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25 Jun

Uncle Sam & American Exceptionalism

Written by Michael Fuchs
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The Great Arsenal of Democracy: Uncle Sam and American Exceptionalism at the End of the American Century

American Exceptionalism at the End of the American Century

American exceptionalism has been conceived as "the distinct belief that the United States is unique, if not superior, when compared to other nations" (Weiss & Edwards 2011: 1). While ideas connected to American exceptionalism can be found throughout the post-Columbian history of America, the concept's emergence can most readily be traced to Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. In his magnum opus, the French political thinker argues that "the position of the Americans is […] quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one" (2007 [1840]: 31). Published about half a century after the Revolutionary War, Tocqueville's book was written at a time when the United States was still seeking to establish its identity, trying to ascertain what it was and in what ways it was different from the rest of the world. Not coincidentally, Herman Melville wrote around the same time that "we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time" (1892 [1850]: 144) and Walt Whitman sang his song to America. That through much of the nineteenth century, America "was truly more exceptional […] than at any time since" (Hodgson 2009: 156) seems to be a rather coincidental historical foundation upon which the "state fantasy" (Pease 2009) of American exceptionalism was built.

When, in the early twentieth century, Marxists pondered why the United States, as the emblem of capitalism, was the only Western country which lacked a serious socialist movement and thus seemed to be exempt from their envisioned determinist historical pattern, American exceptionalism appeared to be the logical answer. In fact, none other than Joseph Stalin coined the term 'American exceptionalism' in 1929 (Pease 2007: 108). This connection to socialism defined America's exceptional role through much of the twentieth century, for it was because of the foe of communism that the myth of American exceptionalism was increasingly perpetuated around the globe. Harry S. Truman's declaration that one of the most essential tasks of the President of the United States was to "lead the whole free world in overcoming the communist menace" (2013 [1953]: par. 8) seems exemplary of how the United States defined its global role during the Cold War. Starting in the late 1980s, the Soviet system fell apart and so did the established world order of mutually assured destruction. As a result, the U.S. stood tall as the lone superpower—an exceptional role at a time when a new world order was about to be negotiated, indeed. However, the U.S.S.R.'s collapse also affected Americans in a significant and unexpected way: "[T]he absence of a war with an external enemy onto which the antagonisms that emerged between [the various sub-groups of the American nation] could get projected […] caused deep fissures to appear" (Pease 2009: 35).

These fissures surfaced in myriad forms during the 1990s: Dances with Wolves (1990) drew on tensions between Native Americans and Whites (while seemingly unconsciously employing the noble savage stereotype in the process); the O. J. Simpson trial and Rodney King tape reignited racial tensions; and the 1995 decision to remove an Enola Gay exhibit from a fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the Hiroshima bombing in the Smithsonian due to allegations that the exhibit overemphasized the bombing's tragic aftermath (rather than celebrated its role in assuring American victory over Japan) offered evidence of the depth of America's struggle with its own past at that time.

In this late-twentieth-century environment of looming chaos, confusion, and American self-questioning and self-(re-)discovery, several pieces of fiction explored the meaning of 'America' by investigating the nation's past. On the surface, Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon (1997) dealt with the drawing of the Mason–Dixon line and white man's intervention in nature, but the novel also elaborately linked processes of globalization that had emerged in the early American republic to the late twentieth century while critiquing slavery and the expulsion of Native Americans in the process. Cleverly set against the backdrop of a covenant that used to house Native American women, Tony Morrison's Paradise (1997) took issue with essentialist constructions of race, thereby problematizing American history, which so strongly hinges upon the binary opposition between black and white (and white and red), at large. And Don DeLillo's Underworld (1997) pondered whether America, indeed, stood "triumphant for a third time this century, this time in the wake of the Cold War" (Bush 2013 [1991]: par. 11). Whereas George H. W. Bush considered the Soviet Union's dissolution "part of the ongoing story of America's success" (Cohen 2009: 7), Underworld's non-chronological structure subverts the idea of a predetermined historical process culminating in the triumph of America. Alongside these books penned by literary heavyweights, Steve Darnall and Alex Ross's Uncle Sam was published in 1997 and broached similar questions as the abovementioned novels did, yet it employed the mass culture medium of the comic for its purposes.

