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The Myth of American Exceptionalism is dead

Michael Athey argues it is only America's various and prominent social justices that hold the title of exceptional.

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Image Credit: Penn Today / Creative Commons

After pouring over the works of twentieth-century American poet, feminist and social justice advocate badass, Adrienne Rich for my dissertation, I have been left reflecting on the contemporary poignancy of Rich’s work. America has long been heralded as a guiding light for nations. Belief in their exceptionalism most recently epitomised by Senator Ted Cruz exclaiming America is the “freest, most prosperous, safest country on Earth”. Yet the juxtaposition of Cruz’s statement being spoken in the wake of twenty-one people, mostly children, being massacred in an American school, has exposed the myths of American exceptionalism. It’s time to accept America is currently just as much in a mire as it was during the 1970s socio-political turmoil when Rich was writing.

A recently leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court of the United States most recently made me consider the extent of America's progress. The draft in question, a repeal of a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion, secured nationally through Roe v Wade’s 1973 case. Choosing to end a potential life is heart-breaking. However, it is important to remember a woman’s right to an abortion is different to enforcing an abortion. If abortion is legal, women are not required to have abortions; it just gives them a choice of acquiring one safely. In contrast, criminalising abortion doesn’t enforce a complete ban. Rather it removes the safe circumstances they can be operated under. Legal or not, the statistics for women seeking abortions is largely equal. Therefore, the situation regarding abortion is simply a choice of whether we want to limit the deaths of women too. It is only through abortion’s legalisation and subsequent regulation further endangerment to life can be avoided.

The ramifications of overturning Roe V Wade is more than a matter of loss of life though, it is a re-entrenchment of patriarchal control. Here Rich’s words leap off the page into the present. Roe V Wade took a choice about women’s own bodies from men, which had been a historical precedent, and placed it back in the hands of women. The soon to materialise proposal will reverse what had been a major empowerment of women.

Sadly, gun control is an issue with no chance of being reversed, or progressed, or any sign of change. Gun control is like a truck stuck in an ever-lasting, ever-gripping, ever-depressing – NRA sponsored – mud. This is despite homicides increasing in America by 75 percent in the previous decade. Three quarters of which committed with guns. Each mass shooting that now occurs causes the tires to spin, but this is only an illusion of movement. Change remains sickeningly stagnant.

Take the most recent mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas. The second most deadly school shooting in America’s history and the reaction has remained horrifyingly predictable. We have the typical thoughts and prayers parade and reanimation of politicians expressing desire for change. Yet where there was supposedly “serious” bipartisan discussion, Uvalde has now largely been dropped from the news and political agenda. Dropped alongside the equally horrifying events of Las Vegas, Orlando, Sandy Hook and countless others. Once again, the wheels spinning aimlessly. America’s political elite are happy to keep their thoughts and prayers on standby for the next roster of school kids.

Putting aside the evidently problematic gun lobby’s hold over Congress, the political discourse surrounding gun control itself is indicative of the stalemate. Politicians on both sides of the debate will run towards statistics to support their position but fail to portray the meaning of the data. For example, I was shocked to discover the repeated statistic that 70 percent of Americans support gun control was not entirely accurate. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll stated only 52 percent of Americans wanted stricter gun control. The lowest desire since 2014. Yet, even this statistic fails to paint a clear picture, as polling on gun control at large differs from opinion on specific gun policies. Some states like California already have more stringent gun laws in comparison to states like Texas. Meaning if you ask citizens from those respective states if they want stricter gun control, you end up with an already satisfied Californian citizen answering no, whereas a concerned Texan would answer yes. That is where the middling 52 percent answer Gallup determined comes from. However, if you ask about a specific gun control policy, such as background checks and mental health restrictions, 80 percent are overwhelmingly in favour. Politicians’ failure to accurately reflect the statistics surrounding the popularity of gun control reforms only continues to keep these issues stuck in the mud.

Of course, a figure like Donald Trump would shout back at my commentary on America’s abortion and gun control plights that these are “liberal elite” issues. Not related to the quiet ordinary working class Americans he supposedly represents. This criticism fails though when this group remains just as forgotten as before his term in office. Whilst wages have risen for college graduates, and to some extent minorities too because of anti-discrimination measures, since 1979 the wages for the majority of America’s workforce – white working-class people without higher education – have witnessed their wages decreasing. The resulting atmosphere of despair has led this group's life expectancy through drinking and opioids to decline. Evidently, there is more wrong with America than just “liberal elite” issues.

The reality is the problems present in America may be in some respects different to the seventies but are nonetheless just as problematic. America exceptionalism is dead, murdered by America’s exceptionally depressing issues waving an AR-15. It is not time to grieve this myth though. Only by accepting the reality of this situation can we, as Rich wrote, birth a reality different to America’s current wreck.

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