THERE’S GOT TO BE A MORNING AFTER
Remember back when it was morning in America? When our future looked bright and white and our perceived values were destined to spread, seduce, and inspire the world over. Our home front was secure, our lawns perfectly mowed, everything was in place as the American empire, real or implied, gave the rest of the world a certain brand story that was both reviled and admired, depending on who was asked. But the same was true domestically, as the American dream was, for the most part, reserved only for a certain class of men. And as usually follows, so was American foreign policy decision making. So now as the 21st century has painfully thrown us and the world into chaos and self reflection, what happens to America’s role as its supposed only superpower?
Some may argue that America’s retreat from the world is a positive, an opportunity for us to focus on our domestic struggles that have been spilling out onto the streets with more and more frequency and urgency. They say this anger and uprising will push through true transformation, towards a more progressive and egalitarian society. While others argue that the decline of America’s white picket fence-ism is equivalent to its decline as the world's influencer, that a certain type of white patriarchy is also the true definition of American exceptionalism, meaning, its perceived decline predicts our own. And others still look up and see that “shining city on the hill” and believe today’s pesky darkness is just a glitch in the matrix. In any case, the 20th century is over and we’ve already lived through what felt like an endless morning in America. But all of the sudden, it feels a bit more like it's the morning after.
In her new piece, Irene Colthurst explores a kind of ideological triangulation between the thoughts of some Western European intellectuals lamenting the decline of American hegemony, in contrast to American progressives, who view America’s past with the complicated nuance required to suggest a new radical optimism. Their thinking is that while the United States might be declining in hard power, historically inequitable domestic American society might be poised to move closer to reflecting its founding ideals of social and political egalitarianism. In other words, she asks, is America in decline? Or are we as a society on the verge of a new dawn? Can the morning after be a new definition of American exceptionalism? One less militaristic and frankly, white and male.
“Culturally, military power is of course coded masculine, while the concept of nations serving as cultural models for others is coded feminine. Realpolitikconsiders nation states to be like billiard balls: the hard outer shell defining a hollow interior that is of no interest to the grand game of global politics. But the interior of the ball isn’t empty, it's filled with people who care deeply about their own society. They are not merely faceless denizens of an imperial Emerald City. For American women, non-whites, and others left out of the spectrum of power, the question of whether American society can be restructured to include them stretches forward as a vital, yet unfinished project. A major shift in who holds power within American society would change it as much or more than a continued reduction in its military and economic advantages. This period may involve a transition to a United States that lacks great global power, while the distribution of power within American society becomes more egalitarian.”
In our shared state of current crisis, our European and British cousins would do well to take a different view of us. They would do well to to see through the patriarchal mythology of American exceptionalism and take a good look at we the people. America itself is just an experiment that began a few hundred years ago, rather than in 1945, which is when they started noticing our existence. Then a French intellectual like Bernard-Henri Levy might not be so enamored with American “moxie” and English journalist Justin Webb might take into account a version of citizenship and culture that falls outside of the white upperclass society of the American South. He might sense a change in our attitudes towards and blind acceptance of the status quo, but that doesn't necessarily correspond to an overall decline in our optimism for a better future. And certainly not to our sense of patriotism. Read The Morning After here.
Many progressives, like feminist writer Rebecca Traister, focus on analysis of American domestic society, so their optimism centers on the future possibility of a major, even revolutionary shift away from domestic inequity. Progressives tend to consider loss of American power an unambiguously positive development. They share that optimism with many non-American leftists, but primarily see the U.S. as a great power behaving as any great power would, and not as Americans behaving in the particular ways that are shaped by American social conditions and history. So while it is interesting to take in these critiques, it's important to always consider the source, as their understanding of American society only reflects our post war behavior both at home and abroad.
The insights of American progressivism could benefit many Western European intellectuals as they seek to make sense of this potentially transformational era in the domestic history of the United States and how that might affect its relations with the world. The truth is, many Americans would trade today’s version of American power for a more equal domestic society less driven by the abuses, resentments, and tensions of the past few decades. As progressivism gains ground, our western cousins could use its analysis to understand the new American society coming into being as American influence and power, as we know it today, starts to fade. One day this new kind of influence could wind up being even more powerful. Now wouldn’t that truly be exceptional?
As ubiquitous as it may be to associate the gun-toting, swaggering, chaotic good cowboy heroes of western cinema with an early age of American innovation, exploration, and individual power (the very definition of American exceptionalism), the narrative is, in fact, a carefully constructed Western European one, an amalgam of outside perspectives that create nothing short of a paper mache facade over the true history of America up to today.
Such is the film genre of the Spaghetti Western (aka the Macaroni Western), a massively popular sub genre of the western films, produced largely by Italian directors in the decades following World War II and lasting nearly through the end of the 1970's to great success. In just two decades, more than six hundred of these films would be produced and appreciated by audiences around the world, featuring household names like Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and Henry Fonda, who would eventually come to represent a genre borne almost exclusively from the imagination of 1960's European writers and directors like Sergio Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Dario Argento.
Because despite their subject matter’s inherent faux Americanness, complete with lawless lands, gold prospecting, railroad building, and one horse towns, there is something fundamentally European about these films. Just as the American western films of the time did not accurately represent the true history of the west, highlighting almost exclusively white, straight cowboys as erasure for the largely African American, Hispanic, and gay cultures that produced some of the most enduring cowboy tropes, Spaghetti Westerns reimagine the genre from their own perspective, the European perspective, looking both curiously and deridingly at American history.
Such is displayed in the overt voyeurism of simultaneously embracing and shaming American violence, machismo and action, lust and patriotism, making millions of dollars on this raw, almost animalistic character of the lone cowboy hero, while also holding him up as proof that America remains an uncivilized, undomesticated land, for all its claims of exceptionalism.
Whether looking at American exceptionalism as progress or as the anchor that holds an archaic society in one place while the rest of the world evolves around it, there is no denying that the very idea of American exceptionalism has been bastardized by outside viewpoints, until it resembles the original views pronounced by our Founding Fathers as much as those ubiquitous spaghetti westerns resemble early western life. It is, on a good day, a farcical lie, but far more likely to become domestically and internationally catastrophic when that misappropriated idea becomes, over the truth, the pervading one.
Did those directors know the influence their judgment had on the way the world viewed the American hero? Likely not. This was their understanding of the role of America in the world at the time and it is not challenging to see why. For better or for worse, America had done things that no country had done, if ever, in recent history. By very definition, she was exceptional, in both her successes and her humanitarian failures. But the version of American exceptionalism and the hybrid of exceptionalism and patriotism that has become a dangerous call to action in the wrong hands that these films spread is inaccurate. Just as the true western films of the time were inaccurate. Just as our understanding of history is chock full of erasure, retellings and victorious accounts.
Whether is it true to the country’s history or future, and whether for good or for bad, American exceptionalism has shaped both the way we, as Americans, see ourselves and the way non-Americans view us. And yet, it remains a self-fulling prophecy, an artistically waged war of propaganda and voyeurism fed from the outside as much as the inside. It is then safe to say that the core of American exceptionalism, and how it may influence the years of American power to come, is as hidden behind flashes of gun powder, smoke, and bravado as the Spaghetti Western hero. Perhaps it is finally time for both of those truths to come out.