A Fatal Self-Absorption

The Tea Party and American Exceptionalism

ctober 3, 2011

If I were to speechify to a conclave of Tea Partyers, “America is the free-est...the most democratic...the best educated and most dynamic country the world has ever known, an example to all mankind,” the assembled would hoot and hooroar and applaud in dizzy exaltation. Here is the soul of the American approach to existence, bottomless self-admiration devoid of knowledge or curiosity, wrapped like a psychic burrito in the patriotism of overwrought middle-schoolers. And there are many, many of them.

We face rule by pajama party. Saints preserve us, someone with the foregoing understanding may become the president of the (for a few moments more) most powerful, erratic, and ignorant country on the planet. Among presidential possibilities we now have Rick Perry, Michele Bachman, Sarah Palin and, in the Great Double-Wide on Pennsylvania Avenue, Precedent Obama—political epiphytes all, fantasists, tent-revival Christians, provincial governors, inward-looking certitudinous naifs. The difference between Americans and Mohammed Ali is that when he said, “I am the greatest!” he was.

Suppose, though, that realism intruded its ugly head. Suppose that to the Tea People I spoke as follows. “Yes, you are right. We are most astounding democratic. I cannot doubt it. Just to satisfy my thirst for understanding, can you give me three ways in which America is more democratic than, say, Japan, Germany, or Australia? More free than France, Switzerland, or Uruguay, wherever that is?”

But I am cross, and a curmudgeon.

Are Americans the “best educated”? Or do they just think that they are? I submit, and could back it up with countless surveys of “college graduates,” that the US is not nearly as schooled as it thinks it is, and doesn't come close to Japan.

From the Wikipedia on functional illiteracy, “In the US, 14% of the adult population is at the "below basic" level for prose literacy... and 22% are at that level for quantitative literacy. Only 13% of the population is proficient in these three areas—able to compare viewpoints in two editorials; interpret a table about blood pressure, age, and physical activity; or compute and compare the cost per ounce of food items.”

To our burgeoning boobitry, this doesn't matter. More accurately they aren't aware of it. They got As at USPs (university-shaped places) happy to take their money. The boobs cannot compare themselves with people of other nations, since they know nothing of remote places and are not interested.

This complacent insentience can bite. A work force that reads poorly and counts on its fingers will not compete well against a work force that went to a real grade school. (When I was a kid in West Virginia, we didn't have shoes and counted on our toes, in base-twelve.) (OK, maybe I made that part up.)

Worse—maybe worse—America bumbles about the world like a blind man, and doesn't know it. Its contempt for everywhere else, its inability to conceive that maybe other peoples and places don't want to be like America, leads to disaster after dsiaster. Washington was going to invade Iraq, which with gratitude would go all democratic and be like Massachusetts, and the other Arab nations would follow suit, and so we would remake the Arab owrld according to Fox News.

Americans believe this stuff. There is probably no one in France, and here I include asylums, drains, and morgues, who could be so narcissistically stupid.

Is America the most dynamic of countries? Time was, yes. It still is when Ivy techies invent such things as Facebook. Otherwise, not recently, or ever again. America breathes heavily in an economic coma while China grows at a tad below ten percent per annum.

If Guatemalans were utterly ignorant of history, geographically witless (they are, actually) and vain as runway models, it would be of no importance. What Guatemalans do doesnn't matter, except perhaps to Guatemalans. The US is another thing. A militarily aggressive America having ho idea of how the rest of the world works, not understanding that there is anything to understand, concerned only with matters domestic—this is not good.

It is what we have, though. The Tea Partyers and their brethren and cistern apparently just can't imagine what there could possibly be in those funnly little countries worth knowing aobut.

Someone once said (me, actually) that the Brits fought for empire, the French for la gloire de la France, the Russins to steal watches from the wounded, and Americans for vague moral platitudes. Exactly. There's no need to know what you are doing, only to have good intentions, or say that you do, or believe it when someone who wants military contracts says it. Policies are not about results, but about feeling good about oneself, purple mountains' majesty.

It is most strange. The world globalizes, but American doesn't, living in surreal isolation. People in Germany speak French and English, often better English than Americans. The US has a lengthy border with a country of well over 100 million, yet how many Americans speak Spanish? But then, why should they? Hey, buncha narco-beaners drinking burros and riding tequila.

And now Rick Perry, governor of Texas, whose IQ suggests that his family must have interbred with armadillos, wants to invade Mexico. (If I were an armadillo, I'd watch who my duaghters dated.) Here we have another example of delusional Reader's Digestery, the endlessly repeated assertion that the US has the Greatest Military Ever. Gonna whup up on them Messicans.

Uh, yeah. In ten years the Pentagon can't beat a few tens of thousands of peasants armed with AKs. Nobody else's army could do it either. Thing is, everybody else has figured out that such wars don't work too well. Not us.

And now, Mexico, another place ignored by the national solipsism. Godawful terrain, people intensely hostile to more American invasions, a country loaded with American expat hostages. Another splendid military idea. To sleep, perchance to deam....

Someone estimated that fifteen percent of Americans are becoming more cosmolopitan, travelling, living and doing business abroad, while most turn ever more inward and view the rest of the earth, if at all, as hostile and unwashed. It's a bad time to do it. We no longer live in the heroic age of American technology, of Elvis and the lindy-hop and the lakepipe's roar, of Apollo Thirteen and Detroit iron and unchallenged American supremacy. It's getting dark out there.