The dangers of teaching American exceptionalism

Saturday, February 21st, 2015

I believe that the United States is an exceptional country. Not only are we #1 in several key metrics like the world’s largest economy (for now), the largest military, and countries with manned landings on the Moon (#1 and only!), but we are also historically responsible for modern republican democracy itself. We, along with the subsequent French revolution, changed the course of history by pioneering a new form of government that had only ever been hinted at back during the classical era, and proved its superiority with our resounding success. Anyone who tries to downplay the importance of the United States on modern world history simply isn’t paying attention.

But I’m not here to brag on American exceptionalism, and god do I even hate that phrase. Outside of a historical context, even emphasizing it accomplishes little good. This is why I’m dismayed at a recent law proposed by Rep. Peter King that was passed in Oklahoma that bans Advanced Placement History classes due to quibbles over their curriculum for insufficiently whitewashing American history. It’s terrible for all the smart kids in Oklahoma that will not be able to take excellent classes and then get credit for them in college, but there’s something even worse at play.

You cannot teach a perverted version of history. You will be doomed to repeat past mistakes and atrocities if you do. The United States may be exceptional, but we also have a good share of blemishes as well, including slavery, lack of civil rights for non straight white land-owning men, our conquest and subjugation of the native population, and many others. We’re not worse than a lot of other countries in this regard, but we certainly aren’t better, and rejecting a curriculum because it has an even-tempered approach toward history instead of a rah-rah go-America boosting one is negligently short-sighted.

Everyone knows what happens when you spoil kids and tell them they can do no wrong: they turn into monsters with no ability to self-reflect and no compunction against committing evil. Similarly, and this is an issue very close to me personally, everyone knows what happens when you praise kids for being very smart, and emphasize the importance of innate intelligence over diligent study and hard work. So why should it come as a surprise to anyone that when you drill American exceptionalism into kids’ heads over and over again, they come out of it with the belief that America can do no wrong? It’s easy to minimize any historical wrongdoing when you fervently and uncritically know that your country is number one, because really, how bad can slavery be if we did it, and it was part of getting us to where we are now, on top?

We need a more measured sense of introspection than that. Not everything that we did in the history of our country to get to this point was necessary or justifiable. The point is to learn from those mistakes and make damn sure that they never happen again, an attitude which is impossible to adopt if you never learn about those past abuses at all, or are taught exceptional rationalization skills from a young age to paper them over. The bad parts in American history need to be especially emphasized, not ignored, so that particular importance is placed on avoiding repeats. It’s easy to justify any wrongdoing going forward if you don’t recognize those wrongdoings of the past and thus make no effort to be any better in the future.

It’s no accident that the people most fervently pushing a white-washed version of history are the same ones supporting our most egregious ongoing abuses and inequalities, including unjustifiable wars, torture of prisoners, discrimination against homosexuals, removal of the voting rights of black Americans, uncritical support of the police even in cases of extreme unnecessary force, encroachment by religion on secular matters of the state, support of draconian drug policies that lock up millions of Americans for non-violent drug offenses to no purpose, and an unwillingness to help the members of society that are less well-off even though doing so makes everyone better off in the long run. But if you study history, and see what these kinds of policies led to in the past, it’s much harder to support them in the present. Avoiding this is where the movement to teach (dare I say brainwash) American exceptionalism in schools has its ultimate roots. That is why I can never support it.

The inauguration of Obama – you had to be there

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

Today was a long yet exhilarating day. It started at around 7:00am when we woke up and boarded the Metro downtown to catch the inauguration. We had purple tickets allowing us onto the Capitol grounds, but alas, the purple line was mishandled horribly, and we didn’t actually get in. Frustration was running high in the crowd, but when noon came around, the mood quickly improved, and when the oath was said and the cannon fire commenced, a cry of jubilation emerged from the crowd. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t doing my part with that.

