Culture Magazine

Is American Exceptionalism at Core a Detachment from Reality?

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

John Gray reviews Bruno Maçães, History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America, in The New Statesman, October 28, 2020.


For the Portuguese former diplomat Bruno Maçães, however, the decoupling of American culture from the objective world is a portent of great things to come. Finally shedding its European inheritance, America is creating a truly new world, “a new, indigenous American society, separate from modern Western civilisation, rooted in new feelings and thoughts”. The result, Maçães suggests, is that American politics has become a reality show. The country of Roosevelt and Eisenhower was one in which, however lofty the aspiration, there was always a sense that reality could prove refractory. The new America is built on the premise that the world can be transformed by reimagining it. Liberals and wokeists, conservatives and Trumpists are at one in treating media confabulations as more real than any facts that may lie beyond them.

Maçães welcomes this situation, since it shows that American history has finally begun. As he puts it at the end of this refreshingly bold and deeply thought-stirring book, “For America the age of nation-building is over. The age of world-building has begun.”


American thought has always tended to a certain solipsism, a trait that has become more prominent in recent times. If Fukuyama and his neoconservative allies believed the world was yearning to be remade on an imaginary American model, the woke movement believes “whiteness” accounts for all the evils of modern societies. America’s record of slavery and racism is all too real. Even so, passing over in silence the repression and enslavement of peoples outside the West – Tibetans, Uighurs and now Mongols in China, for example – because they cannot be condemned as crimes of white supremacy reveals a wilfully parochial and self-absorbed outlook.

Wokery is the successor ideology of neo-conservatism, a singularly American world-view. That may be why it has become a powerful force only in countries (such as Britain) heavily exposed to American culture wars. In much of the world – Asian and Islamic societies and large parts of Europe, for example – the woke movement is marginal, and its American prototype viewed with bemused indifference or contempt.

In contrast, Russia:

Reflected in varying degrees throughout the west, America’s immersion in self-invented worlds contrasts starkly with Russian practice. Like the US, Russia conceals awkward facts behind a media-created veil. Unlike those in the US, Russia’s ruling elites know this virtual world is deceptive. The point is not to create a new reality but to obscure what is actually happening. When Vladimir Putin asserted that Russian forces had not entered Ukraine, no one apart from a handful of anti-western ultra-leftists believed him. When the Kremlin denies Russian pilots are targeting schools and hospitals in Syria, there is well-founded disbelief. When officials deny that the Russian state had any hand in the 2018 Novichok attack in Salisbury and the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, hardly anyone believes this is true. Nonetheless, the continuous repetition of these falsehoods has succeeded in clouding perception of the behavior of Putin’s regime.

The Chinese project of cultural homogenization is borrowed from the West:

Regime-friendly Chinese intellectuals are fond of telling western visitors that China is not a nation state but a “civilisation state”, and there has been a shift towards touting the merits of Confucian governance. Yet in many ways Xi’s regime is copying the homogenising national states constructed in Europe after the French Revolution. Like them, it aims to impose a monoculture where different ways of life existed before. In Revolutionary France, which under the ancien régime contained many languages and peoples, this was achieved through military conscription and a national education system. Another, more violent process of nation-building by ethnic cleansing occurred in central and eastern Europe after the collapse of the Hapsburg empire.

Following these precedents, Xi is using the state machine to fabricate an immemorial Chinese nation and obliterate minority cultures. As in its pursuit of maximal economic growth, China is building a future imported from the Western past. ... How curious if, as the 21st century staggers on, a hyper- authoritarian China emerges as the only major state still governed by an Enlightenment faith in progress.

H/t Tyler Cowen.

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