Journey from “The Center of the World”: On U.S. Exceptionalism and Disgust

Contributors:

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With this new contribution by Zoé Samudzi, we continue the dialogue we have been loving having with her for the past few years. Writing from the United States itself, she analyzes the logics and psyche of the particular form of U.S. exceptionalism that a leftist critique solely focused on U.S. imperialism produces. In doing so, she shows us how adoration and disgust of the U.S. are the two sides of the same Americentric coin.

The ending of the Cold War, the collapse (and defeat) of the Soviet Union (and so, in a way, communist statecraft), brought about a relative unipolarity of political power. The years that followed were shaped by theorists and pundits scrambling to forecast the political epoch that would fill the vacuum previously inhabited by tense superpower conflict. Validly criticized for a laundry list of reasons, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992) claimed that Western liberal democracy was the “end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution,” and that its “universalization” would be “the final form of human government.” Four years later and in direct response to his former student, Samuel P. Huntington advanced his Kulturekampf-ian theory of civilizational clash: that the post-Cold War political arena would be defined by cultural conflict, represented in their highest developmental form by the civilization. Per his thesis, Western civilization, naturally led by the United States, would be increasingly at odds with the rest of the world cordoned into civilizational clusters. Major contestations (clashes) would come from “Sinic” civilizations (i.e. China), and threats presented by increasingly destabilizing fundamentalist Islam. In “The Clash of Ignorance,” an essay published after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Edward Said rightfully criticized Huntington’s central implication that it is necessary to strengthen the United States such that it sufficiently eliminates any challenge that might undermine its naturalized claim to unfettered hegemonic power.

This thesis of civilizational clash, Said writes, is far more a justification for and reinforcement of jingoism than an analytic that offers any real insight into the global interdependence of allegedly discrete civilizational entities and the temporalities in which they are allegedly situated (e.g. the oft repeated belief in the antithesis between Islam and modernity). Most left analyses in the United States fortunately do not generally take cues from the kind of Orientalism, xenophobia, and perpetual preparation for war that constitutes its foreign policy. But they are nevertheless entangled in U.S. exceptionalisms of another kind.