Up next was the inaugural speech, and luckily, my dad brought a portable RadioShack radio. An impromptu group of listeners surrounded us as Obama gave his inauguration speech, eager for any sort of live broadcast in the land-of-no-Jumbotrons. Our small huddled mass, and the others just like it around similar devices, was a microcosm of the Obama movement itself. We had people of all ages and colors: two white teen-aged girls, some middle-aged African-American women, an older ex-hippie couple, and others. At least of the listeners were crying at some point in the speech. After it was over, several people profusely thanked my dad for sharing the experience.

That’s the memory I’m always going to keep from this event. Yes, we didn’t get to use our tickets, but it was amazing all the same. I would not have had the same shared experience sitting at home watching it on the television. Afterward, we headed over to the parade route and stood in the freezing cold until Obama and Biden drove by. Then we departed, navigating the mess of a city completely swamped by its most massive event ever.

There was one particular point in Obama’s speech that really surprised and impressed me. When I heard it, I almost thought I had misheard it, and I looked at my dad for confirmation. He seemed genuinely surprised as well. Yet here it is in the transcript:

We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

How far we’ve come in these two short decades since George Bush Sr. uttered this infamous statement: “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”

Now that’s change we non-believers can believe in.

The death of the Bradley Effect

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

The results of Tuesday’s election give us reason enough to declare the Bradley Effect as outdated, wrong, and finally, dead and buried. The “Bradley Effect”, named after black California 1982 gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley, posits that a significant number of whites are secret racists, who will tell pollsters they’re willing to vote for a non-white candidate, but when they actually get into a ballot box, the lurking racism shines bubbles up and they’re unable to do so. Never mind that supposed instances of it occurring in the past are marred with bad polling; we couldn’t stop hearing about it during this past election. So I’m very thankful that it’s finally discredited once and for all.

The Bradley Effect is demeaning to everyone involved. It demeans whites because it asserts two negative things: that they are racists, and that they are ashamed racists who won’t admit it to anyone but an anonymous ballot. It is demeaning to non-whites because it asserts that there is some reason they should under-perform any other candidate solely on the basis of the saturation of their skin.

But the worst part of the Bradley Effect was that it enabled meta-racism: It allowed people who aren’t racist themselves to oppose candidacies of non-whites on the basis that others are racist and would never vote for said candidate. I heard this reasoning from a surprising number of Democrats in the early days of the Democratic primaries in reference to Barack Obama, but thankfully, they all got over it. And now that we have elected a non-white (well, non-half-white, anyway) to the highest position in the land, no one can possibly cite the Bradley Effect in good faith as a reasoning for not preferring a non-white candidate.

The next time anyone even so much as mentions the Bradley Effect, tell them to stop going on about discredited theories. Or, if you aren’t feeling quite so charitable, tell them to shut the eff up. The Bradley Effect belongs in the dustbin of history, next to trickle-down economics and National Socialism. This country will be a better place if I never so much as hear the phrase “Bradley Effect” even mentioned ever again. And I’m not the only one who thinks that.

The folly of trusting the Bush administration in military manners

Monday, August 11th, 2008

It’s looking like Georgia made the fatal mistake of trusting us, the United States, in military manners, and now they’re paying the price for it. But first, some back story.

George W. Bush is (or was until these past few days, anyway) very popular in Georgia. It’s one of the few countries he’s been on an overseas trip to in recent years where he was greeted with revelry instead of massive protests. And there’s a good reason for it: this administration has been intensely supportive of Georgia, though the way in which it was supportive is now proving to have been ultimately destructive. We’ve given Georgia hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid, ostensibly to help them crack down on Islamic terrorism, but it was really about arming yet another break-away Soviet republic as a participant in a long series of proxy wars with Russia.

In response for all of our aid and hawkish military advice, Georgia sent many troops to fight our war of folly in Iraq. They have (or had, since they’re withdrawing to their own country now) the third largest contingent in Iraq, behind the United States and the United Kingdom. For a country of fewer than 5 million people, that’s quite the feat. So we’ve been hyping them up militarily for years now, teaching them that acting like we do (launching preemptive wars and such) is the proper way to conduct business. They missed an important distinction, though: unlike the United States, they don’t have the most powerful military in the world, so they can’t pull it off like we can. And they were fooled into thinking we would come to their aid if Russia ever did respond to their provocations. Essentially, they proved to be Bush’s pawn, discarded at the drop of a hat. It’s no wonder they feel betrayed.

