The Ointment: Thoughts on American Exceptionalism
“After my experiences in Europe, that illusion had been shattered, and all I could see was the horrid realities of a deluded nation in which the vast majority of citizens were kept under a spell, believing with all their might that they were living the best lives possible while in reality their average standard of living pales in comparison to most of the Western world."
I never bought into American ideology, even as a small child. I was that kid that was given detention in the fifth grade for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. I was also the teenager who was given detention in the ninth grade for standing up in history class and referring to Christopher Columbus as a “genocidal ass.” I read Howard Zinn around that time, had pen-pals from France and Germany, and by the time I left high school I was pretty convinced that the whole “America is the greatest country on Earth” mentality was a load of crap.
Moving to New York after high school and befriending many Europeans only cemented that determination for me. When I was in my early twenties, a girl my age from France became my housemate for six months while interning at a radio station in Manhattan. My friends and I took her to our favorite restaurants, bought the food we cooked from the local farmers’ markets, showed her what in our opinion was the best of the best that NYC had to offer. And so I was rather shocked one day a few months into her visit when she mentioned how surprised she was at how awful the produce was.
“It's tasteless,” she said to me, almost embarrassed and yet determined in her honesty. “It’s bigger and more colorful than anything I’ve ever had in France, but it’s tasteless.”
I wasn’t so much offended, but I did feel bit of bruising to my pride at the moment. After all, the Union Square Farmers’ Market was nationally famous. Cable television cooking shows always featured the city’s top chefs sourcing their food from that very market. In processing my emotions around her observation, it was the first time that I was able to reflect on the fact that, despite overtly rejecting the idea of American exceptionalism, I still retained the tendency. It was hard for me to accept that the “best of the best” of what New York City had to offer was “tasteless” by the standards of a woman from a small city in southern France.
And yet I believed her. I had no reason not to.
Twelve years later, during my first trip to France last summer, Rhyd and I were sitting with friends around a fire one night, in a deep and humorous discussion about American foods that don’t exist in France and vice-versa. It was one of those conversations that led to a lot of “lost in translation” moments, where the differences were a matter of cultural understandings. After explaining the existence of--and trying my best to justify-- such foods as Twinkies, Easy-Cheese, and Kool-Aid, suddenly ranch dressing came to my mind. “Most kids grow up on it,” I said. “Its what parents use so that kids will eat their vegetables,” I said.
“Why would kids need anything to convince them to eat vegetables?” my friend asked in return, confusion in his voice.
I laughed to myself, remembering that in France, the vegetables weren’t tasteless the way they are in America. Carrots, celery, bell peppers - all of these have a deep and distinctive taste that American produce is sorely lacking. I thought back to the observations of my French housemate years back in NYC, and then thought of the delicious produce I had been eating in the last month, which was the tastiest food that I had ever eaten in my life. And once again, in that moment, I swallowed my pride as I felt a stirring of internalized exceptionalism.
It was in another friend’s kitchen in Strasbourg a few weeks later that I was forced to truly come to terms with that stirring.
Rhyd and I were cooking dinner, and as I went to open the window I saw a small machine in the corner that looked kind of like a washer, kind of like a dryer, but not quite like either.
“What is it?" I asked our friend.
“It’s a laundry machine,” she answered.
“Which one?” I asked.
She looked at me, confused. “Is that the wrong word,” she asked me. “Laundry?”
“Yes, the word is laundry, but I don’t understand if it's a washer or a dryer,” I said.
She looked at me once again, confused. “Well it does both, of course,” she answered.
I stared at the machine, speechless for a moment, envisioning the bulky white stacked washer-dryer combo machines that were typical in small American apartments. I then bent over and examined it for a moment. How can it do both, I thought to myself. And why have I never seen this before in the United States? I then looked up at the window, looking for the big dryer vent tube that came out of every American dryer. There was none.“Where’s the vent?” I asked.
“It doesn’t need one,” she replied, and I could tell by the sound of her voice that she was just as surprised at my ignorance as to how the machine works as I was of its existence. “The moisture goes back into the machine and is re-used in the next wash cycle.”
