How Twisted American Exceptionalism Leads to Criminal Behavior on a Global Scale
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
One of the defining characteristics of modern Western culture is individuality. Most people in the West take it for granted that they have the right to free expression and personality development. However, in practice, this right is not open-ended.
It is fine if you want to express yourself as a musician, a painter, a filmmaker, a writer, etc. Equally legitimate is your desire to express yourself as an engineer, accountant, bus driver or auto mechanic.
Things become very different if you have a great desire to express yourself as a thief or want to develop your personality as a serial killer. There are rules, in the form of laws, against these latter avenues of expression.
If you choose to ignore these laws, there are police forces and courts systems that will seek to force you to do so. Another way of saying this is that within states or nations, people usually must confine their right of self expression to activities that do not impinge in a harmful or unwanted way on others in the community.
It was at the end of the 18 th and throughout the19 th centuries that Western leaders of both established nations and aspiring nationalities began to apply this language of self-expression to the nation state. In other words, they claimed the same right of self-expression for the collective as for the individual.
This represented a melding of romanticism and politics that allowed for the anthropomorphizing of the nation. That is, something that was not a human being (the nation) was being treated as if it was.
The French Revolutionaries spoke of “France” as the growing embodiment of human freedom with a mission to export liberty to others, German nationalists such as Herder and Fichte believed that the “German nation” embodied a volkgiest, or “spirit of the people” that had to be free to create a unified and enduring state.
Italian, Russian and other nationalists made the same argument for their nationalities or ethnic groups. In each case, the claim that the collective, with its unique cultural personality, had the right to unfettered development led to a serious and continuing problem.
One half of the problem expresses itself in the form of “exceptionalism.” That is the assertion that the nation has rights because its culture and people are, in some way, superior to others and/or because they are “God blessed.”
Being superior to others means the nation, striving to realize its uniqueness, has priority claims to a “homeland” and its resources. Those who stand in the way of this goal can be evicted or otherwise persecuted.
Or, perhaps, the nation in question has evolved a special way of life (democracy, capitalism, communism, or some religion) that its leaders feel it must share with others – whether they want this gift or not. So it sends out missionaries and diplomats and then usually follows them up with gunboats.
Empire-building based on a claim of superiority often results. It turns out that almost all great powers, Western and non-Western, have expressed some form of exceptionalism.
The second half of the problem lies in the fact that these anthropomorphized nation states, with their insistence on the right of self-expression, are acting in an arena of international relations that lacks sufficient rules to limit their behavior. There is nothing to actually force them to confine their acts of self-expression to activities that do not impinge in a harmful or unwanted way on other states or populations.
Certainly, traditional diplomacy and the use of standard treaties have not been able to do so. There were a few Geneva conventions that, with mediocre success, sought to ameliorate the treatment of civilians and prisoners during wartime. However, during the world wars of the 20 th century, even these were ignored.