Originally published in two 52-page issues and subsequently re-issued as a 'deluxe edition' containing both issues plus some additional images, an introduction by music journalist and cultural critic Greil Marcus, and a short history of Uncle Sam's evolution, Uncle Sam combines artist Alex Ross's "hyperrealist photographic register" with 1990s' American comic books' tendency to "place[] illustrations in the service of stories drawn from outside the traditional confines of the comic book subculture" (Gabilliet 2010 [2005]: 102; 104) and emerges as a 'comic of ideas' rather than one that centers on plot. The comic opens by depicting its titular character as a poor homeless man in a nondescript American city before sending him on a journey through time and space in order to re-discover America's innocence. In the course of the episodic tale, Sam re-visits some of the most iconic moments in U.S. history, including the Boston Massacre, the Ford Hunger March, and the JFK Assassination. Confronted with all those dark spots in the history of the American nation, a disillusioned and lamenting Sam ponders the question "What has become of America?" On his journey to answering this question, Sam cannot but engage with American exceptionalism, an idea that lies at the heart of what 'America' means, for, as Deborah Madsen has suggested, American exceptionalism is the "single most powerful agent in a series of arguments that have been fought down the centuries concerning the identity of Americans and America" (1996: 1).

"We're number one and there's a lot of idiots who don't know that": Reflecting (on) American Exceptionalism

Although Madsen considers American exceptionalism the "single most powerful agent in a series of arguments […] concerning the identity of […] America," the exact meaning of the term is elusive, for it has carried a variety of meanings for different groups and has been employed for partly wildly opposing purposes over the decades. According to Seymour Martin Lipset, five major tenets unite America and help distinguish it from the rest of the world, "liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire" (1996: 19). Arnon Gutfeld has identified four theses that help explicate American exceptionalism, namely "Frederick Jackson Turner's material-geographic explanation; David Potter's material-cultural explanation; Sven Steinmo's institutional-political explanation; and Sacvan Bercovitch's cultural explanation" (2002: 34). And Donald Pease has opined that American exceptionalism

refer[s] to clusters of absent (feudal hierarchies, class conflicts, socialist labor party, trade unionism, and divisive ideological passions) and present (a predominant middle class, tolerance for diversity, upward mobility, hospitality toward immigrants, a shared constitutional faith, and liberal individualism) elements. (2009: 8)

These three definitions show differences in the more minute details, but a general agreement as to the meaning of Amerian exceptionalism. This general consensus entails an accord concerning the features which have characterized the United States from its very beginning and which have not only contributed to, but, in fact, shaped the global understanding of America's ostensibly unique role in the world—its exceptionalism, that is. Uncle Sam draws on various conceptualizations of American exceptionalism and emphasizes four elements which have defined America's exceptionalist role: time, space, democracy, and, most importantly, freedom.

American exceptionalism's temporal dimension is connected to the belief that America was a virgin land and its settlers were a "civilizing force in a new land, unblemished by the many faults of the old one" (Strassfeld 2006: 285). As a result, "Americans have long seen the American experience as one of new beginnings and an escape from the superstitions, prejudices, and practices of Europe" (Strassfeld 2006: 285). America has thus often been conceived an innocent nation without history, whose people is united by an ideology rather than shared historical traditions. Yet Uncle Sam takes a decided stand against the exceptionalist construct of America being, as Daniel Bell put it, "exempt from the laws of […] history" (1991: 51).

Uncle Sam shows how its titular character experiences American history first hand, as Sam's physical location in the space-time-continuum constantly changes. One moment, he is walking through a memorabilia store somewhere in the late-twentieth-century American South, the next, he sees dozens of slaughtered Native Americans in Illinois in the year 1832. This structure of interweaving distinct moments in American history far apart in time and space is employed throughout the comic, as past, present, and future uncannily merge. The resulting eradication of the borderlines between past and present is typical of what Linda Hutcheon has termed 'historiographic metafiction', which "offers a sense of presence of the past" (1988: 125). This presentness of the past is reinforced by Sam's constant recitation of iconic phrases that were uttered by past presidents and other political figures or originated in popular culture, thus supporting Hutcheon's argument that metahistoriographic texts depict a "past that can only be known from its texts, its traces" (1988: 125).

