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.

Just say no (to the financial sector bailout)

Monday, September 29th, 2008

I’m conflicted about the collapse of the financial bailout package. On the one hand, I’m losing a lot of money on the stock market and in my 401K. Losing money never made anyone happy. But hey, I’m young (just one year out of college), so my risk tolerance only draws the line at loss of limb or life. On the other hand, I really do think this is in the nation’s collective best long term interests, including my own. Here’s why.

We don’t need our money going toward a bailout of the failing industries of the past. We need it to foster the groundbreaking companies of the future. I’m talking about a New Deal-style investment in carbon-free renewable energy and energy independence. Why waste this $700 billion on companies that royally screwed up, companies that don’t actually create any tangible products I might add? They’re real good at printing paper, sure, but this latest economic collapse shows how successful of a strategy that is. The problem is that when you’re printing your own paper (CDOs, derivatives, etc.), the industry as a whole is effectively able to decide how large of a number they want to write on each piece of paper, regardless of any intrinsic value. And then when the house of cards inevitably comes falling down, hey, they’re all “too big to fail”, so the government has to bail them out! What a great scam.

I’m really hoping that Barack Obama is elected president, because he’s the only major party candidate (i.e. has a shot in hell at getting elected) proposing a massive investment in energy independence. He has a plan to get America off foreign oil in ten years, and along the way we’d significantly reduce our carbon emissions as well. Saving the planet is something we can all agree on. John McCain, on the other hand, is more of the same. His campaign is run by lobbyists. He’s consistently been on the dead wrong side of economic issues (when he understands them anyway), supporting the massive deregulation that got us into all of this mess. He has no real plan for America’s energy independence, only lip service. After eight years of Bush, another four years in the same style with McCain (or God forbid, Sarah Palin) would be an absolute disaster.

America is experiencing a class war of sorts: the massive looting of the lower and middle class by the ultra-wealthy. During Bush’s two terms, the median household income decreased by $2,000, while the ultra-rich got much much richer in comparison to the rest of us. This proposed $700 billion bailout of the ultra-wealthy from the tax revenues of the rest of us would only be the latest and most flagrant attack in the ongoing war. The most amazing thing about the Republican machine over these past decades is how they’ve consistently abused moral/cultural wedge issues (such as abortion, religion, and gay marriage) to distract people into voting against their economic self-interest by the tens of millions. Only people making $250,000 per year and up will save money by voting for a John McCain presidency — that is a really small percentage of the populace.

So say no to the bailout. Let the companies that screwed up to the combined tune of over a trillion dollars crumble as they so richly deserve. And instead of giving them one more cent, put that money to work in renewable energy. Injecting that amount of money will have the same stimulative effect on the economy whether it’s spent on the finance industry or on the green industry, except spending it on the former is rewarding the failures of the past while spending it on the latter is building the path to the future. The correct choice for America’s future is obvious.

Attention American conservatives: Wikipedias are grouped by language, not by nation

Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

Another day, another conservative commentator ‘discovering’ that Wikipedia is a bastion of left-wing liberal thinking. In this case, Lawrence Solomon, a climate change denier with a tenuous grasp on reality, is getting all bent out of shape that his attempts to insert oil company propaganda into Wikipedia are being reverted. He reaches the very tired and predictable conclusion that Wikipedia is left-leaning and biased against conservatives.

In actuality, Solomon just isn’t using the right frame of reference. He’s making the rookie mistake of assuming that the English Wikipedia is the American Wikipedia. It’s not. The Wikipedias are grouped by language, not by nation. This is a huge distinction: for instance, the Portugese Wikipedia has more readers and editors in Brazil than in Portugal. The English Wikipedia thus primarily serves not only the residents of the United States, but also the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, etc., and is also widely read and edited by hundreds of millions of people in other nations where English is used and taught as a second language.

That’s right, the English Wikipedia is even heavily read and edited in countries where English is not the first language of the vast majority of the inhabitants. The reason? Simply put, the English Wikipedia is the best one. It has the most articles, the most editors, the most comprehensive coverage, by far the most readership, etc. The German Wikipedia ranks a distant second. So even if English is not your first language, so long as you have a decent level of literacy in English (which many people do), the English Wikipedia is more useful to you than the one in your native language.

