Hail! Shining Americania

By DuncanRhys C. Liancourt

––With whom would you rather take a long road trip, an unremitting optimist or an unrelieved pessimist? The optimist may get you lost by being so self assured that he never read the map, or has not realized or admitted that he’s not very good at map reading. The pessimist is probably better prepared for the exigencies of the trip but he may get you lost through indecision brought on by lack of confidence. Neither endless cheer nor endless woe––Pollyanna or Cassandra––is any fun but though they may get you lost and give you a headache they are unlikely to cause collateral damage or get you killed. What if, however, the designated driver for your road trip is something else, like what’s on that tower in that cloud in the image from the prior post?

It’s a kind of monster made of two parts unremitting optimist and one part unrelieved pessimist, a sort of Pollyandra of paranoid grandiosity that’s taken every steroid, been exposed to Hulk style gamma rays, and then been triggered by lightening into a freakish growth spurt. It is violent and suffers delusions of grandeur. If it thinks itself well intentioned this is only because it believes itself the recipient (being the only one worthy) of a higher calling and it uses all means to reach its own end. That end is nothing less than the subjugation of all other beings to its will, and its greatest will, its only desire really, is its own further and continuous aggrandizement. I call it Megalomanicon.

We deal here not merely, though they are bad enough, with megalomaniacs, those individuals with delusions of grandeur that have caused great harm (sometimes inadvertently) throughout fiction and history, and into the present such as: Don Quixote and Lex Luthor; Caligula, Genghis Khan, and Henry VIII; Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and Kim Jong Il. The megalomania resurgent here and now is not incarnate in one individual but is an ideology trafficked in by many the way dealers push illegal drugs, by talking up the good parts and leaving out all the bad. Because Megalomanicon is protean and dissimulating we needs must examine a past iteration before attempting to discover this latest. We begin with the image below.

“Urban planning — for Germania — in an ivory tower. Albert Speer, with his head in the clouds, tops the ivory tower surrounded by his acolytes.”

This image is from the exhibition “Joyful Redesign” which ran in 2008 at Berlin’s Technical University. Spiegel Online’s review is called “Lampooning Megalomania.” Albert Speer was Hitler’s Inspector General of Building and it was his job “to transform Berlin into the worthy capital of a Greater German World Empire. Germania was to reflect in architectural form the Führer’s megalomaniac dreams.” Speer’s aide Hans Stephan created all the images in the exhibit, this one included. “They caricature Speer’s monumental plans for Hitler’s Germania.” There will be a link at the end of this essay where you can view other images and read the entire exhibition review.

Hitler the megalomaniac enabled Speer’s grandiosity but Speer had his own delusions of grandeur, as did many of Hitler’s other deputies. We are not trying to diagnose the people but the greater trend, the pervasive cultural parasite of megalomania that, even if instigated by one person or a few people has morphed into a beast of its own. As observed earlier this beast dissimulates so has many aliases. Hans Stephan’s cartoons are poking at the bubble of Nazism, or National Socialism, Hitler’s special form of Fascism founded on racism and anti-Semitism. America has seen megalomania in various forms including McCarthyism, but now a very old form is seeking to reinvent itself.

Megalomania––delusion about one’s own power or importance––in its national rather than personal form is now being conjured with the magic words American exceptionalism. Sarah Palin has been deploying the phrase heavily, including her speech at a fundraiser for the Plumstead Christian School in Plumstead, PA November 9th. This speech was talked about more in the press for the cookies she brought but Will Bunch has pointed out in the Huffington Post, correctly I think, that “Palin made it clear last night what conservatives plan to make the 2012 presidential election all about––with a simple two-word phrase that she uttered more than a half-dozen times.” That phrase was American exceptionalism.

Does Sarah Palin understand the violent ideology that undergirds this phrase? It sounds harmless and optimistic, but does she understand its provenance? Does Jonah Goldberg understand that provenance when he writes a column in the Kansas City Star titled “The Bashing of American exceptionalism Must Stop”? If Palin, Goldberg, and others who toss off the rhetoric of American exceptionalism mean simply that we are unique in some ways, special in some ways, great in some ways then good for them––I’m on board and appreciate their optimism. They should, however, just say so. When they inveigh about American exceptionalism they allude to something else, something with an omni (omnipotent, omniscient) as prefix. Do they seriously think America is an exception all the time on every subject, that we are the only ones to ever get anything right? Goldberg writes that, “America is the greatest country,” and tosses us the sop “that doesn’t mean it’s perfect,” but ends with “but it is the last best hope of earth.” We needn’t try to make a god of our country in order to love it and true patriots don’t need to demean an entire world to elevate themselves.