Uncle Sam employs its metahistoriographic layer to great effect in order to attack the "belief that America ha[s] a consensual history, that its past is less marked by conflict than other countries" (Lipset 1996: 25), a belief that has—among others—resulted from the conceptualization of America as the land of new beginnings without a past. In addition, the interconnections between past and present allow Uncle Sam to highlight that all of the dark moments that are scattered throughout American history (knowledge of which had been suppressed for so long) haunt America's present and, especially in a nation characterized by its future-orientation, its future.

Through its emphasis on the past's presentness, Uncle Sam suggests "the importance of phantoms to the general constitution of […] American national identity and consciousness" (Weinstock 2004: 7); that is, that America is anything but exempt from history. But the comic brings an important aspect to the table: To discuss specters, following Jacques Derrida, is "to speak […] about certain others who are not present, nor presently living […] in the name of justice. Of justice where it is not yet, […] where it is no longer, […] and where it will never be" (2006 [1993]: xviii1). Especially in a democratic society, these phantoms thus bespeak of a desire for justice, the necessity of a truthful representation of history. Of course, as a metahistoriographic text, Uncle Sam constantly highlights "the inherent possibility of, and concomitant danger in, the effacement of historical fact," but it also underlines the need for "retaining the reference to historical truth outside of merely competing subjectivities" (Berlatsky 2011: 1). Indeed, by stressing that Uncle Sam merges the "200 million stories" (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: I.12) the American nation could narrate, already the comic's first page clarifies that Sam's memories do not represent the subjective memories of an individual, but rather the collective memory of a nation, the repressed parts of which resurface. In this context, Donald Pease writes that

[t]he recognition of what was shameful about the historical past would enable its victims and their oppressors to take up a different position in the future. The shame would involve acceptance of the fact that America was an imperial society predominated by white settlers who pirated land, exploited and enslaved subaltern laborers, bullied and sometimes murdered whoever got in their way. (2009: 73)

While Pease's analysis of Clinton's New Covenant suggests that such an acceptance of America's dark history would expand the national family and symbolically welcome new members to its collective, the spectral dimension of American history depicted in Uncle Sam implies that the (formerly) oppressed groups will never be entirely equal, for there can never be justice for those past wrongs. No reparation payments, no casino licenses, no affirmative action, and no "exterior scaffolding" (Nora 1989: 13) of history via memorials to fallen Native Americans, African-American slaves, or abolitionists can remedy what happened.

Pierre Nora's quotation in the previous sentence is taken from his work on 'lieux de mémoire', in which he highlights the interrelations between certain sites and memory; time and space, that is. This is also true of American mythology, for its temporal dimension is closely linked to space. From John Winthrop's 'city upon the hill' to the falling Twin Towers, space has always played an important role in imagining the New World. No wonder that Charles Olson proclaimed "SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America" (1997 [1947]: 11).

Of course, Frederick Jackson Turner put forward the seminal elaboration on space's significance to the American self in his frontier thesis. Turner argued that the steady westward expansion influenced American culture at large because frontiersmen and -women acquired both a democratic lifestyle and a very specific kind of individualism, as they were compelled to confront the unknown and constantly adapt to a continually changing environment. As William Spanos has noted, the

forward-moving boundary line between wilderness and settlement, the unfamiliar and the familiar, anxiety and complacency, distrust and confidence, violence and peace, 'them' and 'us' […] became the sine qua non of youthful American civilization and the exceptionalist national identity. (2007: 36)

While the westward expansion has been "inextricably linked to the values associated with American exceptionalism" (Hietala 2003: 256), Uncle Sam inverts the myth of the westward movement by distributing four parts of a United States map over the comic (see images below). Tellingly, the first of these images depicts the West and the final one the East Coast. The movement from the Pacific to the Atlantic is accompanied by images of violence, ignorance, racism, moral decay, moral panics, economic hopelessness, and destruction. The images' sequential order involves a movement towards the East; back to Europe, thus undermining one of the central claims for America's uniqueness—the "aspirations of a new land to escape the institutionalized vices of the old" (Shafer 1991: vii).

