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American Unexceptionalism

The city on a hill has its state media and oligarchs targeting dissenters, too.
American Unexceptionalism

Let me retell an old story you’ve probably read before. Once there was a raja, or some equally exotic sort of king, and he was a wise and good man. He cared for the poor and the needy and often invited them into his court to be fed and warmed. One day, four blind children came begging alms, and the king’s minister invited them inside. 

Now this raja owned a donkey, and these beggars, being blind and little experienced in the world, did not know it was a donkey or what a donkey was. And as they waited to be fed in the outer courtyard of the royal palace, they heard the donkey’s braying, and so they went up to it, to find out what the animal was. The first child felt the creature’s leg, and declared that it must be an especially large kind of goat. The second blind child felt its stomach, and said that no, indeed, it was a sort of tall pig. The third little beggar grabbed the donkey’s tail and wondered if it were not rather a kind of furry serpent. And the fourth sightless child felt its face and ears and remarked that the donkey seemed rather like a mythical creature she had been told of, the one purported to have been the sometime consort of the fairy queen, Titania.

Of course, as you well know, that is not how the story goes. Indeed, in the tale as it is commonly told it is an elephant that some blind men in India feel and describe, each in a different way. Eventually they learn that perspective matters, and that knowing something about a thing is not the same as knowing the thing itself—the whole is not always suggested by the part. We sighted people might conclude that some things are more easily seen from a distance. 

The Ukraine conflict, in which an illiberal multicultural empire has invaded a liberal imperial outpost—a conflict that, despite all the ample ra-ra-ra rally-around-the-flag evidence, the United States is not officially involved in—ought to be a similar learning opportunity for Americans paying attention. For one, there is the epistemic point. It is basically impossible to know with any certainty what is actually happening on the ground in a war mediated six ways from Sunday by interested parties and digital technology. You are only ever describing part of the war, not the war itself. But perhaps more important than that is the chance to recognize that the political situation we are very close to, here in the United States, obscured by proximity, is perhaps not so different from the politics we observe in the Eurasian frontier.

We have been told that Ukraine is an island of liberal democracy in a backwards sea of autocracies, and now under authoritarian attack. Liberal democracy is, you see, what the U.S. is, too. Not for us to question this coincidence, or to argue that while America is a liberal democracy, Ukraine actually isn’t. No. I believe women. If a journalist tells me Ukraine is a liberal democracy and liberal democracy is what Ukraine is then it must be so.

So, what is Ukraine like? Deeply corrupt, for a start. As TAC contributing editor Ted Galen Carpenter has detailed, Ukrainian authorities, including President Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelensky, have “harassed political dissidents, adopted censorship measures, and barred foreign journalists whom they regarded as critics of the Ukrainian government and its policies. Such offensive actions were criticized by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and other independent observers.” Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky owns many of the country’s important media outlets, including the television channel on which the political comedy that launched Zelensky and his actor friends onto the national stage first aired. He backed Zelensky’s candidacy. Kolomoisky has also backed extremist paramilitary groups, including the Azov battalion.

And what is America like? It is a liberal democracy, like Ukraine, so we should expect some similarities. Jeff Bezos, a powerful oligarch accused of monopolistic control of parts of the American economy, owns the Washington Post, one of the most important and influential political media companies in the country. The Post is famously the stenographer of what, in the Turkish fashion, American political observers call “the Deep State,” with strong ties to the military industrial complex. It is used to harass political dissidents, push censorship measures, and bar independent journalists whom the establishment regard as critics of the American regime and its policies. Yesterday, a piece by Post tech columnist Taylor Lorenz was published targeting the popular “Libs of TikTok” Twitter account, which seeks to bring attention to progressive extremism and stupidity.

Like in Ukraine, where Kolomoisky is not the only oligarch, just the one profiting most from the current regime, America too has dissident oligarchs in addition to those in its establishment. When the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, made moves to purchase Twitter—the de facto public square for elite discourse—in the name of free speech, reactions were immediate and hysterical. Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis compared the possibility to the imminent collapse of the Weimar Republic, and was not alone in the sentiment. Fascism, the chattering class seemed to suggest, is when the rubes get a voice, too. There’s something to think about. A former U.S. secretary of labor, Robert Reich, called Musk’s vision for a populist Twitter “the dream of every dictator, strongman, demagogue and modern-day robber baron on Earth.” As the writer Geoff Shullenberger observed, “Those fretting about the world’s wealthiest man gaining control over their favorite site have scarcely objected to the fact that the media outlets, think tanks, NGOs, and universities they work for comprise a patronage network bankrolled by a handful of other billionaires like eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.”

Like the children in my little story, too many Americans are blinded by what makes America exceptional—its founding aspirations, its great size and abundant resources, its historical respect for liberty and orderly civic virtues and culture of exploration and construction—to see the parts of her politics that are decidedly unexceptional. As the United States has over the last century sought to shape the world in its image, especially places like Ukraine, and as the ruling regime has pursued a policy of free movement of people and money, there has been a global homogenization. Yes, they look more like us, but so too do we look more like them. Those in power have spent down a great inheritance, and few seem to care how long what is left can be lived on. If we only stepped back to look, we might be able to see what’s right in front of us.

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