Page 296] under the aegis of “the Established Church”—and the British knight errantry that relies for it political power over the masses on that Church-authorized superstition. Morgan, however, remains unerring in the pursuit of his errand in the Old World wilderness. Like his antebellum predecessor, Captain Ahab, in his “fiery pursuit” of Moby Dick (though without the ironic awareness of the devastating consequences underscored by the author), he will not be “swerved” from his rationalizing errand. He is so certain of the truth of his American exceptionalist ethos that he will pursue its logic to his limits:

Swerve me? Ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! Man has ye there. Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way.8

This practical fulfillment of the American exceptionalist logic of the “Yankee of the Yankee” is consummated at the “Battle of the Sand Belt,” after he has proclaimed a regime change that turned feudal England into an American-style republic. Beleaguered by the massed forces of the resistant British knighthood, Morgan (supported by his ventriloquized native aide, Clarence) predictably resorts to the spectacular—mind- or language numbing—“magic” of his practical American techno-scientific knowledge to achieve his pre-ordained exceptionalist and “redemptive” end. Combining the efficient mass-killing fire-power of the high-tech Gatling guns he has assembled at the mouth of the cave and the equally efficient lethal potential of modern electrical science, which takes the form of a system of electrically wired fences, he unleashes—stages, from his perspective—a spectacular—or, to anticipate, a “shock and awe”—display of violence that terminates in the extermination of his enemy immediately and en mass:

I sent a current through the third fence, now; and almost immediately through the fourth and fifth, so quickly were the gaps filled up. I believed the time was come, now, for my climax; I believed that that whole army was in our trap. Anyway, it was high time to find out. So I touched a button and set fifty electric suns aflame on the top of our precipice.

Land, what a sight! We were enclosed in three walls of dead men! All the other fences were pretty nearly filled with the living, who were stealthily working their way forward through the wires. The sudden glare paralyzed this host, petrified them, you may say, with astonishment; there was just one instant for the enemy to utilize their immobility in, and I didn’t lose the chance. You see, in another [End Page 297] instant they would have recovered their faculties, then they’d have burst into a cheer and made a rush, and my wires would have gone down before it; but that lost instant lost them their opportunity forever; while even that slight fragment of time was still unspent, I shot the current through all the fences and struck the whole host dead in their tracks. There was a groan you could hear! It voiced the death-pang of eleven thousand men. It swelled out on the night with awful pathos.

A glance showed that the rest of the enemy—perhaps ten thousand strong—were between us and the encircling ditch, and pressing forward to assault. Consequently we had them all! And had them past help. Time for the last act of the tragedy. I fired the three appointed revolver shots—which meant

“Turn on the water!”

There was a sudden rush and roar, and in a minute the mountain brook was raging through the big ditch and creating a river a hundred feet wide and twenty-five deep.

“Stand to your guns, men! Open fire!”

The thirteen gatling guns began to vomit death into the fated ten thousand! They halted, they stood their ground a moment against that withering deluge of fire, then they broke, faced about and swept toward the ditch like chaff before a gale. A full fourth of their force never reached the top of the lofty embankment; the three-fourths reached it and plunged over—to death by drowning.

Within ten short minutes after we had opened fire, armed resistance was totally annihilated, the campaign was ended, we fifty-four were masters of England! Twenty-five thousand men lay dead around us.

What is especially significant about Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee is that it is remarkably proleptic of the historical itinerary of the American exceptionalist ethos in the twentieth and, particularly, the twenty-first century. In locating his story’s mis en scène at the liminal point of the American exceptionalist logic’s trajectory, it inadvertently—as the insistent uneasiness of the Myth and Symbol School’s response to the Battle of the Sand Belt testifies9—anticipates the problematization of the American exceptionalist ethos at the end of the twentieth century (the Vietnam War) and the beginning of the twenty-first (the post-9/11 “war on [Islamic] terror).” (It is no accident that it was during this liminal period that the term “American [End Page 298] exceptionalism” emerged in the national rhetoric to characterize the hitherto silent pervasiveness of America’s sense of superiority over the Old World.) In overdetermining the liminal point of the perennial logic of American exceptionalism, in other words, Twain’s novel inadvertently anticipates the self-de-struction of the American exceptionalist ethos—the disclosure at the point of its fulfillment that its (hegemonic) “truth” is, in fact, an ideology—in the next century, when the dominant culture, in the name of “The American Century,” pursued its benign logical imperatives to its devastating practical historical limits.

For example, Twain’s novel, particularly the Connecticut Yankee’s mass slaughter of the British knight errantry at the Battle of the Sand Belt, prefigured the practical consequences of the use to which the American exceptionalist ethos was put during the Vietnam War—the “hot war” of the Cold War—epitomized by Michael Herr’s account of the United States’ “Tet Offensive,” which, to him, was a synecdoche of the United States’ destruction of Vietnam in the name of “saving it for the free world”—and in natural reaction to the Viet Cong’s strategic refusal (Bartleby-style) to conduct its resistance according to the unerring (Ahabian) terms dictated by the United States’ traditional Western—frontal and forwarding—concept of war:

We took a huge collective nervous breakdown, it was the compression and heat of heavy contact generated out until every American in Vietnam got a taste. Vietnam was a dark room full of deadly objects, the VC were everywhere all at once like a spider cancer, and instead of losing the war in little pieces over years we lost it fast in under a week. After that, we were like the character in the pop grunt mythology, dead but too dumb to lie down. Out worst dread of yellow peril became realized; we saw them now dying by the thousands all over the country, yet they didn’t seem depleted, let alone exhausted, as the Mission was claiming by the first day. We took space back quickly, expensively, with total panic and close to maximum brutality. Our machine was devastating. And versatile. It could do everything but stop. As one American major said, in a successful attempt at attaining history, “We had to destroy Ben Tre in order to save it,” That’s how, most of the country came back under what we called control, and how it remained essentially occupied by the Viet Cong and the North until the day years later when there were none of us left there.10

But it is the American exceptionalism of the period between the implosion of the Soviet Union, the “kicking of the “Vietnam Syndrome” in the first Gulf War, and the aftermath of the bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by al-Qaeda that Twain’s novel most fully anticipates: the period culminating in the “War on [Islamic] A Terror” initiated by the George W. Bush administration as the “calling” of the American people of the twenty-first [End Page 299] century11 and in the name of the American exceptionalism. I mean that liminal moment of American history that bore witness to the fulfillment of the logic of American exceptionalism: disclosed its ethos to be an ideological agent that not only disavowed the violence intrinsic to its logic, but also, in so doing, exposed the complex but polyvalent mechanism—intrinsic to the “exceptionalism’ of American exceptionalism—that justified that violence: the rejuvenating, anxiety-provoking jeremiad—the spectacle-producing ritual that, in justifying pre-emptive war, unilateral regime change (and the imposition of a ventriloquized polity, and shock and awe tactics, became the means of turning anything or anyone that was an obstacle to the achievement of its errand into exterminatable enemies—or, in Giorgio Agamben’s apt terms, homo sacer: bare life, life that can be killed without the killing being called murder.12

That my analysis of this liminal moment in the historical itinerary of American exceptionalism is not at all an exaggeration is borne witness to by Samuel P. Huntington, one of the most prestigious and influential intellectual deputies of the George W. Bush administration—the popularizer of the phrase “the clash of civilization, not incidentally13—in his post- 9/11 book aptly titled Who Are We?: Challenges to America’s National Identity (2004). In this book, Huntington not only answers the question of the subtitle by overtly invoking the Puritan myth of America’s origins:

