Skip to main content

TallBear: ‘Exceptionalism’ narrative doesn't jive

  • Author:
  • Updated:

On May 19 at Crow Agency, Mont., Barack Obama received a Crow name that translates as “One who helps people throughout the land” [Indian Country Today, Vol. 27, Iss. 51]. He then committed, if president, to fulfill tribal treaty obligations: a fitting promise for a candidate who has the “audacity of hope.”

Does Obama understand the enormity of his promise? Fulfilling treaty commitments will entail legal and material remedies that the majority of Americans will be unwilling to accept – especially the renegotiation of title to vast tracts of land, including the Black Hills, and tremendous financial commitments. The political and economic challenges of fulfilling Obama’s promise make it unconvincing.

Nevertheless, David Wilkins and Tsianina Lomawaima (Uneven Ground, 2001) note a similar audacity to hope on the part of American Indian tribes. In the face of a lengthy list of treaty violations by the United States, and persistent U.S. colonial domination, tribes exercise faith in the federal-tribal “trust” doctrine and the rule of law, even as they engage in “everyday acts of resistance.” Some see such faith as naïve or representative of deep psychological colonization. Quoting Jim Wallace (The Soul of Politics, 1994), Wilkins and Lomawaima interpret such faith as “hope believed,” as “history in the process of being changed.” It is no surprise that Obama’s message resonates in Indian country.

I am dubious about the prospect for treaty rights with an Obama (or a Sen. John McCain) presidency. But as an American more broadly, I am cautiously optimistic about the change that Obama can bring. It is a good thing – probably fundamental to his tolerant and diplomatic disposition – that he lived overseas, and did so outside the context of the military and in a place as culturally different from the U.S. as Indonesia. He is the most democratically inclined and socially savvy of the two main candidates. He has always been a critic of waging war against Iraq. He favors diplomacy before military aggression with Iran, and unlike McCain he seems able to admit and apologize for his diplomatic and factual mistakes.

But key aspects of his platform dampen my hope for fundamental change. The ideology of exceptionalism, which Obama shares with McCain and with many Americans – both liberal and conservative – informs his broader platform. He preaches exceptionalism alongside a mantra of democracy and inclusiveness.

Obama talks often about the “greatness” and “goodness” of the U.S. He pledges to restore the American dream, and he claims that “in no other country on Earth is [his] story even possible.” As if other nations don’t have histories of colonialism, immigration and racial diversity. As if social and economic mobility is uniquely American.

Sustaining the ideology of “the American dream” requires the down-playing of social and political change in other countries, and the elevation of economic prosperity – however gotten – above other types of prosperity.

American exceptionalism requires that the truths and experiences of the very constituents Obama seeks to enfranchise – the politically and economically disempowered – be painted as non-fundamental to the history, character and prosperity of the U.S. Their contradictory experiences get downplayed or silenced in favor of the grand narrative, and progress gets interpreted not as humane social action and hard political work but as the inevitable outcome of inherent U.S. American righteousness.

This is simply inaccurate. Certainly there are nations that don’t do as well as the U.S. on multiple counts. On the other hand, other nations have already elected women presidents or indigenous presidents. Other nations ended slavery before the U.S., or never engaged in it at all. Other nations already offer national health care, empower labor, regulate lending institutions, and protect the environment.

No other nation in the world imprisons the proportion or the sheer number of human beings that we do. A disproportionate number are black, Hispanic and American Indian. No other nation has detonated a nuclear weapon in war killing tens of thousands of civilians.

The tired story of American exceptionalism does not jive with our knowledge of world affairs and how foundational dispossession, exploitation and violence have been to the rise of U.S. power and prosperity. Such aspects of U.S. history are not the exceptions that betray the true democratic soul of the U.S. As much as the feel-good events, these are integral to the American story and how we developed as a powerful nation.

Which brings me back to Obama. To what degree will a presidency built on the ideological platform of American exceptionalism bring change? I know that if Obama is to be elected, he can only be so critical. We who support his campaign can afford to be more so. I see no contradiction in finding the hope to elect Obama – that it might make a difference in reducing suffering in the world – while resisting the narrative of U.S. exceptionalism upon which he builds his platform. Questioning that narrative publicly is doing my part to hope for and enact change.

I reject the idea that electing a Black man to the White House (or a woman if it had been Hillary Clinton) will happen because of an inherent and uniquely U.S. American ethos of equality and inclusion. It will not be because we are restoring an idealized America that never existed, not even in the minds of its slaveholding and expansionist founders.

It will be because enough of us – as in other times and places – have tired of the current set of corrupt leaders who share little common ground with any of us. It will be because enough of us – joining many others around the world – can see Obama as a human being who is part of configuring a different kind of world. At least that’s what we hope.

Kim TallBear is a member of the Oak Lake Writers’ Society and is enrolled in the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate. She is an assistant professor of science, technology and environmental policy at the University of California – Berkeley.