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'Greatest Nation' Rhetoric Roars Back

Robert Jensen

My greatness as a writer is simply a fact.

You don't agree? Well, then obviously you are churlish or malevolent.

If
I were serious about such a claim of superiority, now would be the time
to stop reading -- on the reasonable assumption that I'm a dull-witted
bore with no capacity for critical self-reflection. What applies to
individual declarations is also true of nations, yet in the United
States such statements about our greatness are common.

Rich Lowry of the National Review
closed out 2010 with a particularly bombastic piece reasserting U.S.
greatness. Though Lowry is a conservative, his argument is conventional:
The United States has brought prosperity to the world, protecting all
that is decent against evil. Yes, we've had to muscle others out of the
way on occasion, but that was necessary to bring order and liberty. Yes,
we've made some mistakes along the way, but those are all safely in the
past and, besides, they have to be understood in context.

His
conclusion: "Our greatness is simply a fact. Only the churlish or
malevolent can deny it, or even get irked at its assertion." ("Yes, the
Greatest Country Ever".)

This
expression of American exceptionalism is unexceptional in U.S.
political history, but it roared back stronger than ever in 2010,
especially in the rhetoric of the Tea Party movement. As it becomes
harder to ignore the United States' decline as an economic power --
which will limit the capacity for imperial marauding around the world --
the inclination of most mainstream politicians to assert our greatness
will intensify.

Those
of us with radical or progressive politics need to challenge these
kinds of slogans when we talk with friends, family, and co-workers. In
my 2004 book Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity,
I offered common-sense responses in plain language, and as we get ready
for a more right-wing Congress and the political discussions that lie
ahead, I thought it would be helpful to revisit some of those points.

With
the permission of publisher City Lights Books, I have posted online two
chapters from that book -- one that deconstructs "the greatest nation"
rhetoric
and another that challenges the concept of patriotism.

It
is neither churlish nor malevolent to want to honestly assess the
accomplishments and failures of one's country. Rather, it is the
obligation of every citizen.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen, an emeritus professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, collaborates with Ecosphere Studies at The Land Institute. He is the author of several books, including The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men and  Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully. He can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu or through his website.

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