The settling of America was, of course, a result of economic and other motives, as well as religious ones. Yet religion still was central. … Religious intensity was undoubtedly greatest among the Puritans, especial in Massachusetts. They took the lead in defining their settlement based on “a Covenant with God” to create “a city on a hill” as a model for all the world, and people of the Protestant faiths soon also came to see themselves and America in a similar way. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Americans defined their mission in the New World in biblical terms. They were a “chosen people,” on an “errand in the wilderness,” creating “the new Israel” or the “new Jerusalem” in what was clearly “the promised land.” America was the site of “as new Heaven and new earth, the home of justice,” God’s country. The settlement of America was vested, a Sacvan Bercovitch put it, “with all the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual appeal of a religious quest.” This sense of holy mission was easily expanded into millenarian themes of America as “the redeemer nation” and “the visionary republic.”14 [End Page 300]

As the title of his post- 9/11nationalist book suggests, Huntington’s Who Are We? is also patently a contemporary American jeremiad, which, attuned to the flagging public commitment to the war on terror incumbent on what he calls “the deconstruction of America” (the emergence of “subnational identities” that challenge the “Anglo-Protestant core culture,” and the stalling of the United States’ preemptive mission in the Iraq wilderness), is intended to induce the national anxiety that has perennially rejuvenated the energy and solidarity of the convenantal people. What is especially telling about Huntington’s American exceptionalist jeremiad is his overt identification of the traditional America jeremiahs’ appeal to a perpetual rejuvenating frontier with the more ideological need for a perpetual enemy.

Huntington’s jeremiad thus does not restrict its historical parameters to the post-9/11 occasion. Rather, he constellated it into the Cold War context—particularly its coming to its end with the implosion of the Soviet Union. Like his predecessor Jeremiahs, whose American exceptionalist logic compelled them to think the consequences of peace—and, not incidentally, echoing the Friend/foe theory of politics of the German National Sociaist political theorist Carl Schmitt—Huntington is compelled by his to read the end of the Cold War as a threat to the exceptionalism that America has always invoked to distinguish itself from the decadent Old World:

At the end of the twentieth century, democracy was left without a significant secular ideological rival, and the United States was left without a peer competitor. Among foreign policy elites, the result was euphoria, pride, arrogance [the reference is to Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man]—and uncertainty. The absence of an ideological threat produced an absence of purpose. “Nations need enemies,” Charles Krauthammer [a prestigious neoconservative policy expert] commented as the Cold War ends. “Take away one, and they find another.” The ideal enemy for America would be ideologically hostile, racially and culturally different, and militarily strong enough to pose a credible threat to Americana security. The foreign policy debates of the 1990s were already over who might be such an enemy.

It is at this liminal point in his jeremiad, which, as I have suggested—and Huntington’s rhetorical anxiety in the last sentence confirms—is a spectacle-producing instrument, that Huntington dramatically brings the bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which he has strategically marginalized, to center stage. In a chapter blatantly entitled “America’s Search for an Enemy,” he briefly summarizes the anxious debates by policy experts concerning the qualifications of possible candidates for this bizarre status. Then, in a secular rhetoric reminiscent of the Puritans’ reading of their providential Calling—one implying that History, not policy makers, has identified America’s new rejuvenating enemy—he brings his narrative to its [End Page 301] spectacular—dumb-striking—close by invoking the 9/11 al-Qaeda (Islamic terrorist) bombings on American soil:

The cultural gap between Islam and America’s Christianity and Anglo-Protestantism reinforces Islam’s enemy qualifications. And on September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden ended America’s search. The attacks on New York and Washington followed by the wars with Afghanistan and Iraq and the more diffuse “war on terrorism” make militant Islam America’s first enemy of the twenty-first century.

I will return to the spectral figure of Osama bin Laden, whom Huntington, significantly, in typical American exceptionalist fashion, renders a personification of his understanding of Islam, in the second part this essay, which analyzes the uses to which the term American exceptionalism was put during the Republican and Democratic National Conventions of 2012, where his name is invoked again and again in a similar ritualistic manner. Here, I want to underscore the remarkable parallel between Huntington’s late, overt jeremiadic representation of the practical imperatives for America of the al-Qaeda bombings and the George W. Bush administration’s late American exceptionalist practice in the “global wilderness” allegedly produced by militant Islam. In unerringly pursuing the logic of American exceptionalism to its limits, Huntington’s not only “justifies” the relay of violent practices intrinsic to it—“pre-emptive war,” the spectacular military tactics of “shock and awe,” unilateral f “regime change” that establishes ventriloquized governments—that was determinative of the George W. Bush administration’s spectacular “war on terror” in the aftermath of 9/11.15 In overtly naming the “wilderness” or the “frontier” that hitherto occluded the violence accompanying its rationalization and fructification as perpetual “enemy,” his exceptionalism also “justifies” the Bush administration’s establishment of the (global) “Homeland Security State,” in which the (exceptional) state of emergency becomes the norm. Indeed, in the end, as Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and the detention camps established by the United States in foreign states to enabled the illegal violence against human suspects it euphemistically calls “extraordinary rendition” bear witness, Huntington’s American exceptionalist logic becomes exemplary of that momentum of modern democratic societies diagnosed by Giorgio Agamben, which, under the aegis of biopolitics, reduces human life (bios) to “bare life” (zoé), life [End Page 302] that can be killed with impunity, and of which the political paradigm is the concentration camp:

Hannah Arendt once observed that in the camps, the principle that supports totalitarian rule and that common sense obstinately refuses to admit comes fully to light: this is the principle according to which “everything is possible.” Only because the camps constitute a space of exception…in which not only is law completely suspended but fact and law are completely confused—is everything in the camps truly possible. If this particular juridico-political structure of the camps—the task of which is precisely to create a stable exception—is not understood, the incredible things that happened there remain completely unintelligible. Whoever entered the camp moved in a zone of indistinction between outside and inside, exception and rule, licit and illicit, in which the very concept of subjective right and juridical protection no longer made any sense. … Insofar as its inhabitants were stripped of every political status and wholly reduced to bare life, the camp was also the most absolute biopolitical space ever to have been realized, in which power confronts nothing but pure life, without mediation. That is why the camp is the very paradigm of political space at the point of which politics becomes biopolitics and homo sacer is virtually confused with the citizen. The correct question to pose concerning the horrors committed in the camp, is, therefore, not the hypocritical one of how crimes of such atrocity could be committed against humans. It would be more honest and, above all, more useful to investigate carefully the juridical procedures and deployments of power by which human beings could be so completely deprived of their right and prerogatives that no act committed against them could appear any longer as a crime.