This Russo-Georgian war is yet another disastrous result of George W. Bush’s terrible foreign policies. After the reckless manner in which the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were waged, you’d hope there wouldn’t be any country out there stupid enough to follow our lead on military matters, yet Georgia did, and is now paying the price. Hopefully when Obama is elected we can begin to sort out this mess and have a foreign policy that isn’t so fond of encouraging foolhardy hawkish militarism.

The good old days of American politics

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

Man, how I yearn for the good old days of American politics, back when pandering to piety wasn’t a requirement of all candidates. Think Robert Ingersoll could be nearly as successful today? He was politically active for decades, yet gave huge speeches in nearly every city of America deriding religion. He was called the Great Agnostic. Yet he was respected for his views, and an adviser to presidents and candidates alike. His presence was highly desired on the campaign trail.

If you think nothing like this could happen today, you’re probably right. Religion has taken over the public sphere a lot more since those days (despite what Christianist revisionist historians would have you believe), and now every candidate on a national level is forced to pander to all of this nonsense. Obama and McCain alike have made pilgrimages to receive the blessings of various pastors of megachurches. It’s enough to make you sick.

It’s also yet more proof that, out of all minority labels associated with a prospective candidate, “atheist” is the one most likely to dissuade the largest number of voters. That’s right, more Americans would vote for homosexuals, any given ethnic minority, Muslims, women, even felons, than atheists. And people wonder why our country is going downhill — maybe if you’d stop being as damned bigoted as our enemies then it wouldn’t be!

Seasteading: A path towards real micronations?

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

Just a few days ago, I was talking with my officemate about micronations and how awesome the concept is (he had never heard of Sealand before). We both liked the idea, but didn’t exactly see how it would be possible. All of the land on Earth is already claimed, leaving no room to create a new nation in, and the Sealand approach, declaring a new nation on an abandoned World War II-era naval platform off the coast of England, isn’t exactly a widely applicable solution. How conveniently timed, then, that Ars Technica should publish an article on seasteading.

The basic seasteading approach is to create more platforms somewhat akin to Sealand, but to do so far out in international waters, where there is no pesky United Kingdom around to claim ownership. The first few seasteading projects will be pretty expensive, and will only be affordable by the rather wealthy. Don’t look to them to alleviate the problem of overcrowding in developing nations anytime soon — although living on one would sort of be like living in a developing nation, thanks to the very limited real estate and the basic nature of the amenities — facts of life likely to scare off all but the wealthy most dedicated to the concept. I feel an amazing draw to living out in the middle of the ocean, though, and if I could make a living on a seasteading platform, I think I’d like to do so for at least a few years. I should point out that my attraction to the concept is based far more from a survivalist/return-to-nature viewpoint than from a libertarian one.

The concept is perfectly doable with today’s level of technology; that’s the really neat thing. All that’s missing is the capital investment. The basic structure of the platforms is very simple: ballast tanks underwater, a narrow concrete pole at surface level to minimize wave contact, and then a spread out platform on top. Multiple platforms can be attached with cables, gangways, flexible pipes, and wires. If the concept really takes off, a bunch of platforms could go in together on an underwater fiber-optic Internet connection to shore, and then share the connection amongst all of the platforms using a local network.

The Ars Technica article pretty thoroughly covers all of the technological and governmental aspects of making seasteading work, but amongst all the talk of libertarianism and being free from governmental intrusion, I think it’s missing something important. The concept of seasteading isn’t attractive just to libertarians. There’s an undeniable novelty to living in the middle of the ocean in a close-knit community that appeals to some fraction of the population. The idea is very survivalist, very individualist, very science fiction. If it can be done cheaply enough, I don’t think there will be any shortage of people clamoring to get into one, especially on a less-than-permanent basis. It’s true, most people have too many connections to family and friends in their communities to move out into the middle of the sea — but who wouldn’t want to go for a month at a time? Talk about the ultimate get away from it all vacation!

