Continued study and research into the origins of the folk music of various peoples in many parts of the world revealed that there is a world body-a universal body-of folk music based upon a universal pentatonic (five tone) scale. Interested as I am in the universality of (hu)mankind-in the fundamental relationship of all peoples to one another-this idea of a universal body of music intrigued me, and I pursed it along many fascinating paths. Paul Robeson, Here I Stand, 1959.
America’s destiny required the U.S. “…to set the world its example of right and honor…We cannot retreat from any soil where providence has unfurled our banner. It is ours to save that soil, for liberty, and civilization….It is elemental...it is racial. God has not been preparing the English-speaking and teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth.” Senator Albert Beveridge, Indiana, Congressional Record, 56 Congress, I Session, pp.704-712, 1898).
In these early August days we reflect on the decision to drop atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the summer of 1945. The official explanation for the use of these horrific new weapons was that they were required to end the World War in Asia. But subsequent historical research has indicated that the United States chose to drop the bombs to threaten the former Soviet Union and as a result to facilitate the United States construction of a post-war world order that would maximize its economic and political vision.
United States foreign policy over the last 150 years has been a reflection of many forces including economics, politics, militarism and the desire to control territory. The most important idea used by each presidential administration to gain support from the citizenry for the pursuit of empire is the claim that America is “exceptional”.
Think about the view of “the city on the hill” articulated by Puritan ancestors who claimed that they were creating a social experiment that would inspire the world. Over three hundred years later President Reagan again spoke of “the city on the hill.” Or one can recall public addresses by turn of the twentieth century luminaries such as former President Theodore Roosevelt who claimed that the white race from Europe and North America was civilizing the peoples of what we would now call the Global South. Or Indiana Senator Beveridge’s clear statement: “It is elemental….It is racial.” From the proclamation of the new nation’s special purpose in Puritan America, to Ronald Reagan’s reiteration of the idea, to similar claims by virtually all politicians of all political affiliations, Americans hear over and over that we are different, special, and a shining example of public virtue that all other peoples should use as their guide for building a better society and polity.
However, the United States has been involved in wars for 201 years from 1776 to 2011. Ten million indigenous people had been exterminated as the “new” nation moved westward between the 17th and the 20th centuries and at least 10 million people were killed, mostly from developing countries, between 1945 and 2010 in wars in which the United States had some role. In addition, world affairs was transformed by the use of the two atomic bombs; one dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 instantly killing 80,000 people and the other on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 killing another 70,000.
Comparing the image of exceptionalism with the domestic reality of American life suggests stark contrasts as well: continuous and growing gaps between rich and poor, inadequate nutrition and health care for significant portions of the population, massive domestic gun violence, and inadequate access to the best education that the society has the capacity to provide to all. Of course, the United States was a slave society for over 200 years formally racially segregated for another 100, and now incarcerates 15 percent of African American men in their twenties.
Although, the United States is not the only country that has a history of imperialism, exploitation, violence, and racism US citizens should understand that its foreign policy and economic and political system are not exceptional and must be changed.
Finally, a better future and the survival of humanity require a realization, as Paul Robeson suggested, that what is precious about all people is not their differences but their commonalities. Exceptionalist thinking separates people and facilitates decisions like the dropping of the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sharing what we have in common as human beings, both our troubles and our talents, is the only basis for creating a peaceful and just world.