This all too briefly summarized counter-history of American exceptionalist history is what has been retrieved by the emergent “New Americanist” scholarship. Taking it novel research directives from the transnationalist demands of the globalization of the planet, this new scholarship, having acknowledged the urgent need to “see” American exceptionalism from the point of view of the disavowed victims of its representational and global practice (contrapuntally, as it were), has been enabled to render visible the contradictions disclosed by the fulfillment in practice (the War on Terror) of the logical imperatives of the American exceptionalist ethos. It is this retrieved history that—remarkably—is virtually absent in the discourse of the contemporary—post-9/11 or “post-ground zero”—American political class, even after the “fall” of George W. Bush and his neo-conservative [End Page 303] administration. And it is because of this remarkable absence, I suggest, that this counter-history needs to re-asserted and underscored. As I noted at the outset, this disturbing absence is synecdochically borne witness to not only by the pervasiveness of the term “American exceptionalism”—hitherto more or less non-existent in the rhetoric of American politicians and the media—in the speeches of both Republicans and Democrats at the National Presidential Conventions of 2012, but also, and above all, by the uniformly celebratory tenor of these ubiquitous references. In what follows, I will examine in some detail the speeches of two highly visible Republican speakers, Senator John McCain of Arizona and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, and two equally influential Democratic speakers, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and President Barack Obama, in the estranging light of this New Americanist scholarship. Following the directives of this counter-mnemonic contrapuntal scholarship, my purpose will be to show not only how incredibly remote the celebratory discourses about the American national identity of these contemporary American politicians are from historical reality (or, at any rate, from the way the vast victimized populations of America’s Others view its spectacular exceptionalist global representations and practices. It will also be, to show how their particular representations of American exceptionalism contribute insidiously and collectively, however inadvertently, to the incremental reduction of the democratic exceptonalist state to a state in which the state of exception (and its biopolitics) becomes the rule and the camp its political paradigm.

Senator John McCain’s speech endorsing the nomination of Mitt Romney as the Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States at the 2012 Republican national convention in Tampa, Florida, not only invokes the term “American exceptionalism” twice in his speech; it is invoked in such a way as to make it clear that it is, against the Democratic Party’s recidivism, what is essentially at stake in this “historic” election. Recalling his audience to America’s vocation to a “sacred cause,” McCain goes on not only to identify these origins with the Puritan founders of the American exceptionalist national identity, but also to show that this divinely ordained vocation to lead, embodied in John Winthrop’s characterization of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a “city on the hill”—a beacon for the rest of mankind—is what essentially has characterized America’s history:

At our best [as opposed to the Obama administration’s errancy], America has led. We have led by our example as a shining city on a hill, we have led in the direction of patriots from both parties. We have led shoulder to shoulder with steadfast friends and allies. We have led by giving voice to the voiceless, insisting that every human life has dignity, and aiding those brave souls who risk everything to secure the inalienable rights that are endowed to all by our creator. [End Page 304]

We have


We have led with generous hearts, moved by an abiding love of justice, to help others eradicate disease, lift themselves from poverty, live under laws of their own making, and determine their own destinies.

We have led when necessary with the armed might of freedom’s defenders, and always we have led from the front, never from behind.


This is what makes America an exceptionalist nation. It is not only who we are, it is the record of what we have done.16

McCain’s summary “record” of exceptionalist America’s domestic foreign practice patently flies in the face of historical reality. In the domain of foreign policy to which McCain refers, for example, the New Americanist scholars, as we have seen, have persuasively shown that the United States, whatever its rhetorical justifications, has, in fact, perennially harnessed its exceptionalist ethos–and its spectacular “might” to aggrandizing its power: not to give voice to the voiceless but, on the contrary, as in the case of the Bush administration’s typical practice of “regime change,” to ventriloquize these voices, to interpellate them, to render them subjected subjects. And in the domain of domestic policy, to which he also refers, McCain’s “record” does not remotely accord with historical reality. As Scott Shane, one of the very few mainstream journalists attuned to the New Americanist scholarship, writes about American leadership under the thrall of the what he calls “the opiate of exceptionalism” in the New York Times in the wake the of the Presidential National Conventions:

Imagine a presidential candidate who spoke bluntly about American problems, dwelling on measures to which the United States lags its economic peers. What might a mythical candidate talk about on the stump? He might vow to turn around the dismal statistics on child poverty, declaring it an outrage that of the 35 most economically advanced countries, the United States rank 34th, edging out only Romania. He might take on educational achievement, noting that this contrary comes in only 28th in the percentage of 4–year-olds enrolled in preschool, and at the other end of the scale, 14th in the percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds with a higher education. He might hammer on infant mortality, where the United States ranks worse [End Page 305] than 48 other countries and territories, or point out that, contrary to fervent popular belief, that United States trails most of Europe, Australia and Canada in social mobility.

The candidate might try to stir up his audience by flipping a familiar campaign trope: America is indeed No.1, he might declare—in locking its citizens up, with an incarceration rate far higher than that of the likes of Russia, Cuba, Iran or China; in obesity, easily outweighing second-place Mexico and with nearly 10 times the rate of Japan; in energy use per person, with double the consumption of prosperous Germany…17

Equally telling as his invocation of the term “American exceptionalism” to exalt the United States is McCain’s enframement of his argument against the Democratic Party and the incumbent Barack Obama’s administration in the form of the American jeremiad, that ritual of rejuvenation that, as we have seen, in the historical process transformed the American’s psyche’s need for a perpetual wilderness to the need of a perpetual threatening enemy. Immediately following his orchestrated annunciation of the term “American exceptionalism,’ McCain tells his covenantal audience:

We are now being tested by an array of threats that are more complex, more numerous, and just as deeply and deadly as I can recall in my lifetime. We face a consequential choice, and make no mistake, it is a choice. We can choose to follow a declining path toward a future that is dimmer and more dangerous than our past. Or we can choose to reform our failing government, revitalize our ailing economy, and renew the foundations of our power and leadership in the world. That is what is at stake in this election.


Unfortunately, for four years [under Obama’s errant presidential aegis], we have drifted away from our proudest traditions of global leadership. Traditions that are truly bipartisan. We’ve let the challenges we face at home and abroad become much harder to solve. We can’t afford to stay on that course any longer. We can’t afford to cause our friends and allies, from Latin American to Europe to Asia to the Middle East, and especially in Israel, a nation under existential threat, to doubt America’s leadership.

I will return to the issue of the “defense” of Israel’s very existence against the Arab world later in this essay. Here, I want to highlight not only the traditional Puritan theme of recidivism (the “backsliding” that haunted the Puritans’ sense of community) in McCain’s American jeremiad, but also and above all, its ritualized rejuvenating function: in Bercovitch’s words, the creation of “a climate of anxiety” in the covenantal community by way of spectacularizing the threat to its existence posed by an implied barbarous enemy that would ensure the solidarity and the vocational energy of its covenantal members.

What necessarily follows, then, is an extended ritualized list of President Obama’s betrayals of the leadership and American exceptionalist promise—and, by way of the astonishing claim that the oppressed peoples of the contemporary world, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, look to America at this time of crisis for redemption, the re-affirmation, seemingly abandoned by the Democrats, of the perennial belief in America’s election by History as “redeemer nation”:

They’re liberating themselves from oppressive rulers and they want America’s support. They want America’s assistance as they struggle to live in peace and security, to expand opportunities for themselves and their children, to replace the injustices of despots with the institutions of democracy and freedom. American must be on the right side of history.

Having represented Obama’s presidential administration in terms of his loss of faith in America’s chosenness—and the betrayal of the world’s peoples’ dreams of redemption by America and America’s homeland security, McCain concludes his jeremiad by expressing his trust in Mitt Romney as the contemporary American in whom the American exceptionalist ethos continues to burn like a gemlike flame:

I—I trust him to affirm our nation’s exceptionalist character and responsibilities. I trust him to know that our security and economic interests are inextricably tied to the progress of our values. I trust him to know that if America doesn’t lead, our advisories [sic] will and the world will go darker, and poorer and much more dangerous. I trust him to know that an American president always, always, always stands up to for the rights and freedoms and justice of all peoples.


