Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Rough Music

Back in the 70s, social psychologists demonstrated that flattery works even on people who know they are being flattered. Which partially explains the effectiveness of right-wing propaganda since, whatever else Limbaugh and Hannity and O’Reilly do, they butter up their listeners to within an inch of their life. Unfortunately, it isn’t just that target demographic who get a non-stop self-esteem message on American media. CNN, CNBC, and the network news also retail an artificially sweetened product, which endlessly reinforces the notion that Americans are better and smarter and more trustworthy than other people. We are a fond people who believe that the hooker really loves us, that we actually deserve a break today…. Well, that’s not so alarming. The Laws of Marketing are, after all, as immutable as the axioms of arithmetic. But even if you choose to luxuriate in a warm tub of purchased praise, it may be advisable to remind yourself from time to time that there is a world outside the bathhouse.

In its modern form, American exceptionalism is a curious concept since our claim on the world’s respect was originally based on a denial of the Old World prerogatives of birth and blood. Whatever else America was, it was the land enlivened by a tremendously good idea that could, in principle though often not in practice, be franchised to anybody who was willing to buy into its premises. By this logic, however, what is special about the country depends upon the determination of its citizens to keep the faith. There is no American race and therefore no reason whatsoever to think that the human beings that inhabit this continent are any less capable of every kind of human folly and crime than the other peoples of the planet from whom, after all, they derive.

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