As Goldberg attempts to valorize America into an all but perfect deity he falls prey to the fever of “infantile megalomania concerning our nation’s part in a divine plan” that Pascal Covici observed in the Puritans. His antifebrile treatment should include Myths of American exceptionalism by Howard Zinn: “The notion of American exceptionalism––that the United States alone has the right, whether by divine sanction or moral obligation, to bring civilization, or democracy, or liberty to the rest of the world, by violence if necessary––is not new. It started as early as 1630 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony when Governor John Winthrop uttered the words that centuries later would be quoted by Ronald Reagan. Winthrop called the Massachusetts Bay Colony a ‘city upon a hill.’ Regan embellished a little, calling it a ‘shining city on a hill.’” And consider this from Pascal Covici Jr’s Humor & Revelation in American Literature: The Puritan Connection: “The Anglican sermons that insist upon Britain as God’s new Israel, and upon the Church of England as his Church and the British as His chosen people, had, like comparable New England sermons, communal occasions for their delivery.”

Governor Winthrop sermonized about his city on a hill, and Zinn acknowledges the idea is “heartwarming,” but observes that “in reality, we have never been just a city on a hill. A few years after Governor Winthrop uttered his famous words, the people in the city on a hill moved out to massacre the Pequot Indians … expanding into another territory, occupying that territory, and dealing harshly with people who resist occupation has been a persistent fact of American history … and this was often accompanied from very early on with a particular form of American exceptionalism: the idea that American expansion is divinely ordained.”

Zinn goes on to show how the idea of “manifest destiny” attached to American exceptionalism and we can find even more nefarious attachments such as “white man’s burden.” In his comprehensive and erudite yet readily accessible The Problem of American Exceptionalism: A Reconsideration, Michael Kammen of Cornell expresses concern over the particularly American brand of moral mission informed history writing: “I am inclined to wonder, however, whether the sense of moral mission has not been peculiarly prominent in American culture in a rather perverse way. On the one hand, it appears with amazing frequency and in many guises. On the other, it usually is invoked with a vagueness that encourages misunderstanding, elasticity, distortion, and hypocrisy.” One of the conclusions of his study is that “the words ‘unique’ and ‘exceptional’ must be used with extreme caution because both imply … a norm from which we alone deviate and to which, perhaps, we are somehow superior.” I hope, along with Mr. Kammen, that we will see more on American exceptionalism in scholarship where it belongs and less, ideally none, in political discourse where it can only refer to the tower sitting, spear wielding, head in clouds megalomania satirized by Hitler’s deputy’s cartoonist.

Being great is a great goal as is having enough self esteem, but thinking you’re greater than you are and then acting on those delusions only puts people off and makes you look silly. Consider Act 3, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest when the very unskilled servant Stephano gets drunk and buys into both the flattery and self-serving plots of Caliban. Stephano––“Monster, I will kill this man: his daughter and I will be king and queen – save our graces! – and Trinculo and thyself shall be viceroys.”


One Response to “Hail! Shining Americania”
  1. Large topic here, DuncanRhys. The troubling sound of words where one country is seen as “chosen” or “exceptional” reverberate today quite loudly. What is troubling to me about the view that Americans are “exceptional” is of course justification for any of our acts as long as we can “construe” them a certain way. That an administration says, “we were deceived about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” when anyone following that trajectory to war knows, read, and followed how the facts were made to fit the goal, which had been to invade Iraq even before 9/11.

    I have recently read a book called SALEM WITCH JUDGE by Eve LaPlante which treats of a man caught up in the frenzy of accusing his friends and neighbors of “traffic” with Satan. This Puritan enclave executed 20 innocent people as witches. The judge here in question, Samuel Sewall, was the only one who changed his mind, who publicly repented of what he had taken part in.

    This is what scares me now. I have never heard one neo-con, or fundamentalist, admit he/she was wrong or reconsidered anything. The minds are as hard as wood; intractable. That certainty I see not as strength of beliefs or principles, but as a monolithic god. William Blake: that prescient poet:”The man who never changed his mind is like standing water and breeds reptiles of the mind.”

    Now, I want to read what you wrote again. Many thanks, this thanksgiving. Lucy Magnus

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