Watch Live: The Washington Ideas Forum 2014

The Human Idea

How heartily sick the world has grown, in the first seven years of the 21st century, of the American idea! Speak with any non-American, travel to any foreign country, and the consensus is: The American idea has become a cruel joke, a blustery and bellicose bodybuilder luridly bulked up on steroids, consequently low on natural testosterone, deranged and myopic, dangerous. D. H. Lawrence once remarked that the “essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer”—and except for “stoic,” this description is as accurate in 2007 as it was more than 80 years ago, when Lawrence’s brilliantly unorthodox Studies in Classic American Literature was published. How would Lawrence react to today’s quasi-mystical, shamefully self-aggrandizing American idea? Very likely, along these lines:

Freedom … ? The land of the free! This the land of the free! Why, if I say anything that displeases them, the free mob will lynch me, and that’s my freedom. Free? Why, I have never been in any country where the individual has such an abject fear of his fellow countrymen. Because, as I say, they are free to lynch him the moment he shows he is not one of them.

(If not “lynch” precisely, how about “crucify in the media”? The ravenous tabloid press and ever-more-ominously “mainstream” media have become the lynch mob of contemporary times, pummeling those guilty of the most innocuous blunders with the ferocity with which they pummel outright criminals.)

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The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.

What is most questionable—indeed, most dangerous—about the American idea is its very formulation: that there is a distinctly American idea, standing in contrast to Canadian, British, French, Chinese, Icelandic, Estonian, or mere human ideas. Our unexamined belief in American exceptionalism has allowed us to imagine ourselves above anything so constrictive as international law. American exceptionalism makes our imperialism altruistic, our plundering of the world’s resources a healthy exercise of capitalism and “free trade.” From childhood, we are indoctrinated with the propa­ganda that America is superior to other nations; that our way of life, a mass-market “democracy” manipulated by lobbyists, is superior to all other forms of government; that no matter how frivolous and debased, our American culture is the supreme culture, as our language is the supreme language; that our most blatantly imperialistic and cynical political goals are always idealistic, while the goals of other nations are transparently opportunistic.

Perhaps the most pernicious of American ideas is the revered “My country, right or wrong,” with its thinly veiled threat of punishment for those who hesitate to participate in a criminal patriotism. The myth of American exceptionalism begins with the revolt of the Colonies against the British crown. In 1776, what a thrilling, exhilarating American idea! But in the first decade of the 21st century, in a vastly altered world, and considering the higher degree of civilization embodied by Canada—which waged no war against the British and was disinclined to rush into war or celebrate the violence of the frontier or declare itself exceptional—it might be a timely American idea to examine our very origins.

Joyce Carol Oates is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University. Her most recent books are High Lonesome: New and Selected Stories 1966–2006 and The Gravedigger’s Daughter (2007).
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