I trust Mitt Romney to know that good can triumph over evil, that justice can vanquish tyranny, that love can conquer hate, that the desire for freedom is eternal and universal and that America is still the best hope of mankind.

Whereas Senator John McCain’s speech celebrating the nomination of Mitt Romney to the presidency of the United States focused on America’s exceptionalism vis á vis its relationship to the peoples of the rest of the world, Senator Marco Rubio’s speech introducing Romney focused almost entirely on America’s domestic exceptionalism. Senator Rubio, a second generation Cuban-American, begins (and ends) his speech introducing Romney and celebrating the American exceptionalist ethos by rendering his personal life-“story” exemplary of its promise:

I watched my first convention in 1980 with my grandfather. My grandfather was born to a farming family in rural Cuba. Childhood polio left him permanently disabled. He was the only one in his family that knew how to read. He was a huge influence on the growing up [sic]. As a boy I sat on the porch of my house and listened to his stories about his history and politics and baseball, as he would talk on one of three daily (inaudible) cigars. Now I don’t remember all the things he talked to me about. But the one thing I remember is the one thing he wanted me never to forget. That the dreams he had when he was young became impossible to achieve. But there was no limit to how far I could go, because I was an American.


Now for those of us—here is why I say that—here’s why I say that. Because for those of us who were born and raised in this country, sometimes it becomes easy to forget how special America is. But my grandfather understood how different America was from the rest of the world because he knew life outside America.

Tonight you will hear from another man who understands what makes America exceptional.18

Senator Rubio goes on to characterize his version of American exceptionalism by focusing on the “uncontestable” capitalist versions of self-reliance, practicality, and suspicion of governmental interference, those early American personal values so much more productive of material progress than the over-civilized values of the Old World, that rendered the United Stated the richest nation in the world: “Mitt Romney knows America’s prosperity did not happened because our government simply spent money. It happened because our people use their own money to open a business. And when they succeed, they hire more people, who invest or spend their money in the economy, helping others start a business or create jobs.” In the process, he, like Senator McCain, blatantly disavows the contradictory domestic statistics disclosed by the New Americanists and summarized [End Page 308] above. But what is more significant for Senator Rubio about his personal version of American exceptionalism—and, more telling in its articulation, about its ideological implications—is his forced identification of American exceptionalism with America’s perennial Other. His repeated romanticized reference to his promise/fulfillment “story” as a Cuban immigrant whose childhood dream came true testifies to this:

Yes, we live in troubled times, but the story of those who came before us reminds us that America has always been about new beginnings, and Mitt Romney is running for president because he knows, if we are willing to do for our children what our parents did for us, life in America can be better than it has ever been.



My Dad was a bartender. My mom was a cashier, a hotel maid, a stock clerk at Kmart. They never made it big. They were never rich, and yet they were successful, because just a few decades removed from hopelessness, they made possible for us all the things that have been impossible for them. Many nights growing up I would hear my father’s keys at the door as he came home after another 16-house day. Many mornings, I woke up just as my mother got home from the overnight shift at Kmart. When you’re young and in a hurry, the meaning of moments like this escapes you. Now, as my children get older I understand it better. My dad used to tell us—(SPEAKING IN SPANISH)—in this country you’ll be able to accomplish all the things we never could.

A few years ago, I noticed a bartender behind the portable bar in the back of the ballroom. I remembered my father, who worked as many years as a banquet bartender [sic]. He was grateful for the work he had, but that’s not like he wanted for us. You see, he stood behind the bar all those years so that one day I could stand behind a podium, in the front of the room.

In his retrospective telling, Senator Rubio’s triumphant personal “journey, from behind the bar to behind this podium, goes to the essence of the American miracle. That we’re exceptional, not because we have more rich people here. We are special because dreams that are impossible anywhere else, they come true here.” When, however, this this American exceptionalist promise/fulfillment narrative is read in the light of the contrapuntal history retrieved by that the New Americanist Studies by way of reading its structure against the grain, it undergoes a remarkable sea change. From this estranged perspective Senator Rubio’s narrative not only is seen to disavow the long history of the life-damaging discrimination and abuse inflicted by Americans [End Page 309] in the benign name of American exceptionalism on it multiple Others—native Americans, blacks, women, ethnic minorities in its past, and immigrants, not least Hispanic immigrants, in Senator Rubio’s very visible present. Equally, if not more damaging, this contrapuntal history also suggests that the very self of Senator Rubio’s story (and its vocation), like that of so many other immigrants,19 is itself, in Louis Althusser’s apt term, the consequence of its interpellation by the American Subject—the hailing that renders the subject a “subjected subject”—or in the more immediate language of American exceptionalism, its ventriloquization by the American exceptionalist Calling.


Tellingly, the use of the term “American exceptionalism” was even more prominent, both as referent and as emphasis, in the speeches celebrating the incumbent president and his American domestic and foreign agenda by Democratic speakers at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. This emphasis was, no doubt, partly because the Democratic leadership was strategically intent on coopting the Republicans’ insistent prior jeremiadic claim that the Obama administration, particularly in its foreign policies, was betraying the imperative of world leadership intrinsic to the America exceptionalist ethos. Whatever the motives of the Democratic speakers’ disavowal of recidivism and their consequent overdetermination of the use of the term, however, the fact remains that they, like their Republican counterparts, were overtly and systematically identifying the first four years of the Obama administration with America’s traditional self-understanding as a chosen nation with a transcendentally ordained redemptive errand in the post-9/11global wilderness. Indeed, it seemed as if the Democratic speakers were vying against the Republicans to represent the Democratic Party under the aegis of Barack Obama as more exceptionalist than their opponents. This was certainly true in the case of Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts in his speech mocking the exceptionalist qualifications of the Republican nominee and celebrating the accomplishments of the Obama presidency, particularly in the domain of global politics, and, President Obama’s speech accepting the presidential nomination for a second term, which, though the term is muted, is saturated with the American exceptionalist ethos. The senator repeatedly invoked the term “American exceptionalism” and the president its exceptionalist meaning centrally to make clear to the American public that its promissory redemptive domestic and global agenda was President Obama’s throughout his first term in office and to assure doubters that it would continue to be in his second term. [End Page 310]

In typical American jeremiadic fashion, Senator Kerry opened his short but forceful speech by predictably invoking the “crisis” that threatens the covenantal American community—thus representing the long-standing American aggression in the Middle East as defense—and by reminding his audience of Democrats (and the American public at large) that the resolution of this threatening crisis depended on the right choice of presidents:

In this campaign, we have a fundamental choice. Will we protect our country and out allies, advance our interests and ideals, do battle where we must and make peace where we can? Or will we entrust our place in the world to someone who just hasn’t learned the lessons of the last decade? We’ve all learned Mitt Romney doesn’t know much about foreign policy. But he has these “neocon advisors” who know all the wrong things about foreign policy. [The reference is to the neoconservative authors of “Project for the New American Century” (PNAC), which became the touchstone of President George W. Bush’s exceptionalist imperialist policy in Iraq and Afghanistan long before 9/11/01]20 He would rely on them—after all, he’s the great outsourcer. But I say to you: This is not the time to outsource the job of commander in chief. Our opponents like to talk about “American exceptionalism” but all they do is talk. They forget that we are exceptional not because we say we are, but because we do exceptionalist things. We break out of the Great Depression, win two world wars, save lives fighting AIDS, pull people out of poverty, defend freedom, go to the moon—and produce exceptionalist people who even give their lives for civil rights and human rights.21

Following up on the inaugural traditional American distinction he makes between doing and saying, Kerry went on to contrast the Republican Party’s (recidivist) lip service to American exceptionalism with the Democratic Party’s authentic practice of its progressive and redemptive values, a contrast that culminates in the identification of the idea of leading inherent in the exceptionalist ethos and its representation of the frontier experience,22 with of the active leadership of President Obama: [End Page 311]

Despite what you heard in Tampa, an exceptional country does care about the rise of oceans and the future of the planet. That is a responsibility from the Scriptures–and that too is a responsibility of the leader of the free world. The only thing exceptional about today’s Republicans is that–almost without exception—they oppose everything that has made American exceptional in the first place. An exceptional nation demands the leadership of an exceptional president. And, my fellow Americans, that president is Barack Obama.