On the one hand, this return to Europe implies that solutions to certain social ills—such as the seeming omnipresence of poverty and apparently unprovoked outbursts of violence in the middle of American streets already introduced in the comic's first few pages—might be (or might have already been) discovered back in the Old World. On the other hand, the westward movement's inversion also tackles the topic of confronting the national past. Henry David Thoreau wrote that "[w]e go eastward to realize history, and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race—we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure" (1991 [1862]: 86–87). In this way, the eastward movement, which is directed towards the past and paradoxically accompanies the comic reader's progress, supports the verbo-visual muddying of past, present, and future. Moreover, this inversion of the westward movement myth presents a (slightly) more positive perspective on America's struggles with its history in light of Thoreau's words, for it suggests that bringing certain repressed aspects of American history and all too easily ignored characteristics of the present to the people's conscious awareness may be a first step towards learning, a first step towards remedying certain fissures in American society.

Especially in a nation that values free speech and that is considered the oldest democracy in the world, the ideal arena to remedy these fissures would be politics. Indeed, Clinton's New Covenant was indicative of a desire to address these issues. Besides finally embracing a multicultural America, the New Covenant was meant to re-establish trust in political leaders. "Our political system […] rotates between being the butt of jokes and the object of absolute scorn," as a result of which "most people have lost faith in [the American] government," said Clinton in his New Covenant speech (1996 [1991]: 88–89). In his first inaugural address, he thus urged Americans "[t]o renew America, we must revitalize our democracy" (1994a [1993]: 2).

Created during Clinton's second term as President of the United States (but still published before the Lewinsky scandal broke), Uncle Sam strongly echoes the distrust in politicians diagnosed by Clinton as early as page one when Sam opines, "People have a right to know whether or not their president’s a crook" (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: I.1). However, the comic's openly critical mindset concerning American politics becomes most apparent in the second half of its first issue. After stumbling through an anonymous mass of people, Sam stops in front of a shop window, as an announcement for Democrat Ray Elliott's first and only run for a senate seat catches Sam's attention. In the next panel, Sam is confronted with numerous television sets tuned in to various channels. The televisual flow of multitudinous voices merges reports on how Elliott's major opponent and current senator "spent over three million dollars on 'attack ads'" with a report on a right-wing channel that underlines "that the senator was committed to the people" and a seemingly random announcement that "[o]dds are, you're being raped right now—and don't even know it" (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: I.29). The message of politicians (and the associated media industries) mind-raping their voters is blatantly obvious and continued a few pages later at a parade and subsequent victory party that celebrates Republican senator Louis Cannon—a loose cannon who bears marked visual resemblance to Rush Limbaugh—who has apparently emerged victorious over Elliott. When Sam enters the hall, sourceless voices talk of Cannon being "a symbol of a nation that's happy with itself" and express excitement about the senator's new program called "Contract II: The New Something" (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: I.36), a (non-)descriptor that contrasts Cannon's business-orientation ('Contract') with Clinton's religiously connoted rhetoric ('Covenant'), parodically plays on America's desire for the new combined with tradition and continuity (implied by the 'new' and 'II'), and, by using a phrase that could just as easily be a title conceived by a lazy Hollywood marketer for the next sequel to a blockbuster, highlights the media's accompliceship in duping the masses.

When Cannon enters the stage, Sam notices passivity in the audience, remarking that "[t]hey're acting like they've seen crowds on television" (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: I.37). Thus, Sam establishes a connection with (presumably) passive television spectators who simply tune in to the televisual flow and uncritically and silently accept not only the disparate images fused on the tube, but also the messages massaged into their brains. Whereas Jean Baudrillard argued that in the post-political world, silence and indifference towards politics is "nothing […] to deplore," but rather "a collective retaliation" and "refusal to participate" (1983 [1978]: 14), for "today's political arena" is "empty" (1989 [1986]: 110), Uncle Sam's equation of television viewers and people attending the victory party asks for more visible and active forms of resistance (i.e., participate in democratic processes). This critique is sustained when only Sam appears to be able (or willing?) to read between Cannon's rather vacuous lines. It is worth quoting Cannon's self-explanatory speech, as understood by Sam, at length here:

We proved that you wanted to get big government off your back once and for all! We proved that you wanted something done about the problems of immigration! […] We proved that we could write laws that would directly benefit those corporations at the expense of the less affluent and vote that legislation into law without letting the public know! […] We couldn't have done it without the slickly-assembled attack ads that distorted my opponent's record and cast doubt on his personal behavior or the major news media, whom we routinely intimidated by calling them "liberal." But most of all, we couldn't have done it without you, the people of this great state! […] You cynical, apathetic, ignorant, beaten-down sheep! If there's one thing I've learned about you, the American people—it's that you […] fear change! […] That's why […] I've used carefully-crafted catchphrases—like "family values" and "hiring quotas" and "fiscal responsibility" and "global competitiveness"—because they suggest my concern while barely concealing my contempt for every single one of you. (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: I.37-38)

In its depiction of the victory rally, Uncle Sam zeroes in on American democracy's undercurrents. Apparently, America could not fulfill its utopian promise to implement the "government of the people, by the people, for the people" Abraham Lincoln had envisioned in Gettysburg (2012 [1863]: 150), but is rather governed by politicians who primarily act in their own interests (or are large corporations' mere puppets and act in their interests). Whereas Baudrillard diagnosed the "simulation of government" in which "no one minds" the "mistakes made by […] political leaders" already in the mid-1980s, Uncle Sam clearly condemns the emergence of what Baudrillard termed "consensus through indifference" (1989 [1986]: 110). In addition, Cannon's assertion that "[w]ith enough […] money, you can manipulate the American people into accepting just about anything" (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: I.39) touches upon the rise of a political elite in the United States. "American democracy," wrote Frederick Jackson Turner, "is fundamentally the outcome of the experiences of the American people in dealing with the West" (2008 [1920]: 28). Yet, in combination with the inversion of the westward movement, Cannon's lines indicate an undesired return to Europe, for they picture a stark break with the idealist image of a classless America where no elite rules, but everybody participates in democratic processes. The comic thus repeatedly pictures America as a nation that is not so different from other nations—let alone exceptional—and questions the nation's exceptionalist claims in the process.

Despite being flabbergasted by the lack of large-scale protests against Cannon's type of 'politics', Sam is most shocked by the fact that a second Uncle Sam stands by Cannon's side and proclaims he—and not the comic's protagonist—would "lead this nation to great things" (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: I.40). When Good Sam meets his double again later in the comic, Evil Sam is sitting on a throne composed of hundreds of TV screens smoking a fifty-dollar bill. The representative of excessive and uncontrolled capitalism stubs out the Grant on the United States Capitol's dome and tells Good Sam that the comic's hero "couldn't handle the truth" (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: II.36) and that in Evil Sam's America—where obviously money, and not the people, reigns—"everything's the truth" (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: II.37). When Evil Sam elaborates on the phrase's meaning, one of the aspects he mentions is the effacement of America's "long national nightmares" (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: II.37). Thus, of course, the question of history's re-presentation is foregrounded again, as are the struggles over—and the related question of how to properly deal with—the nation's past. In this way, Uncle Sam's critique of America comes full circle, as it underlines the interrelatedness of capitalism and the numerous exceptional American fault lines—from the extermination of native populations and the enslavement of blacks to the Great Depression and Republicans' vitriol against big government during the Reagan-Bush era (during which government expenditures tripled)—the comic touches upon.

Even though Uncle Sam's focus on the fault lines and fissures in American culture and its interrelated questioning, if not even deconstruction, of traditional conceptualizations of American exceptionalism seem to be expressive of an ideology that asks not merely for a reconsideration of, but an honest and serious confrontation with America's history and its national creed, the comic's—and its protagonist's—role in the constant (re-)negotiation of America's national identity proves to be more complex than at first might appear.