The English Wikipedia thus reflects a global perspective rather than a purely American perspective. This is where all of the complaints of the American-centric conservatives who claim that the English Wikipedia is biased fall flat on their face. The United States is a very conservative nation relative to most other nations. What we consider liberal is considered moderate or even right-wing in other nations. What we consider conservative is considered unthinkable in many nations. For instance, just try to find another developed nation that lets thousands of its citizens die each year of treatable diseases because they treat health care as a privilege for the rich who can afford it rather than as a basic human right. The United States pretty much stands alone in that barbarism.

A lot of really stupid things that we have manufactured controversies over here in the United States, like climate change and evolution, aren’t controversial at all from a global perspective. The English Wikipedia simply reflects that. It’s not a case of censorship of conservative opinions, but a conscious rejection of extreme viewpoints that very few people on a global scale hold. If you can’t handle that, go back to your Fox News, where you’ll never hear anything you disagree with. Meanwhile, Wikipedia is going to be doing what it’s always done, offering up a neutral point of view, which emphatically does not mean an American point of view.

The United States to join China’s follies in creating space debris?

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

Missile defense launch
A year ago, China took the monumentally stupid step of demonstrating its space military power by shooting down one of its own satellites. Good for them; they can blow stuff up. And then came the unintended consequences. That explosion created tens of thousands of new debris fragments in space, and because each of the high orbital speeds involved, any single one of those fragments could cause serious damage to a satellite, a space shuttle, or the International Space Station. China’s military demonstration was ridiculously stupid (one might say “epic fail”), kind of like demonstrating your prowess with a gun by shooting everyone in attendance in the feet, yourself included. Space debris is a problem that affects everyone equally, and as China continues to develop and sends more satellites into space, they’re really going to wish they hadn’t put all of their space hardware at an increased risk. Space junk does not discriminate.

So you can imagine my fury when I read today that the United States is considering a plan to fire a missile at one of its failing spy satellites. No, no, a thousand times, no! Don’t be as stupid and shortsighted as the Chinese. Let the damn satellite come down on its own. The risks of it hitting anything important are minute, and once it is down in one piece, at least the problem is over. But blast it into thousands of pieces of space debris and you’ve just created a problem that will be with us for hundreds of years.

Low-Earth orbit isn’t a dumping ground for us to fark around with at our leisure. There is a saturation limit beyond which debris runs into other debris at an accelerating rate, creating ever smaller debris, eventually saturating low-Earth orbit with fine, lethal junk in a runaway process. This is called the Kessler syndrome, and it’s an end scenario we desperately want to avoid. If we end up foolishly walling ourselves off from space for the hundreds of years it would take the space debris to fall to Earth through friction, I do not think our species would survive. We’re already trashing this planet so badly our only hopes are to get off it.

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Ron Paul’s racism, the final end to his presidency?

Thursday, January 10th, 2008

The liberal blogocube has long known that Ron Paul is a flaming racist. In the 1990s he published a regular newsletter that was full of race-baiting, racist statements more fitting for the 1920s than the 1990s. Of course, most of Ron Paul’s proposed policies seem to hearken back to how things were in the 1920s, so maybe it was just naive of me to think his views on race relations would be different. As Ron Paul has gained a higher profile and news outlets have placed more attention on him (Fox News notwithstanding), though, the news media at large have picked up on the racism story. This should be the final nail in the coffin of the Ron Paul presidency.

The thing is, when I very first heard about Ron Paul, I actually sort of liked him (as much as is possible for me to like a Republican, anyway). But all I knew about him at that point was that he opposed the Iraq War at a time when all of his Republican contenders supported it. The more I learned about him, the less I liked him. All of his talk of liberty and freedom sounds impressive, until you realize he wants to devolve this country to the way it was many decades ago. He hates government even more than most Republicans, and under him, most government agencies (such as the Department of Education) and services would be eliminated. In that way lies madness. The passing of time has warped our perception of how bad things were in past decades. We should keep progressing like the rest of the developed world, not regress.

So it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that, in addition to all of his other regressive views, Ron Paul is a racist as well. Of course, this won’t sink his support amongst White Nationalists, the Ku Klux Klan, etc., but it will torpedo him overall. Americans, for the most part, do not tolerate overt racism any longer. Amongst Republicans it seems to work to disguise racism against the “hordes of brown people” as fighting illegal immigration, but there was nothing disguised about Ron Paul’s racist statements. He’s finished.