In typical and predictable jeremiadic fashion, Kerry, focusing on America’s involvement in the Middle East, then summarized the George W. Bush administration’s betrayal of the American exceptionalist ethos during his eight-year presidential regime. He recalled “the disarray and disaster [President Obama] inherited” from the Bush era: “A war of choice in Iraq had become a war without end, and a war of necessity in Afghanistan had become a war of neglect. Our alliances were shredded. Our moral authority was in tatters. America was isolated in the world. Our military was stretched to the breaking point. Iran was marching unchecked toward a nuclear weapon. And Osama bin Laden was still plotting” (“Transcript of John Kerry’s Speech…” 2012). I will return (as Kerry does) to the senator’s pointed, indeed, dramatically staged reference to the continuing threat posed by Osama bin Laden to the security of the United States. Here, in keeping with his identification of Obama with the active leadership endemic to the American exceptionalist ethos, I want to underscore Senator Kerry’s representation of the president, in opposition to his Republican predecessor’s unexceptionalist legacy of a “quagmire” reminiscent of Vietnam and the recidivist rhetorical evasions of his opponent, as the epitome of the American exceptionalist leader (of the “free world”) who enacts the imperative of the exceptionalist “Promise”:

And President Obama kept his promises. He promised to end the war in Iraq—and he has–and our heroes have come back home. He promised to end the war in Afghanistan responsibly–and he is—and our heroes there are coming home. He promised to focus like a laser on al-Qaeda—and he has—our forces have eliminated more of its leadership in the last three years than in the eight years that came before. And after more than ten years without justice for the thousands of American murdered on 9/11, after Mitt Romney said it would be “naïve” to go into Pakistan to pursue the terrorists, it took President Obama, against the advice of many, to give that order to finally rid this earth of Osama bin Laden. Ask Osama bin Laden if he is better off now than he was four years ago.

Senator Kerry went on to itemize other promises the president had fulfilled in the name of the American exceptionalist ethos—“stand[ing] with Israel [End Page 312] to tightened sanctions on Iran,” “working with Russia to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons,” and “enlisting our allies” to rid Libya of the tyrant Moammar Gadhafi and bring freedom to the Libyan people.

What is deeply disturbing about this litany of alleged fulfilled promises (besides the factual unfulfillment of some of them) is not simply the patent similarity of these claims about American exceptionalism of a prestigious Democratic speaker with those expected exceptionalist claims of the Republican speakers. Equally disturbing is its disavowal of—its apparent blindness to—the perennial aggressive violence against its recalcitrant Middle Eastern others that, as the New American Studies have borne massive witness, has systematically accompanied these fulfillments of the American exceptionalist promise. (Senator Kerry’s underscoring President Obama’s undeviating commitment to defending Israel, a militantly apartheid state, and his astonishing appeal to its racist and extreme right wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to setting “the record straight” over Mitt Romney’s charge that President Obama was abandoning its perennial commitment to the security of Israel, bear synecdochical witness to this shameful disavowal.) To put it all too briefly, Kerry’s speech celebrating the Obama administration’s American exceptionalism, no less than those of his Republican counterparts, utterly obliterated the sustained violent history of the United States’ offensive intervention in the Middle Eastern during the period of the Cold War, which bore witness to its massive and decisive contribution to the destabilization of that critical geopolitical region in the name of the United States’ exceptionalist errand in the world’s global wilderness—and the establishment of the homeland security state that prepared the way for the insidious normalization of the state of exception. But it is not only the similarity between Senator Kerry’s and his Republican counterparts’ exceptionalist disavowals that needs to be registered. It is also, and perhaps above all, the similarity between the most positive—and therefore exemplary—evidence he offers as testimony to the Obama administration’s fulfillment of the “promises” of the American exceptionalist ethos with that of his Republican “opponents.” I am referring to the senator’s staged climactic invocation of the spectacle of the unerringly—“surgically executed”—Navy Seals’ “search and destroy mission” (to use the still current memorandum language of the United States’ failed war in Vietnam) that, once and for all, “rid this earth of Osama bin Laden.” “Ask Osama bin Laden if he is better off now than he was four years ago,” he said triumphantly in response to his Republican opponents, thus implying, in its “mission accomplished” tenor (massively exploited by the mainstream media, as the first epigraph of this essay testifies), that, with Osama bin Laden’s spectacular assassination, instigated in the name of the exceptionalist logic of American exceptionalism, the anxiety-provoking “problem” allegedly haunting the security of the American homeland and the world at large had been solved, if not yet practically annulled.

What is especially remarkable about this spectacular search and destroy narrative and its spectacular conclusion celebrated as a promise President [End Page 313] Obama fulfilled by the prestigious, left-of- center Democrat, John Kerry, is that it precisely echoes the unerring narrative announced and focalized as a spectacle by George W. Bush in his incremental post-9/11 identification (reduction) of the enormous complexities of the Middle Eastern Arab world—complexities, as the New Americanist scholars have persuasively shown, produced in very large part, initially, by the depredations of Western colonialist exceptionalism and, then, since the globalizing Cold War, by the United States’ exceptionalist errand in the Arab “wilderness”: “No matter how long it takes, America will find you [Osama bin Laden], and will bring you to justice,” he said decisively in his fifth anniversary speech to the U.S. Congress commemorating 9/1/01. The only difference is that Bush’s Republican administration failed in its effort to hunt Obama bin Laden down, whereas the Democratic administration under the “exceptionalist” leadership of Barack Obama did.23

However, it is not simply the remarkable continuity between the neoconservative Republican Bush and the Democratic Obama administrations’ reductive exceptionalist invocation and spectacularization of Osama bin Laden that needs registering here. More important, I want to point to and underscore the perennial onto-psychological mechanism intrinsic to the exceptionalist logic of American exceptionalism from the Puritans to the present, that lies hidden behind this triumphalist reduction at its liminal point: that willful reification or objectification by violence of the anxiety-provoking differential dynamics of historicity that brings “composure” (Pax: peace) in the aftermath of its blood-letting.

