The Great Exception
For hundreds of years, the rules didn't seem to apply to America
By William T. Vollmann
Angeles Times" -- - CALIFORNIA HAS sometimes been
referred to as "the Great Exception," but for better and worse,
this term applies quite well to all of our United States.
We commenced our independence as the nation that overthrew a
government of men for a government of laws. William Blake wrote
poems about us; the French Revolution was in part inspired by
us. Like all institutions, we often fell short of our best
possibilities, but bit by bit, falteringly and over decades and
centuries, we improved ourselves. Belatedly and grudgingly, we
abolished slavery; still more belatedly, we admitted that
equality of representation included women as well as men. There
are places on this Earth that have not yet achieved this much.
Nor did we rest there. I have visited any number of countries
where free speech is not even a dream. In America, I can rail
against my government to my heart's content, knowing that there
will be no midnight knock at my door. If some bully in uniform
does pick on me, I have a decent chance of legally escaping his
Not only has America striven intermittently to be fair and even
good, it remains an excellent place to make and keep money. It
is, as they say, the locus of the easy life. And so, in spite of
Native American genocide, Jim Crow, ruthless monopolism, etc.,
we became and for a very long time remained an ideal for
ourselves and others.
I remember an old man from what used to be called
Czechoslovakia; he escaped the communist regime by skiing over
many mountains, and he finally found haven in California. I ate
at his restaurant 40 years later. He told me that he had always
dreamed of living in America. He still considered America the
best place on Earth. In so many countries — from Kazakhstan to
Colombia to Afghanistan — I have met people like him, people who
long to be saved by going to America.
I remain grateful to have been born an American. As I get older,
I admire our Constitution more and more. But what I love the
most about my experience of American-ness is our famous
individualism. Not everyone needs to like me, but I assume, with
some correctness, that my eccentricities will be tolerated. I am
my own person — and sometimes lonely for that, but that is the
price that an American pays. I am, as you are, an exception in a
We are Americans, and so until recently, we knew that we were
the best. Because so many people wanted to be us, we could act
as we pleased — and we did, because we were the Great Exception;
we were America the Blessed. Hence our complacent belief, so
long borne out by the facts, that American movies and American
brands would always sell. Hence also our comforting faith that
the Kyoto Protocol did not apply to us, so that we could spew
out all the greenhouse gases we liked, and use a pig's share of
the world's resources. (Just this week, I learned of the U.S.'
new plan for energy independence: coal plants, subsidized for
the next 25 years.)
Being America the Perfect, we invented the doctrine, even before
9/11, that we could seize war criminals in any part of the globe
and whisk them off to The Hague. Of course, we insisted that
should we ever commit war crimes, we would remain immune to
prosecution in that court. Well, after all, how could Americans
do any wrong?
Our current administration of torturers (this word sounds so
shrill, so preposterous in relation to the America I believe in,
that I have to remind myself over and over that it is literally
accurate, that this president and his two attorneys general have
quite literally legalized torture) has gone further in this
direction than I ever could have imagined. President Bush's
modus operandi is this: Bull your way ahead. If you meet
obstacles, overcome them with arrogant bluster. If this fails,
proceed to vicious, mendacious brutality.
I wish I could blame him alone for the degradation of the
America I loved. Unfortunately, Americans not only voted for
this man, but after he proved himself to be a criminal, they
reelected him. As one of my friends replied when I asked why we
should attack Iraq when Iraq had done nothing to us: "Why not
We were Americans, you see. Why not do whatever suited our
And now what? "They hate us," we whisper to one another in
amazement. In another decade, we might even begin to wonder
about the degree of our exceptionality. What if we had to follow
the rules that everyone else does?
Well, why not put off that pain as long as possible? It's much
more fun to remain the Great Exception.
Alas, while we hunker down behind the drawbridge, awaiting our
next 9/11, we don't even take the trouble to be united.
Exceptionalism undermines us from within.
Alaskan towns are tilting in the melting permafrost, but who
cares down in the Lower 48? Republicans and Democrats hate each
other. Automobiles isolate us. Generations of advice-givers have
made us believe that profit best defines the successful life,
and so the white-collar crooks of Enron and the ghetto thugs who
murder as they please celebrate their own exceptionalism against
the rest of us.
Exceptionalism may be understandable and even excusable, but it
should not be eternally acceptable. All-white juries have
unjustly convicted black defendants in this country, and that
makes me ashamed; but the notion that a 21st century criminal
trial cannot be fair unless at least some jurors are the same
race as the defendant is of a piece with the idea that men and
women will never understand each other, that Muslim cab drivers
can refuse to pick up passengers who carry liquor and that
right-to-life pharmacists can refuse to fill a desperate woman's
prescription for the morning-after pill.
Let's pander while Rome burns! I'm not worried; I'll never catch
fire. Like each and all of us, I'm my own favorite exception.
WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN is the author of numerous books, among
them, "Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence,
Freedom and Urgent Means," and, most recently, "Poor People."
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