The Ego of America
November 14, 2014
by J.A. Young

“They were driven by a kind of cultural ego,” a recent History Channel special said of the ancient Roman Empire. When we think about what Rome stood for, what the culture told us about human society, we tend to think of an irreparable nationalism. We think about movies like Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, which paints a picture of citizens who are inherently bound to Rome in their social roles. “Rome is the light,” as the film’s hero Maximus would put it. There is nothing new about drawing comparisons to Roman idealism and many of the problems that have manifested in recent American culture, but the conversation rarely focuses on the simple problems that come from nationalism. We know a few general traits about great societies like Rome, and tend to think that each perceived itself to be superior to the others. This is a basic part of human nature. Nations compete against one another for resources and survival, just like individual tribes and people did in prehistory.  It seems logical then that each country would develop a narcissistic and egotistical view of itself, in the same way that Thomas Hobbes believed all people were inherently looking out for their own well-being.

Nationalism, as we are usually taught during a time in our lives when we cannot even remember to bring money for lunch, is the inherent allegiance of citizens to a country. The French are allegedly born willing to die for the honor of France, the Japanese are forever loyal to their historic state, and so on. Obviously this varies significantly when considering individual people and the point at which a nation state is at in history, but the generalization is still a useful one. The generalization helps us to realize one thing for certain: Nationalism is usually described to students as a historical phenomenon. There are zero, or at best very few, eighth grade social studies teachers who explain to their students the way nationalism is analogous to the anti-intellectual fake patriotism that America is plagued with today. Nationalism has become an anachronistic term that is not generally applied to modern American culture, but our country is still ruled by many of the terrible ideas that led to the outbreak of World War I. Instead of acknowledging the fact that many people arbitrarily promote the ideals of the country they were born in, we muddle this conversation with concepts like “patriotism.” Patriotism is of course something that you cannot criticizes for fear of being labeled a heretical bastard. I don’t believe that there is anything seriously wrong with people having pride in their country, but we get into trouble when that belief begins to shape politics and perspectives in ways that do not consider objectivity and well-informed viewpoints.

For example, there is now almost a direct connection between American foreign policy and the string of facetious ‘Murica memes that populate the Internet. Originally many of these memes were created to criticize the actions of the American government and people who blindly accept pro-American propaganda. You have the example of the freedom-eagle meme, which takes jabs at America’s tendency to address all humanitarian situations with bombs and bullets. Every time there is something in the news that has a connection to a past American war, the eagle declares that such and such a country just ordered some freedom courtesy of a bombing campaign. But now it seems as though many of these memes have lost their satirical background, and ironically become another way for people to foster dangerously illogical American nationalism. Many of these popular jokes are simply propagating the worst facets of American culture as traits that our people should be proud of: excessive consumption, ant-intellectualism, corporatism and so on.

It feels like I have ended up living in a country that is not only fueled by perverse nationalism, but one where the criticism of that fact has now turned into more propaganda. This is a problem that author Madea Benjamin classifies as “American exceptionalism.” Benjamin, who spends her professional career campaigning against America’s international drone war, believes that the US is now governed by mostly egotistical political stances that arbitrarily assume America is in some way special. There are many parts of our foreign policy, she argues, that are direct reflections of the idea that America is inherently superior to all other countries. The logic behind this idea can be seen in many ways by looking at how America’s global war on terror (using terror) has played out over the past few years. If any other country were waging the same campaign of international terrorism that America has embarked upon, then our country would be irate, declaring the actions as crimes against humanity.

As Benjamin says, “Proponents of American exceptionalism believe that what America does is right just because it is America doing it" (Benjamin, 144). This logic sounds ridiculous, because it is in effect the same sort of absurd narcissism that we see in the ‘Murica memes. This is of course a complete farce when we consider the moral values that a liberal democracy like America supposedly operates on. That is what makes it so frightening that this perspective is actually “informing” a lot of our foreign policy, it is not just we Americans being self-critical,it is now self-reinforcing. The ignorance that was once the subject of popular scrutiny has become the ideology which we do not realize is now running American foreign policy. Our military and political leaders believe that they and they alone have the right to police the world and dispatch anyone who gets in their way. It would not be a stretch to say that they, like the people who created the ‘Murica memes, have totally missed the irony of our situation.

This toxic egoism that is running America has made the country the sworn enemy of millions of people all around the world across different cultures and societies. How could anyone take us seriously as ‘peacekeepers’ when the biggest military-industrial complex in global history also runs our country? America has risen beyond the level of simple nationalism and is now ruled by an unfounded belief of superiority. The same sort of mindless adherence to the state that we find so romantic about ancient Rome is threatening to tear our own country apart.

[1] Benjamin, M. (2013). Drone Warfare. London: Verso.
One example of a meme that is muddling the lines between satire and propoganda.