But because it seems that Kerry’s speech, particularly, his spectacularization of the “surgically executed” killing of Osama bin Laden,24 was strategically orchestrated to anticipate and highlight President Obama’s own climactic reference to this highly visible fulfilled promise, it will be necessary, first, to briefly address the latter’s speech accepting his nomination for a second term. As I have noted, Obama, unlike Senator Kerry, did not overtly invoke the term “American exceptionalism” in his speech,25 but the idea was everywhere [End Page 314] patently manifest in his rhetoric, which clearly echoed—and tacitly responded to—the Republicans’ sustained charge, made highly visible by the media, that his ambiguous comments in Strasburg in 2009—“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believed in Greek exceptionalism”—were a manifestation of his recidivist anti-exceptionalism. Unlike the Republican speakers’ assumptions about the meaning of the American exceptionalist ethos, which were purely celebratory of capitalist America, Obama’s was nuanced, incorporating in a way that his opponents do not, the primacy of the citizen-“people” in the American polity at the domestic site and acknowledging the obstacles in the way of accomplishing the errand in the world’s wilderness. And, in keeping with the immediate main concern of the American public, he emphasized the economy rather than the United States’ global policy. But nothing in his speech calls into question the idea of America as redeemer nation. On the contrary, as his rousing conclusion testifies, it reiterates in the very language of the Puritan founders, the transcendental source of America’s chosenness (its calling) and its redemptive vocation:

America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won’t promise that now. Yes, our pain is harder—but it leads to a better place. Yes, our road is longer—but we travel it together. We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up. We draw strength from our victories, and we learn from our mistakes, but we keep our eyes fixed on the distant horizon, knowing that Providence is with us, and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on earth.

And, like his Republican opponents, therefore, he tacitly obliterates from the American cultural memory the predatory historical role that American exceptionalism has, in fact, perennially and systematically played at home and globally in the process of fulfilling its redemptive errand.

As I have observed, however, it is not only these contradictory political disavowals that need to be registered for the purpose of understanding the subtly complex operations of the exceptionialist logic of American exceptionalism. Equally, if not more important, is the onto-psychological mechanism that resides, as its deepest structure, at the core of the Obama’s and America’s exceptionaliste ethos. I mean, as I noted above in underscoring the precise similarity of Senator Kerry’s spectacularization of the execution of Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush’s ten years earlier in the wake of 9/11, that exceptionalism—the imperative to excess inhering in the word—in the [End Page 315] pursuit of the potential of its unerring logic to its limits. For Obama, too, like Senator Kerry (and President Bush), not only singled out the spectacular execution of Osama bin Laden to underscore his exceptional leadership and commitment to the “promise” and charged this symbolic reference with the aura of the spectacle (it received the longest and most boisterous ovation of his speech from his audience). Like Kerry and President Bush before him, Obama also invoked the spectacular assassination of bin Laden to activate the heroic frontier narrative endemic to exceptionalism of the American Cultural Memory, which, whatever the particular historical occasion (and aftermath), invariably ends with the decisively triumphant “mission accomplished.”26

In a world of new threats and new challenges, we can chose leadership that has been tested and proven. Four year ago, I promised to end the war in Iraq. We did. I promised to refocus on the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11. We have. We’ve blunted the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan, and in 2014 our longest war will be over. A new tower rises above the New York skyline, al-Qaeda is on the path to defeat, and Osama bin Laden is dead.

Read against the grain, as the New Americanists have done (and Walter Benjamin asserts is the global task of the “historical materialist”27), however, this American frontier narrative invariably ends in the reification of a complex historical reality—one invariably produced by the barbarous civilizing “errand’—and the annihilation of the threat this reification allegedly embodies. But we need not invoke the historical materialism of Benjamin or the witness of the New Americanists for the purpose of disclosing this ultimate disavowal inhering in the American exceptionalist narrative. What comes more immediately to hand for this task of exposure—especially if we recall the spectacular rhetoric Senator Kerry uses to characterize President Obama’s pursuit of Osama bin Laden (“he promised to focus like a laser on al-Quada”)—are two epiphanic—but neglected—troubling moments from [End Page 316] two texts of the American literary tradition itself, counter-mnemonic texts written by Herman Melville that, in the middle of the century of Westward expansion, revealed the Puritan origins of the American exeptionalist ethos and its cumulative hegemonic power and, in so doing, proleptically disclosed the violent underside of its alleged benignity at the liminal point of its unerring logic. The first, which is at the absent center of Moby-Dick, characterizes the onto-psychological ground of Captain Ahab’s “fiery pursuit” of what Ishmael, the narrator, pointedly refers to as the “White Whale”:

And then it was, that suddenly sweeping his sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him, Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab’s leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field. … The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil;—Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lee of things; all truth with malice in in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.28

Indissolubly related to the first epiphanic moment, the second—which is at the absent center of those chapters, still to be fully understood, of The Confidence-Man; His Masquerade that articulate “the metaphysics of Indian-hating”—characterizes the practical worldly imperatives of the onto-psychic logic of American exceptionalism:

The Indian-hater par excellence the judge defined to be one ‘who, having with his mother’s milk drank in small love for red men, in youth or early manhood, ere the sensibilities become osseous, received at their hand some signal outrage, or, which in effect is much the same, some of his kin have, or some friend. Now, nature all around him by her solitudes wooing or bidding him muse upon the matter, he accordingly does so, till the thought develops such attraction, that much as straggling vapors troop from all sides to a storm-cloud, so straggling thoughts of other outrages troop to the nucleus thought, assimilate with it, and swell it. At last, taking counsel with the elements, he comes to his resolution. An intenser [End Page 317] Hannibal, he makes a vow, the hate of which is a vortex from whose suction scarce the remotest chip of the guilty race may reasonably feel secure. Next, he declares himself and settles his temporal affairs. With the solemnity of a Spaniard turned monk, he takes leave of his kin; or rather, these leave-takings have something of the still more impressive finality of death-bed adieus. Last, he commits himself at to the forest primeval; there, so long as life shall be his, to act upon a calm, cloistered scheme of strategical, implacable, and lonesome vengeance. Ever on the noiseless trail; cool, collected, patient; less seen than felt; snuffing, smelling—a Leather-stocking Nemesis. In the settlements he will not be seen again; in eyes of old companions tears may start at some chance thing that speaks of him; but they never look for him, nor call; they know he will not come. Suns and seasons fleet; the tiger -lily blows and falls; babes are born and leap in their mothers’ arms; but the Indian-hater is good as gone to his long home, and “Terror” is his epitaph.29

In both these complementary liminal passages Melville not only discloses the “monomaniacal” worldly violence that is endemic to but disavowed by the logic of the benign American exceptionalist errand. Equally, if not more important, he discloses, by way of locating his interrogation of the unerring logic of American exceptionalism at its liminal point, the deep onto-psychological structure that “justifies” this contradictory worldly violence: the will to power, authorized, indeed, commanded, as a Calling by a Transcendental Signified (or Logos) that, ruthlessly reduces the “threatening” differential many to a spectacular objectified (or personified) One to render it, in the uncannily proleptic terms Melville uses to epitomized the culmination of Ahab’s “fiery pursuit” of the ultimately unpredictable White Whale, “practically assailable.” In thus bearing witness to the contradiction that lies at the determining center of American exceptionalist practice in the middle of the nineteenth century, Melville also anticipates the contemporary American political class’s spectacular violent reduction of the haunting “problem” of the volatile Middle East to “Osama bin Laden”—“Got Him!” And, by focusing the spectacular violence enabled by this reduction—and its ultimate futility, it should be underscored—he proleptically bears witness to the self-de-struction30 (not the negation but the decolonization of its structure) of the American exceptionalism ethos. This is what I mean by underscoring the extraordinary incommensurability between the myth and the reality of Americana exceptionalism in the subtitle of this essay about the discourse of the political class in the United States. [End Page 318]