"You're not the spirit of a nation—you're a spirit of freedom": Uncle Sam's Exceptionalism

It is not without reason that a comic that investigates America focuses on the experiences of Uncle Sam, one of the nation's most enduring icons. Klaus Rieser has explained that iconic figures such as Uncle Sam "are highly relevant for the day-to-day integration of the otherwise heterogeneous composition of the American social landscape," for they "bond[] the nation together on a symbolic level" (2013: 3). Yet it is not only Sam's continued presence in the American imagination that makes him the perfect vehicle for questioning American ideals, but, much more so, the fact that "he has been variously appropriated by both the orthodox and the iconoclast alike" (Kern 2013: 171). As Louis Kern has demonstrated, Uncle Sam's image has provided a platform upon which his—and the United States'—meaning has been negotiated for nearly two hundred years. Kern has shown that while Sam, especially since James Montgomery Flagg's iconic 'I Want You' recruitment poster, has been predominantly associated with U.S. militarism and unquestioning patriotism, there has always been an alternative dimension to Uncle Sam's image, too; one that is critical of the United States. This aspect is significant insofar as it highlights a dividedness that is characteristic of the American nation. In Uncle Sam, its protagonist personifies this dividedness, for, on the one hand, he is clearly critical of his country, yet, on the other hand, he truly comes to embody American exceptionalism.

In the comic, Sam repeatedly meets other national symbols, including the American Bald Eagle, Columbia, Britannia accompanied by a lion, Marianne, and the Russian Bear, in a world that is separated from the sphere of mortals, a late-twentieth-century Olympus. Sam seems nearly as lost in the world of national symbols as on Earth, for he is utterly confused—not only as a result of the chaotic events in the mortal realm, where past and present constantly merge, but also because he is uncertain of who he is. Even though readers can witness how Sam experiences an identity crisis starting on page one, his confusion is taken to an entirely new level when his doppelganger proclaims to be "the spirit of America" (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: II.25), a role that Sam thought was his.

Yet Britannia clarifies that Sam is "not the spirit of a nation," but rather exceptional, for he is "a spirit of freedom" (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: II.28). Tellingly, Britannia rather than Columbia explains Sam's role in the world, a gesture that reveals the belief in America's exceptionalist status among this planet's nations. Indeed, when Britannia adds that "the eyes of the world are still upon you. Waiting to see what you do" (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: II.29), the reader is tempted to ponder, in the words of Thomas Pynchon: "Does Britannia, when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream" (1998 [1997]: 354)? Britannia's emphasis on 'waiting' establishes an orientation towards the future, a future represented by Uncle Sam. As a result, the implied answer to Pynchon's question seems to be "yes, Britannia dreams of America" despite America's obvious flaws. What thus becomes apparent is that even media texts critical of the United States often cannot suppress the idea of the nation's exceptionalist nature. Sylvia Söderlind writes in this context that

exceptionalism, whether one calls it an ideology, a myth, a creed, an ethos, or a god-given truth, inflects every discourse involving relations between the United States and its—internal as well as external—others[,] and even dissenting counterdiscourses rely on the commonality of assumptions underlying the national ethos. (2011: 9)

Uncle Sam provides testament to Söderlind's argument. Although the comic highlights the various fault lines in American society, it still takes for granted the uniqueness—indeed, the exemplary status—of the home of the brave. Through the allegorical equation of Sam and the United States, Uncle Sam suggests American exceptionalism to be closely linked to freedom, a concept Andrew Bacevich has, in the American context, described as "not so much a word or even a value as an incantation" (2008: 6).

However, the comic does not fail to highlight that America took a long and bumpy road until those not conforming to the ideal of being heterosexual, white, and male had access to these freedoms. While Columbia explicitly stresses that she "tried to vote in 1880" (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: II.26), a brief exchange between Sam and a Mr. Bones doll that revives the visual tropes of blackface minstrels and stereotypical representations of African-American dialects reveals what is at stake in this context. When confronted with the atrocities of white lynch 'justice', Sam begs Mr. Bones to keep in mind that "we gave you your freedom … I mean, eventually" (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: I.23). Enraged, Mr. Bones responds: "Oh, did you? Did you really? Free to enter through the servants' entrance at hotels? Free to get my ass beaten for having the nerve to want to vote? Well, thank you, Suh! Thank God Almighty I'm free at last” (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: I.23)!