Who will be the next Republican candidate to go down in flames? Here’s hoping it’s Huckabee.

What the eff is wrong with the South?

Tuesday, April 24th, 2007

Can someone please, for the love of God, explain to me why a public high school in Georgia is racially integrating its prom for the first time? Wasn’t this kind of nonsense supposed to be over at the end of the Civil Rights era? Who even knew that integration had continued to this day in public schools in the Deep South? How in the hell did they even organize “white Proms” and “black Proms” anyway? Was there a penalty if you showed up at the Prom of the wrong race? And what about all those other ethnicities, like the Mexicans and Asians? Which prom did they go to? This whole thing is ludicrous. The only glimmer of hope in all of this insanity is that the practice is finally over.

Honeybees: A science mystery

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

Honeybees have been mysteriously dying off this past season. The phenomenon, which is being called Colony Collapse Disorder, isn’t merely limited to the United States: the whole world is experiencing it. How such a rapid onset of honeybee death could come up within a single season is a huge science mystery that nobody can yet explain. We have managed to rule out a lot of possibilities: for instance, it’s not typical poisoning, because if it were, dead honeybees would be showing up in the nests. Instead, they are simply vanishing (refusing to go to work?).

This mystery really has my interest piqued and I’m dying to hear the solution to it. If I had to guess, I’d say it has something to do with climate change and global warming. And of course this is a huge problem, because a full one-third of the crops in the United States depend on honeybees for pollination. If all the honeybees disappear there will be serious consequences.

The generals won’t have war with Iran

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

Well this is unexpected. A fair number of United States generals and admirals would apparently rather resign than carry out orders to attack Iran. Are we finally going to get some sanity on this issue from the most unlikeliest of places? If you’re Bush, you know you’re losing control when your orders to go to war aren’t even carried out by your designated war fighters, let alone the huge resistance from the vast majority of American society.

2008 is looking really good right about now. I live in perpetual fear that Bush will do something else really stupid before he leaves office (one way or the other …).

At least our fighters are capable of attacking Iran, anyway. You don’t have to cross the International Date Line to reach Iran …

Go Al!

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

Al Franken has officially announced that he is running for the position of U.S. Senator from Minnesota. Go Al! I kind of wish I lived in Minnesota now, so that I could vote for him. He’s exactly the kind of person we need in politics: comedians. And I’m not particularly joking. There’s a deep cynicism that comics have that serves politicians really well. Plus, I don’t particularly trust the motives of career politicians, so if someone comes into politics after a career of something else, be it writing, comedy, or even prostitution, I still feel that it’s better than someone who already has a long career in politics.

I used to listen to Al Franken’s radio show on Air America two summers ago. Back when I actually had the free time to do such things. And I definitely think he’ll be a good Senator. I know PZ Myers is going to be happy about this!

Update: Al Franken now has a great video up on YouTube. He relates personal anecdotes about how the government has helped his family in the past, and how that’s how he wants the government to operate in the future.

Iraq: Do we even care anymore?

Tuesday, January 16th, 2007

Here’s the latest story about the violence and carnage in Iraq:

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) — More than 100 people were killed in Baghdad on Tuesday in bombing and shooting incidents, most of them in neighborhoods where the militia of a powerful anti-American Shiite cleric holds sway.

A suicide bomber and a car bomb killed at least 70 people and wounded 169 more at entrances to a once-prestigious university in Baghdad.

So the question is … do we even care anymore? How many years of this stuff can one pay attention to before it just slips below the radar as “situation as usual”? How scary is it that a hundred deaths in a single day now qualifies as below the radar?

There’s only one solution to this mess. And it’s not escalation. We already won the war before Bush ever announced “Mission Accomplished”. Now we’re dealing with an occupation, and occupations only end in two ways: withdrawal or annexation. It’s time to withdraw. We can’t stop this civil war and we shouldn’t be chaperoning it. We already made a huge mess in Iraq and we are incapable of fixing it. So it’s time to take our hat out of the ring. Hopefully tensions will decrease as United States troops decrease. The Iraqi people already overwhelming support US withdrawal in nationwide polls; why not just give them what they and we want and leave?