America, the State of the Union, and Economic Imperialism

When the President spoke this past Wednesday evening, he covered a lot of ground, and while some of the rhetoric was partisan, some of it appealed to American exceptionalism.  This is a theme that most Presidents touch on because Americans continue to have this sense of manifest destiny, that we are divinely ordained to do something great for the world.  But, we must ask the question -- what is the effect of our need to be Number 1. 

I've been reading an excellent book by John Moses entitled The Reluctant Revolutionary, a book that sets Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life and work in the context of a Hegelian fueled sense of German Exceptionalism.  We all know how that ended up. 

So, the question that is raised here concerns the sense in the US that we must be #1.  Even when the issues -- clean energy are in the equation -- what is the sensibility that demands that we not be number 2?  I realize it plays well, but what is the message to the world?

Mark Toulouse, writing for Religion and Ethics Weekly (from his new position as Principal of Emmanuel College, in Toronto), makes this statement:

I applaud Obama’s concern for both “energy efficiency and clean energy,” but his argument that the “nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy“ and that “America must be that nation” places “greening” at the service of a greedy desire to retain (regain?) control of the world’s resources.  What has American leadership of the global economy done for the world? What had it accomplished in Haiti prior to this devastating earthquake, for example? Studies like the one done by the World Institute for Development Economics Research at United Nations University indicate that the bottom 50 percent of the world’s adults own around one percent of global wealth, while the world’s richest one percent of adults owned approximately 40 percent of the world’s resources. Or, as economist Branko Milanovic of the World Bank put it in 2002, “The top 10 percent of the US population has an aggregate income equal to income of the poorest 43 percent of people in the world.” Yes, by all means, let’s keep that going.
It is doubly ironic that the core of the first State of the Union address from a black president would contain such a profoundly affirmative nod in the direction of good old US economic imperialism—doubly ironic because, first, the history of slavery and racism is definitely connected to such classic American economic hubris, and, second, he made this particular case so clearly dependent on the rhetoric of Martin Luther King. “How long should we wait?” Obama asked. “How long should America put its future on hold? … Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America….It’s time to get serious about fixing the problems that are hampering our growth.”

The call to be first gained standing ovations from both sides, but again, what is the message?


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