Finally, though not least, as I have insinuated all along in my rhetoric, there is the question of the relationship between the spectacle and the exceptionalist logic of American exceptionalism. By “spectacle,” I mean, with Guy Debord, that extreme, visual-oriented and calculative mode of representation, fundamental to the West but consummated in the democratic capitalism of the modern age, that, in substituting the simulacral image for temporal worldly reality, has as its essential purpose to “strike [the spectator] dumb”:

Where the real world changes into simple images, the simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behavior (my emphasis). The spectacle, as a tendency to makes one see the world by means of various specialized mediations (it can no longer be grasped directly) naturally finds vision to be the privileged human sense which the sense of touch was for other epochs (my emphasis); the most abstract, the most mystifiable sense corresponds to the generalized abstraction of present-day society. But the spectacle is not identifiable with mere gazing, even combined with hearing. It is that which escapes the activity of men, that which escapes reconsideration and correction by their work. It is the opposite of dialogue. Wherever there is independent representation, the spectacle reconstitutes itself.31

Or, rather, with Giorgio Agamben, who has appropriated Debord’s revolutionary insight into the hypnotic effect of the spectacle for to the contemporary global occasion:

How can thought collect Debord’s inheritance today, in the age of the complete triumph of the spectacle? It is evident, after all, that the spectacle is language, the very communicativity and linguistic being of humans. This means that an integrated Marxian analysis should take into consideration the fact that capitalism…not only aims at the expropriation of productive activity, but also, and above all, at the alienation of language itself, of the linguistic and communicative nature of human beings, of that logos in which Heraclitus identifies the Commons.32

As I have observed, the spectacle is intrinsic to the very idea of American exceptionalism in that it proffers extremity as a positive value. In pursuing the practical imperatives of the logic of exceptionalism to their limits in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, the George W. Bush administration invoked—and endowed mythic status to—the (now ubiquitous) term [End Page 319] “shock and awe” to characterize its staged spectacular high-tech military campaign in behalf of its exceptionalist policy of unilateral “regime change” in the Middle East. The Bush administration’s affiliative appropriation of the spectacle for its neo-imperial project was no accident. The genealogy of this “exceptionalist” tactic of conquest had its origins at the outset of the European colonization of America and was employed as the essential means of stupefying the “savage” natives into submission:

The very use Cortés makes of his weapons is of symbolic rather than a practical nature. A catapult is constructed which turns out not to work; no matter. “Even if it were to have had no effect, which indeed it had not, the terror it caused was so great that we thought the enemy might surrender.” At the very start of the expedition, he organizes veritable son et lumière [sound and light] spectacles with his horses and cannons (which then served for no other purpose); his concern for staging is remarkable….33

From this liminal perspective afforded by the New Americanists’ counter-mnemonic genealogy of the American national identity we are enabled to perceive the dark disavowed to which we have been hitherto been blinded by the benign discourse of American exceptionalism. From this estranged perspective, more specifically, we not only see that both the Republican and Democratic national conventions, the mis en scène itself of this meditation on the use of the term “American exceptionalism, are staged spectacles in Debord’s and, particularly, in Agamben’s sense of the term. We also see—and, more decisively—that the resonant specific precipitate of these general spectacles—the spectacularization of the surgically executed assassination of Osama bin Laden by the Navy Seals team, for example—are intended, like the “shock and awe” tactics that, in fact, inaugurated the unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to say, the normalization of the state of exception and the reduction of human life to bare life), to reduce their audiences to enthusiastic spectators–and their voices to awed silence. Which is to say, in Hannah Arendt’s enabling term—if we refuse to forget that nothing has changed in the Middle East since this symbolic execution, that the war rages on—to deny a people who identify their exceptionalism with the dialogics of democracy, a “polity.”34 [End Page 320]

But it is not simply the futile violence concealed by the celebratory exceptional discourse of the American political class that is dis-closed by America’s fulfillment of the practical imperatives of its logic in the Middle East. In pursuing these imperatives to their liminal point, as I have observed, the nationalist discourse of American exceptionalism has self-de-structed. This not only means that the spectacular regime of truth it embodies was delegitimated; more important it means that the “degraded” and “threatening” historicity—language or, better, words, not The Word), in the last instance—that the exceptionalist Logos had reified or spatialized and spectacularized was liberated from the bondage of structure—decolonized as it were—and rendered open to its positive possibilities. If human being and language (words) are one—if anthropos is “a zoon logon [words] echon”—as the self-de-struction of the American exceptionalist ethos reveals, then this self-de-struction also points to a coming community, which in retrieving words,—“the inguistic and communicative nature of human beings,” as Agamben, following Hannah Arendt, puts it—restores a polity to the Commons. What follows the passage on the spectacularity of the spectacle from Agamben’s globally-oriented meditation on Guy Debord legacy quoted above is this:

The extreme form of the expropriation of the Common is the spectacle, in other words, the politics in which, we live. But this also means that what we encounter in the spectacle is our very linguistic nature inverted. For this reason (precisely because what is being expropriated is the possibility itself of a common good), the spectacle’s violence is so destructive; but, for the same reason, the spectacle still contains something like a positive possibility—and it is our task to use this possibility against it.

As a polity whose essence is words, that which the spectacle annuls, the coming community becomes an unhomed homeland,” one in which the Friend/foe binary instrinsic to the polis of the modern nation-state is rendered “inoperative”: they remain identities but, now, they become productive: a loving strife. In Agamben’s terms, “The space [of this polity] would coincide neither with any of the homogeneous national territories nor with their topographical sum, but would rather act on them by articulating and perforating them topologically as in the Klein bottle or in the Möbius trip, where exterior and interior in-determine each other.”36

Agamben is not necessarily addressing contemporary America—and American exceptionalism–in pointing to the Achilles’ heel of the society of the spectacle that exposes itself at the liminal point of its spectacular logic and thus suggesting the positive possibilities concerning the coming polis. But clearly, his globally-oriented analysis of this liminal condition is uncannily a propos of the post-9/11 American occasion. By this I not only mean the [End Page 321] United States’ loss of global hegemony in the wake of its unleashing of its “war on terror”; its unilateral commitment to “pre-emptive wars,” to “regime change,” and the installation of ventriloquized “democratic” governments; its employment of the tactics of “shock and awe” in Afghanistan and Iraq; and its tacit normalization of the state of exception—all in the name of American exceptionalism. I also mean the emergence, with this loss of global hegemony, of a global consciousness in all those Others of America that America hitherto spoke for. Seen in the light of this interregnum—and the continuing exceptionalism of the American political class—the imperative for Americanist scholarship becomes remarkably manifest—and urgent. In keeping with the emergent New Americanists’ dialogic global initiative, it calls for the abandonment of the historically delegitimated American exceptionalist ethos and the strident nationalist (and imperialist) perspective it apotheosizes in favor of a transnational perspective that, in a rhetoric remarkably similar to Agamben’s, the late Edward W. Said envisioned the coming polis as “’the complete concert dancing together’ contrapuntally.”

William V. Spanos
Binghamton University
William V. Spanos

William V. Spanos is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Binghamton University, founding editor of boundary 2, and the author of many essays and books on postmodern literature and theory and in American Studies. His most recent books include The Exceptionalist State and the State of Exception: Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor (2011) and Shock and Awe: American and the imperatives of the Spectacle in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (2013).


