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The Great Exception

For hundreds of years, the rules didn't seem to apply to America the Perfect.

By William T. Vollmann

06/04/07 "
Los 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 clutches.

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 crowd.

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 attack Iraq?"

We were Americans, you see. Why not do whatever suited our whims?

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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