Why the fuck don’t we have these in the United States, I said to myself as I just stared at the machine, my mouth hanging open. Thinking of how much easier my life would be back home in the States with a machine like this, I suddenly felt rage and shock rumble within me. The conflict between my rational understanding that American exceptionalism was a lie and the implicit programming that I had still taken on in terms of such beliefs was suddenly clear as day.
I shouldn’t have been in disbelief at the fact that there were household appliances that were considered typical and everyday in France but were years ahead of anything that we had in the United States, and yet my internal monologue was stuck in the depths of that implicit programming. How do we not have this in the United States, the inner voice said again, despite the fact that I knew the answer even as I was hearing my inner voice.
I was so caught up in my own emotional conflict that I almost didn’t hear what she said next, which of course made it even worse. “That’s not even such a nice one - that’s an older model. The newer ones are much more efficient and compact.”
II. The Ointment
There’s a Celtic faery tale which I first came across as part of the lore of the Feri Tradition, that is usually known as “The Faery’s Midwife.” There are a few different versions, but the general plot is as follows:
A village midwife hears a knock on the door late at night, the visitor being a strange looking little old man whose wife is about to give birth and is in need of help. She agreed, and they mount his horse which leads them past the village and deep into the woods in a direction she had never been before.
Soon they arrive at a tiny little elven-looking cottage in the woods, where the wife is inside struggling with labor. The midwife helps her through the labor and the baby is born healthy. Right after the baby is born, the mother hands an odd-looking jar of ointment to the midwife and asks her to run it in the newborn’s eyes, stressing that it’s a family tradition. The midwife does so, but out of curiosity, also rubs a bit into one of her eyes when the couple isn’t looking.
Suddenly, out of the eye in which she rubbed the ointment, she saw the funny little cottage transformed into a horrid-looking shack, the couple transformed into hairy, impish-looking creatures that had little resemblance to humans, and the cute little newborn appeared almost as a small animal. The husband, having not noticed what the midwife had done, gives his thanks and then offers her a ride home. She accepts his offer, afraid of what she has seen but pretending that nothing was amiss in fear of what the consequence will be if the impish man finds out what she has done.
A few weeks later, she was shopping at the local market when she saw the impish man, stealing from a fruit cart right in front of the vendor who did not seem to notice. Without thinking, she waved hello to him and asked about how his wife and baby were doing. He looked over at her with a shocked expression that quickly turned to anger. At that moment, she realizes that she is the only one in the market that can see him, but it is too late. He also realized at that moment that she must have rubbed the ointment in her eye.
“By which eye do you see me?” he asks the midwife. She points to her right eye, and he instantaneously draws a blade and stabs her eye out, blinding her and breaking the spell.
A few days after my experience with the laundry machine in Strasbourg last summer, I flew back to the United States, first to New York and then home to Portland. Arriving home, I tried to re-orient myself to life in the States again, but this time something was different. Everything I had previously known and loved and taken for granted had an ugly tinge to it upon my return
All I could think of was the tale of the Faery Midwife, and I realized that those moments in France were akin to getting some of that ointment in my eye. It was impossible for me to see the United States as I had known it before. Despite always knowing on a theoretical level that we lagged far behind much of the developed world, the constant doses of American exceptionalism had still kept me in an illusory state.
After my experiences in Europe, that illusion had been shattered, and all I could see was the horrid realities of a deluded nation in which the vast majority of citizens were kept under a spell, believing with all their might that they were living the best lives possible while in reality their average standard of living pales in comparison to most of the Western world.
III. The Deprogramming
Sociologists make an important distinction between “racism” and “implicit bias,” and that distinction has everything to do with intent and conscious thoughts versus social programming and subconscious messaging.