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___. The Coming Community. Trans. Michael Hardt. U of Minnesota P, 1993.
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Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pioneers. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991.
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Herr, Michael. Dispatches. New York: Vintage, 1991. [End Page 322]
Huntington, Samuel P. Who Are We?: Challenges to America’s National Identity. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.
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“President Obama’s Election Night Speech.” New York Times. 7 November 2012.
Said, Edward W. “The Clash of Civilizations.” Reflection on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000. 571-72
Shane, Scott. “The Opiate of Exceptionalism.” New York Times. 17 October 2012.
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Spanos, William V. “American Exceptionalism, the Jeremiad, and the Frontier, Before and After 9/11: From the Puritans to the Neo-Con Men,” in American Exceptionalism in the Age of Globalization: The Specter of Vietnam. Albany: SUNY P, 2008a. 194-198.
___. Exiles in the City: Hannah Arendt and Edward W. Said in Counterpoint. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2012.
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___. Shock and Awe: American Exceptionalism and the Imperatives of the Spectacle in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College P, 2013.
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3. Donald Pease sees what he calls the “new American exceptionalism” as having its origins in George W. Bush’s proclamation of the United States’ unending “War on Terror” in the aftermath of al-Qaeda’s attack s on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, thus overdetermining a presentist perspective at the expense of the long durée. See especially his chapter aptly entitled, “From Virgin Land to Ground Zero: Mythological Foundations of the Homeland Security State,” in The New American Exceptionalist (2009, 15-179). I, on the other hand, understand President Bush’s “contradictory” post-9/11 “War on A Terror” as the liminal point of the development of the exceptionalist logic that had its origins in the American Puritans’ belief that they had been chosen by God to fulfill His “errand in the wilderness” of the New World, that is, the historical point at which the exceptionalist ethos, in the process of fulfilling its possibilities in practice, self-de-structs: inadvertently discloses what its successes had hitherto enabled it to disavow. The difference between Pease’s interpretation of American exceptionalist history and mine is thus not radical but a matter of emphasis.

4. Bercovitch (1978, 23; my emphasis).

9. See, for example, Smith (1964, 65), and Cox (1960, 125-126).

11. Bush (2002, n.p.): “History has called America and our allies to action, and it is both our responsibility an our privilege to fight freedom’s fight.”

13. As Edward Said has shown, Huntington appropriated the phrase from the Orientalist, Bernard Lewis. See Said (2000, 571-572).

15. In invoking the term “spectacle,” I am not simply referring to the use to which Guy Debord puts it in Society of the Spectacle, but also the meaning it accrues in the era of the “American Century,” when the spectacle-inducing exceptionalism of American exceptionalism comes to its fulfillment, when, more specifically, the early use of spectacular effects of modern weaponry—guns, for example—by the “advanced” American colonists “to strike the inferior natives dumb “—deprive them of language—become the effects of the high-tech “shock and awe” tactics of the Bush administrations’ invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. See section four of this essay.

17. Shane (2012). I am indebted to Adam Spanos for pointing this essay out to me. For an extended and scholarly version of this incommensurability between the alleged achievement of the American exceptionalist ethos in the domestic sphere and the historical reality, see Spanos’ “Redeemer Nation and Apocalypse: Thinking the Exceptionalism of American Exceptionalism.”

19. I invoke here as a synecdoche of the interpellated Others of America, the tragic figure of Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great, early modern meditation on the exceptionalist American dream. I am indebted to my colleague, Susan Strehle, for reminding me of this resonant parallel.

20. The membership of this influential neoconservative group of policy experts included William J, Bennett, Jeb Bush, Eliot Cohen, Dick Cheney, Francis Fukuyama, Donald Kagan, William Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and John Bolton. Their notorious “white paper,” “Rebuilding America’s Defenses”, sponsored a “unipolar world” under the aegis of the United States—indeed, a Pax Americana.

22. Behind this rhetorical apotheosis of American-style leadership is the image of the self-reliant, trail-blazing pioneer mythologized by the novelist James Fenimore Cooper in the figure of Natty Bumppo—“He had gone far towards the setting sun, the foremost in the band of Pioneers, who are opening the way for the march of the nation across the continent”—Cooper (1991, 456), and the artist George Caleb Bingham in the painting entitled “Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap, 1851-52.”

23. On being informed by President Obama that Osama bin Laden was dead, George W. Bush said “This momentous achievement marks a victory for America, for all people who seek peace around the world, and for all those who lost loved ones on September 11, 2012. … The fight against terror goes on but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message. No matter how long it takes, justice will be done” (Hechtkopf 2011).

24. This Democratic rhetoric, which spectacularizes the United States’ techno-scientific superiority over its backward enemy, it should not be overlooked, has its immediate source in the “shock and awe” tactics of the Bush administration. Its ultimate source, however, resides in the absolute certitude of America’s History-ordained “errand” to domesticate the world’s wilderness: the unerring certitude of the American exceptionalist ethos Herman Melville calls radically into question by way of his portrayal of Captain Ahab’s unerring pursuit of the white whale in Moby-Dick.

25. Not incidentally, President Obama did invoke the term, indeed, in a dramatic way, in his victory speech after his election to a second term: Careful to minimize the imperial implications and the politically conservative domestic of the Rebublican version of American exceptionalism, Obama said: “This country has more wealth then any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military in history, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our university, our culture are the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores. What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth, the belief that our destiny is shared—(cheers, applause)—that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations, so that the freedom which so many American have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights, and among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great. (cheers, applause) “President Obama’s Election Night Speech” (2012).

26. I am referring to George W. Bush’ s speech to the sailors on board the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in the Persian Gulf, in which, standing in front of a banner titled “Mission Acccomplished,” he announces the (radically premature) end of the Gulf War on May 3, 2003. (“Bush calls end to ‘major combat’” 2003)

27. Benjamin (1940): Despite the fact that Benjamin’s thesis is now quite familiar, the American context of this essay, warrants quoting it here: Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphalist procession. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of the their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regard it as his task to brush history against the grain.”

29. Melville (1984, 149-150; my emphasis). In the passage, Melville, via Judge James Hall, is alluding to a pervasive figure in early American literature, but, above all, I think, to the Indian killer par excellence, Nathan Slaughter, in Robert Montgomery Bird’s novel, Nick of the Woods or The Jibbenainosay: Tale of Kentucky (1854).

30. By “self-de-struction,” I mean, with Heidegger and the post-structuralists, not self-annihilation, but, according the dictates of the etymology, the liberation of the dynamic historicity that structure has colonized for positive thought.

33. Todorov (1984, 115). For a classic American version of this domesticating spectacular tactics that relies on the superior techno-scientific knowledge of the colonizer over the brutal native, see Twain (1982, 9-10): “You see, it was the eclipse. It came into my mind, in the nick of time, how Columbus, or Cortez, or one of those people, played an eclipse as a saving trump once, on savages, and I saw my chance. I could play it myself, now, and it wouldn’t be plagiarism, either, because I should get it in nearly a thousand years ahead of those parties.” For an extended analysis of thus spectacular tactics see Spanos’ Shock and Awe: American Exceptionalism and the Imperatives of the Spectacle in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (2013).

34. For an amplified analysis of Hannah Arendt’s understanding “polity,” see Spanos (2012, 188-205).

35. Agamben pursues the train of this thought more fully in The Coming Community (1940).

36. Agamben (2000, 24.5; my emphasis).

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