The Human Idea

by Joyce Carol Oates

(written in response to a 2007 invitation from The Atlantic Monthly for essays on 'The American Idea')

How heartily sick the world has grown, in the first seven years of the 21st century, of the American idea !


Speak with any non-American, travel to any foreign country, and the consensus is: The American idea has become a cruel joke, a blustery and bellicose bodybuilder luridly bulked up on steroids, consequently low on natural testosterone, deranged and myopic, dangerous.


What is most questionable - indeed, most dangerous - about the American idea is its very formulation: that there is a distinctly American idea, standing in contrast to Canadian, British, French, Chinese, Icelandic, Estonian, or mere human ideas.
Our unexamined belief in American exceptionalism has allowed us to imagine ourselves above anything so constrictive as international law.

American exceptionalism makes our imperialism altruistic, our plundering of the world's resources a healthy exercise of capitalism and "free trade."


From childhood we are indoctrinated with the propaganda that America is superior to other nations; that our way of life, a mass-market "democracy" manipulated by lobbyists, is superior to all other forms of government; that no matter how frivolous and debased, our American culture is the supreme culture, as our language is the supreme language; that our most blatantly imperialistic and and cynical political goals are always idealistic, while the goals of other nations are transparently opportunistic.

Perhaps the most pernicious of of American ideas is the revered "My country, right or wrong," with its thinly veiled threat of punishment for those who hesitate to participate in a criminal patriotism. The myth of American exceptionalism begins with the revolt of the Colonies against the British crown. In 1776, what a thrilling, exhilarating American idea !

But in the first decade of the 21st century, in a vastly altered world, and considering the higher degree of civilisation embodied by Canada - which waged no war against the British and was disinclined to rush into war or celebrate the violence of the frontier or declare itself exceptional - it might be a timely American idea to examine our very origins.

Joyce Carol Oates - Princeton University professor and renowned author
(- extract from The Atlantic Monthly, November 2007)