I was raised knowing that racism was wrong, that Blacks and whites were equal in ability, intelligence, and potential, and that discrimination was unethical. And yet, being born and raised as a white person in a white supremacist society, racist ideas and concepts seeped into my subconscious mind nonetheless. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens when I first moved to a mostly Black neighborhood that I first ever began to realize that, despite being morally and ethically opposed to racism, I nonetheless had implicit bias issues that I needed to work through. And for the past two decades now I’ve been unraveling those biases, shining light on them and tackling them head-on, realizing more and more as the years pass that such a task is a lifetime’s work.
Over the past year, I have come to understand that American exceptionalism works in a similar way to implicit bias. Despite forcefully rejecting it on the surface for most of my conscious life, it wasn’t until I spent a month in Europe last summer that I realized how much I had internalized the ideas of exceptionalism. When I returned to the United States and started to talk about my experiences with others who had been abroad, I quickly found that every person I spoke with had the same reactions and realizations.
And returning to France this past spring, this time for three months where I still remain as I write this, has only furthered my understanding of how deep-rooted such exceptionalism runs.
IV. "The Greatest Country in the World"
Here in France, I am more aware than ever of the level to which I’m still deprogramming myself from the ideas of American exceptionalism, and that process, combined with the day in and day out exposure I have to French culture, has made me more critical of the insidious nature of American exceptionalism as well as the flaws and pitfalls of the American way of life compared to everyday life in Europe.
And I’m not quiet about such realizations. Frankly, I air them as often as I observe them, sometimes on a daily basis.
And I must admit that if seeing the truth for the first time was akin to getting some of the ointment in my eye, the reactions I often get from airing those truths is not much different than others trying to smother that vision and poke my eye out.
Not only are Americans taught from a young age both explicitly and implicitly that America is the greatest country in the world, many are often taught to militantly defend that belief through their words and actions. In a country where one of the reasons we are supposedly the greatest is because of “freedom of speech,” it often seems that the only kind of speech that is truly untolerated is speech that questions America’s greatness.
“Don’t like America?” Go somewhere else then. Love it or leave it.”
Never mind the fact that actually leaving the United States permanently is incredibly challenging due to the restrictive immigration laws of most other nations, such a sentiment also demonstrates a notable fragility inherent in those who put it forth. One of the reasons that “love it or leave it” is so often a default response to criticism of America is because American exceptionalism is mainly built on ideology. There is very little tangible evidence available to back up the beliefs and claims as to America’s greatness.
There was a brief time in American history in the years immediately following WWII where at least a certain segment of the population (white, male, middle-class) could claim that they were experiencing the greatest standard of living in the developed world. But in the past several decades, especially in the time since the adoption of neoliberalism, any and all claims to America’s greatness in terms of facts and statistics has evaporated, leaving us with nothing but ideology to cling to. Nowadays there is indeed many lists of statistics in which America comes in as “#1”, but absolutely none of them are anything to be bragging about. We have been far surpassed by the rest of the Western world in nearly every conceivable positive category.
Most Americans are kept in the dark about this, however, not only because of the constant barrage of messaging about how we are indeed the greatest, but, in part due to our high levels of poverty as well as our tendency towards isolationism, very few Americans have ever left the United States to see how life is actually like abroad. Americans are full of stereotyped opinions about places like Europe, but for the most part those ideas are not based in reality.
With so little exposure to other cultures and societies, combined with the omnipresent belief that their own country is the greatest on earth without question, the ideology and egregore of America’s greatness is able to stand strong with few challenges. When it is challenged, the true believers run quickly to the front lines in its defense.
And yet, despite being the recipient of such angry defenses on a regular basis, I sympathize ans understand it nonetheless. American exceptionalism is deeply tied to American identity, an identity that like exceptionalism itself has little to prop it up once you scrape away the layers of ideology.
After all, if America isn’t the best, if we're not “#1", what and who are we?
Alley Valkyrie is an writer, artist, and spirit worker currently living in Rennes, France. She is one of the co-founders of Gods&Radicals and has been interacting with a wide assortment of both gods and radicals for nearly twenty years now. When she’s not talking to rivers and cats or ranting about capitalism, she is usually engaged in a variety of other projects. She can also be supported on Patreon.