And in the long run, seasteading will play an increasingly important role in human society. As construction techniques get better and economies of scale come into play, land on seasteads will be significantly cheaper than in many places on Earth. Eventually, millions of people may be living in seasteads not because they choose to, but because there is no room for them anywhere on land. The oceans take up two-thirds of the planet’s surface; isn’t the spread of permanent human habitation to them inevitable?

Oh, how amazing it’d be to be one of those first lucky few who go by choice.

The grooviest candy ever?

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

I have a few choice responses to this news: Georgia Law Bans Retailers From Selling ‘Pot Candy’ To Minors

  1. There’s actually a marijuana-flavored candy? Seriously?
  2. Would this be the first time in America that a flavor was made illegal? I thought the point of weed was that it got you high, not that it had a funny taste. Does banning the taste make sense?
  3. When I was little, we went to Amish country on a school field trip and one of the things we picked up at a large market there was cigarette-shaped candy. It even had a hole down the middle, and when you blew into one end, a puff of powdered sugar was released from the other hand, as if you were really smoking. Seeing as how cigarettes actually, you know, kill people, and lots of them at that, wouldn’t it make more sense to start by banning products like these?

I return you to enjoy the rest of your day’s scheduled lunacy.

Elliot Spitzer’s tragic prostitution case and some much-too-late advice

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

By now everyone’s heard the tale of Elliot Spitzer, the Democratic Governor of New York who ran on the promise of cleaning up the sleaze and corruption in New York state. He may have done so, but now it looks like he’s going to be brought down for being “linked to a prostitution ring” (as reported in the media), though when you actually examine the details a bit closer, it turns out he was just guilty of hiring hookers. It’s not a good thing that he did, especially since he has a wife, but it’s far from the worst you could do. I would argue it’s not even as bad as what Bill Clinton did, because at least Spitzer hasn’t lied to anyone under oath about it. Yet, predictably, the Republicans in New York are demanding his resignation upon threat of impeachment. What the hell is it with Republicans and wanting to impeach over minor sexual scandals, while they harbor much worse within their own ranks? (I’m thinking of the child-molesting Mark Foley here.) It’s so duplicitous I wonder how anyone fails to see through it. And if hiring a hooker is an impeachable offense, well, our president should be impeached a million times over and executed a thousand times over for high crimes and treason.

This is part of a larger scheme of Republicans abusing the machinery of government to try to ensure one-party rule. That’s what the whole US attorney firing scandal was about: ethical State Attorneys who refused the administration’s demands to go after a lot more Democrats than Republicans were replaced by those who would obey that form of crooked politically-motivated “justice”. Many times more Democratic politicians than Republican politicians have been investigated and charged under the Bush administration. What happened to Elliot Spitzer is nothing more than the latest salvo in a huge anti-Democrat legal campaign waged by the Bush Administration and its cronies. The investigation doesn’t even make any sense; prostitution isn’t a Federal charge unless it is taking place across state borders, but this aspect of the case was only discovered through the use of wiretaps long after the Feds had begun investigating! It simply doesn’t add up.

I also can’t get over how idiotic Elliot Spitzer was to precipitate this whole mess. Who in the hell pays for prostitutes using bank transfers?! You know they can track that! Anytime you’re involved in any sort of illegal activity (be it prostitution, buying marijuana, buying alcohol underage, buying unlicensed firearms, whatever), everyone knows you always pay in cash so that it doesn’t leave a paper/electronic trail (which is the only reason Spitzer was even caught). If Elliot Spitzer wasn’t so stupid then his passion for the hooker would still only be between himself, his wife, and his hooker on the side. Instead, now we have to deal with yet another mountain-out-of-a-molehill attack against Democrats by Republicans, who will then proceed to use it to energize their base. Get smart, people!

