By Ben Tanosborn
It was over four decades ago that I first heard the expression “premature oblivion.” It came from a fellow graduate student at UCLA, Stefan, a magisterial peer to many of us, not so much because of his then-soon-to-be ABD status, but rather his Zorba the Greek likeability in his contrarian demeanor. Beyond obstinacy perhaps, most of us close to him would agree, but with an undeniable air of prophetic clairvoyance. And if we took his assertions as Stefan-lite dictums; as the years have gone by, some of us started to realize our misdiagnosed pig-headedness in him was no more than unbending firmness resulting from clear vision, historical knowledge and logical perspective.
Stefan’s then-reference of premature oblivion was not in the form of critiquing a literary play, but an early vision of an eventual US decline as the economic-political epicenter of the world. And he was delivering his sermons to us during America’s extended apogee period of cultural-economic influence – discounting as an anomaly the Vietnam war – as the US commanded a good chunk of the world’s GDP, before OPEC became a major player (1973-4 oil crisis) in retaliation for America’s aid to Israel in the Yom Kippur War; or the formalization period in US-China relations (1971-8) after Richard Nixon sent then National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger on a courtship mission to Beijing (1971).
Two beliefs, both of them myths, will play key roles in bringing America from its unique apex status to an average or even mediocre position among the nations of the world, according to Stefan’s gospel: exceptionalism and benefaction. He didn’t see communism as the possible dethroner of Imperial America, but rather the self-triggered implosion of American economic dominance by misinterpreting, and not paying attention, to the reason for such dominance. Instead of paying homage to the American popular cult of the two egocentric virtuosities of how “special” and how “good” Americans are, they should be examining the historical reasons which gave America predominance, at least in regards to the relatively high standard of living for a large middle class.
My introduction to Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville came as a result of my constant encounters with Stefan on both economic and political issues, and how clear it had become for a French historian traveling through America in the mid-1800s to determine what made Young America click: the theory behind America’s economic and political success. A not so farfetched theory, particularly when set side by side with the faith-based, mythical doctrine of American Exceptionalism. Causal variables in why the US became the envied economic giant are clearly evidenced coming together during this nation’s short history. Namely, (1) the founding and development of a nation with few if any trade/commercial restrictions on a vast, expanding territory, an ever-increasing large immigrant population, and a seemingly inexhaustible source of natural and human (slaves) resources; (2) that happening while benefits in the transformation of natural resources, via the technical exploits of the industrial revolution, were taking place; (3) and an unstoppable territorial expansion, from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, which would make the US the largest, self-contained, economic marketplace. This braided trio of variables was instrumental in creating this economic miracle, the so-called fulfillment of the “American dream” for a large number of people; and not some hocus pocus, mythical exceptionalism miraculously manifested to European immigrants, mostly from the lower socioeconomic tiers in their own lands, through the magic of debarkation or birth in the United States.
If anything, there is ample, and creditable, statistical evidence gathered during the last two decades showing how America fares in relation to other economically advanced nations in education, health care, social progress, the environment, and the overall wellbeing of the citizenry, best expressed by how many children are raised in poverty. US standing in just about any of these categories range from poor to dismal, giving us a cynical approach as to the irony of possibly renaming “American Exceptionalism,” in light of today’s reality: “American Deceptionalism.” [A current article in Huffington Post, 10-13-14, The United States Is Number 1 – But in What? penned by Lawrence S. Wittner, Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany offers a quick summary of stats.]
And just as this exceptionalism idea is proved to be nothing but jingo-crock, so is the other myth that bestows on America the crown of benevolence and supreme savior of the world. The misconceptions Americans have about themselves as rescuers and great protectors of everything and everyone in the world falls in the same mythical category as that of exceptionalism. Yet, most Americans are till under the impression that it is through their sacrifice and beneficence (aid) that much of the world stays alive. An idea with roots dating back to the post-WWII Marshall Plan [Most Americans unaware that the Plan had as great or greater favorable impact for the US economy as it did to the reconstruction of shattered Europe.]
Why Americans cling to these two mythical notions of exceptionalism and benefaction in today’s reality is beyond comprehension, other than political-America preferring to have the population captive in ignorance for their own intents and purposes. And it is the weight of these two millstones that is drowning America into premature oblivion.
Americans have been blessed in the past by living in a unique marketplace that provided a good life for a large middle class; now that globalization has changed Americans’ privileged position, what Americans don’t need is clinging to the pagan rituals of exceptionalism and benefaction that will keep them from the crude new realities of international economic competition.