It is customary among my acquaintances to contrast the presidency of the cultured, elegant, and above all eloquent Barack Obama, with that of the loutish, ignorant, immoral, lying and narcissistic presidency of Donald Trump, and this is a contrast that can hardly be denied.
And yet, from the Obama presidency one statement I heard him make with my own ears was that “I support with all my heart the idea of American exceptionalism.” This appears to have been the unshakeable belief that lay at the root of Obama’s ultimate failure as president, the idea that the United States somehow is better than other nations, more cultured, more aware of what is happening in the world, always ready to help, more powerful and wealthy than any other state in history, and from its very foundation, the homeland of democratic government.
I suppose it is to be expected that an American president should believe in the ultimate goodwill of his country in its dealings with other nations. Yet unfortunately Obama, although he started with good intentions (vide his speech of conciliation towards Muslim nations delivered in Cairo a few months after taking office), nevertheless appeared to fall under the spell exercised by the sheer power of the industrial-military complex that President Eisenhower warned his compatriots against when he left office, and thereafter he fulfilled many of the worst dreams of anti-American zealots. In contrast to the afore-mentioned catalogue of virtues, Obama’s presidency turned out to be as threatening and militaristic as any.
The idea of American exceptionalism is tightly interwoven with the favourite American myth, that of the so-called “American dream”. Although many persuasive texts have been penned, mostly by leftist radicals, to demolish this dream, nevertheless it remains a powerful incentive in American life. This week I heard a vigorous denunciation of all this in an interview by Chris Hedges on RT, the Russian government-sponsored TV channel, with a journalist called Danny Haiphong, from the radical online site Global Research on Globalization.
I have to pause here, in the interests, as they say these days, of complete disclosure, to fill in a few details. Harking back to my previous post about stereotyping, I believe RT has suffered from this, especially in the United States. It has been damned as a sinister representative of Russian government propaganda, but I find it scarcely at all more sinister in that regard than our own CBC, or the much-lauded BBC, both of which naturally propagate the basic narrative of political life in their countries, as does RT in its own sphere. RT airs probably more free-flowing discussions online about politics and social affairs than any other channel I watch. Chris Hedges, who spent most of his adult life as a New York Times correspondent around the world, is just one of a number of prominent non-communist Western world activists who runs a weekly interview programme on RT. He regularly presents interesting characters, most of whom have fascinating areas of specialist knowledge, but who appear not to have ready access to mainstream media, even in our professedly democratic environment.
The provenance of his interviewee about exceptionalism, Danny Haiphong, works for a site created by an old friend of mine, Michel Chossodovsky, an economics professor at University of Ottawa, who is one of those fellows who ranges so freely in the world of ideas that I wonder what time he has left for teaching students. I remember a mutual friend of years ago telling me that Michel had pronounced that China was on the road towards capitalism, “and he doesn’t bother to produce any proof.” Of course, it turns out that Michel, a vigorously well-informed expert, was correct: China was indeed on the road to capitalism, as Michel told us all long before it was so obvious.
Haiphong, with the academic Robert Sirvent, has written a book highly praised by progressive-minded readers, called American Exceptionalism and American Innocence --- a People’s History of Fake News. He said that American exceptionalism had been a most effective ideological form of white supremacy and oligarchic control, going back centuries, but nevertheless its credibility is in decline, with feedback against it coming from the Occupy Wall street movement, followed by the Bernie Sanders campaign. The idea that a nation that claims to be the most prosperous in the world, should have 50 per cent of its people classified as “near poor”, that student loans should be reaching into the trillions of dollars, while black wealth continues to decline, gives the lie to the claim pumped out from every source that the United States is a meritocracy, that if you just dream big, anything is possible. Exceptions like Oprah Winfrey, who came from a poverty-stricken background to earn her billion dollar fortune, represent the notion that this can work for anybody in the United States, a belief described by Hedges as a “mendacious lie.” Haiphong produced some astonishing figures on this: black median household income had dropped from $6,000 in 1983 to $1,700 in 2013, a drop of 73 per cent, and 21 per cent of black men are unemployed: if it continues at this rate, by 2053 black wealth will be zero. In the same period the median wealth of white families increased from $102,000 to $116,000.
They moved on to consider the role played in propagating the “American dream” by professional sports, which pays extremely high salaries to black athletes, the National Football League, the NBA and so on. These sports, nearly all owned by, and even coached by white Americans, permit a small number of black athletes to shine --- Le Bron James, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and countless others --- but at a price, as the case of Colin Kaepernick, the first man to “take the knee” while the National Anthem was being played, has illustrated. Though he is only 31 years of age, and in his last season threw 16 touchdown passes against four interceptions, Kaepernick, according to a recent news report, “has been blackballed by a professional sports league for political beliefs. That’s it, and that’s all.” Hedges claimed that this created a way of perceiving the American position in the world which is quite self-destructive for most people. Haiphong added: “We are constantly being told we need to do everything we can as individuals to achieve some form of optimum wealth which people cannot do, in a country half of which is near-poor. American exceptionalism and the American dream cloud our ability to understand the process, which essentially exploits labour for the profit of the few.”
Here again I must confess: I have been a sports enthusiast since I was a small boy. I played almost every sport as a kid, grew away from it into middle age, then took it up again for recreation, playing cricket and tennis in Ottawa into my sixties, and 30 years ago discovered I could watch on TV the New Zealand national Rugby team, the All Blacks, whose photos going back to 1905 I had on my childhood bedroom wall. So I have again become a dedicated fan, and until the last decade or so I always read the sports pages first in any newspaper.
I like watching tennis, but today tennis and golf professionals just tour the world endlessly playing repeatedly against each other: what could possibly be the interest in that, apart from appreciation of the talents of the few great players? It is only justice that the players of professional sports should share in the economic revenues they provide, but the extravagant prize money they receive comes from private corporations, who no doubt charge it against their advertising expenses and claim tax relief for it. And I have been saying for years that these professional sportsmen should be considered to be what they are: salesmen and women for the corporations that pay them. I can’t imagine actually going to a game these days, and I certainly would never buy a seat at the extravagant prices charged these days.
I certainly find it rather obscene that a player can take home a cheque for $15 million as Rory McIlroy did a few days ago as winner of a golf tournament. And I came across a woman tennis player, well down in the seeding of a recent tournament, who has never won anything of note, but who has lifetime winnings of more than $10 million. Ridiculous. Where, in comparison, do schoolteachers rank?
Another propaganda influence dealt with by Haiphong in his book is that of the “non-profit industry”, of the philantrophic charitable Foundations established by corporations, usually, as Hedges pointed out, in response to some social upheaval of the time. They deal with perceived or real social problems, and have the effect of channelling the energy of the masses into acceptable forms. As in the case of the elite athletes, of whom certain forms of behaviour are required in return for the high salaries, their being required to salute and adopt an obsequious position, so, the trusts, with boards made up of 90 per cent whites, and 60 per cent males, see to it that their grants go to approved applicants who are carefully vetted as to their beliefs and lifestyle.
Haiphong said he had talked to many people about the Gates Foundation, and usually found they approved it entirely, but the fact is, he said, the Gates Foundation has done a lot to prevent subsidized forms of publicly-funded health care from being adopted in various parts of Africa, because they have funded private health care schemes.
Hedges concluded: “Try to get a grant from any Foundation, and you will find it is going to be severely vetted under the guise of benevolence, to make sure it is used to buttress the whole system.”
This is one place where I feel I can’t honestly use my mantra, wot the hell, wot the hell…. It is very sad that the games I loved to play as a kid have been transformed into this propagandistic money-grubbing business.