How is “more guns” a solution to school shootings?

Monday, February 18th, 2008

In the wake of the recent shootings at Northern Illinois University, Newsweek has the gall to ask the question “More guns on campus?” I covered this issue in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings in a column for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback, and I feel like it’s time to revisit that issue once again. If anything, Northern Illinois University had four guns too many on campus, though what we can do to keep firearms out of the hands of mentally deranged people is up in the air.

To understand where I’m coming from on this issue, you’ll need to know some relevant details from my life. My father’s father grew up in the country and was in the military. My father spent good portions of his youth in the countryside and was also in the military. Understandably, both of them spent a lot of time around firearms, though my grandfather is old enough now that he hasn’t shot one in awhile. My father, on the other hand, still owns guns and very occasionally goes target shooting. He thinks knowing how to use guns is important, so when I was a teenager, he bought me a rifle and taught me how to use it. Now, as a teen-aged boy, that is about the coolest thing ever, so of course I needed no convincing whatsoever to get into it. I still own the rifle, I still go target shooting occasionally, and my aim is still good enough to produce a hand-sized cluster at 100 yards, unscoped.

So know that I do understand how much fun it is to go target shooting. As a gun owner myself, I would never support a blanket ban against all gun ownership. A few of my friends from college hunt, and I’ve eaten some of the venison they’ve bagged (it was tasty!), so I appreciate the value of hunting as well. And it’s not as if there’s any shortage of deer around here. But — and this is the big but — I do not understand how anyone can consider everyone walking around armed to be an ideal vision of society. In an ideal society, you wouldn’t need your gun with you unless you were out target shooting or hunting. The rest of the time, it would stay at home. Guns are dangerous weapons. They can easily kill people. No one disputes this. Why anyone (the “More guns on campus” crowd) thinks the answer to shootings is for more people to be walking around with dangerous weapons, I cannot fathom.

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God dammit, Christopher Hitchens

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

Christopher Hitchens is a puzzle to me. On the one hand, I really like and appreciate his outspoken activism on atheist causes. He’s even written a book called God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, which along with Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, is one of the great atheist advocacy books of the past few years. But he can be such a crank on other issues, like his steadfast support of the Iraq War (although to be fair, he is British, so most of the troops dying in Iraq aren’t his country’s).

But in a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal he said something even more inexcusable. How am I to reconcile this stupidity with some of his other views which I do support? From the column:

What are we trying to “get over” here? We are trying to get over the hideous legacy of slavery and segregation. But Mr. Obama is not a part of this legacy. His father was a citizen of Kenya, an independent African country, and his mother was a “white” American. He is as distant from the real “plantation” as I am. How — unless one thinks obsessively about color while affecting not to do so — does this make him “black”?

Yes, he actually said that. Apparently being “black” is nothing more than being descended from slaves on the American plantations; if you are merely from, say, Africa, you don’t count as black. And the Wall Street Journal published it. I’m kind of in disbelief here. So are the folks over at Daily Kos. Later in the column he goes on to say that he’s just as black as Barack Obama is, because both of their ancestors ultimately trace back from Africa. That’s a really stupid claim, because he’s glossing over a huge difference in degree. For someone who’s purportedly scientific-minded, he should know better. By his logic, we’re equally as much a bacteria as E. coli is, because after all, we are both ultimately descended from a common ancestor bacteria many hundreds of millions of years ago, right? So why doesn’t he admit that whether your ancestors emigrated from Africa tens of thousands of years ago or within the past few decades makes a huge difference, not only in how you look but how you are treated by a frequently racist society?

So I think I’ll stick with idolizing (heh) Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers as my exemplary atheists. I’m in much more agreement with their general views on a wide variety of topics. I really have to pick nits to find a point that I philosophically disagree with them on. They are progressive in all areas, not just religion. But with Christopher Hitchens it sometimes seems like the only view we have in common is atheism, and that is not nearly enough to make me like him.