The exchange between Sam and Mr. Bones touches upon the ways in which African Americans were, in fact, Americanized—that is, turned into modern political subjects in the American nation-state—and casts a dark shadow on the image of the United States as beacon of freedom. Indeed, this image is about as ambiguous as American exceptionalism per se—and not only because it took the exemplary democracy nearly two hundred years to fulfill its promise to consider all man(kind) equal. After all, for the pioneers crossing the Atlantic in the early decades after the New World's 'discovery', freedom primarily meant freedom from their respective kings and queens (and the related feudal systems) as well as freedom from papal power. Similarly, for many (right-wing) Americans who have essentially followed this early interpretation of freedom to this day, freedom connotes freedom from state intervention, which, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, collided with a growing desire for (national or private?) security. And, for many, freedom still stands for the freedom to fulfill their dreams. The latter two definitions of freedom, however, all too easily ignore socio-economic realities, for these notions of freedom are clearly rooted within a specific socio-economic milieu whose members think they don't (and never will) need 'evils' like social insurance and whose members have access to the freedom of fulfilling their dreams. At the end of the day, not all individuals living in America can participate in the American Dream. Confronted with economic hardships, numerous people take jobs in order to survive, not in order to fulfill their dreams. Tellingly, Sam notes that a "woman realizes that working forty hours per week will not be enough" (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: II.13) upon seeing a Hispanic American scrubbing the floor of a fast food restaurant in the middle of the night. Apparently, this woman is among those who want to pursue their happiness in the United States, but who end up deprived of their liberty due to the workings of the capitalist system.

Despite these apparent flaws, the ideal of freedom presents itself as one of the notions inherently connected to American exceptionalism that can hardly be argued against. Who in their right mind would, after all, not be in favor of freedom and the expansion of what Thomas Jefferson called the "empire of liberty" (1951 [1780]: 238)?

Lines of thought like the one just presented consciously and/or unconsciously conflate "universalism and exceptionalism […] for rhetorical and political ends" (García 2011: 58). This conflation of universalism and exceptionalism has a long tradition in American rhetoric that can at least be traced back to Thomas Paine's claim that “[t]he cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind” (2003 [1776]: 3-4). While Sam does not invoke this line in particular, he does conjure up the ghost of Thomas Paine and his Common Sense when he realizes that 'God bless America' has become such a vacuous phrase that it can even be employed as a word puzzle in Wheel of Fortune, wondering: "What would Tom Paine have made of this" (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: I.29)? But to return to the merging of universalism and exceptionalism, it is important to note that through this rhetorical strategy, America effectively manages to speak for 'all mankind'. While the idea of freedom already presents difficulties within the borders of the U.S.-American nation-state, the situation becomes all the more complex when leaving the territory of the United States.

In this context, it is worth considering that the idea of 'exporting' freedom—and, especially, the American version thereof—to (select) dictatorial or military regime-led countries tends to ignore that these political systems have evolved over decades, if not centuries, and are thus in many cases part of the respective nation’s identity. “The world must be made safe for democracy” (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: I.39), exclaims Sam while channeling Woodrow Wilson at one point.3 Yet the line implies that America, on the one hand, knows how to prepare the world for democracy and freedom and, on the other hand, entails that everyone desires liberty and that democracy is always the right form of government, assigning freedom and democracy universal truth values in the process. In her elaborations on universalism, Judith Butler has recognized a paradox in the concept. She argues:

There are cultural conditions for [universality’s] articulation that are not always the same, and that the term gains its meaning for us precisely through these decidedly less than universal conditions. This is a paradox that any injunction to adopt a universal attitude will encounter. For it may be that in one culture a set of rights are considered to be universally endowed, and that in another those very rights mark the limit to universalizability. (1996: 49-50)

Indeed, freedom may very well be one of these conditions that limit the transnational applicability of American ideals, for certain people may consider freedom a kind of burden or may even misuse it, since they are not used to it and cannot properly appreciate it.4 In addition to the problem of universalizability, the militaristic undertones of Wilson's rhetoric underline the conflicting desires of freedom and security, the latter of which generally depends on state intervention in private freedom.

A related problem, as Godfrey Hodgson stresses in his The Myth of American Exceptionalism, is the gaping chasm between real-world actions and American ideals. Hodgson writes:

Americans have felt so proud of their nation's achievements that they have wanted to socialize their children, and their immigrants' children, with their national pride. Increasingly they have felt called upon to share their beliefs, including their belief in their own exceptionalism, with a wider world. It is, after all, one thing to believe in one's own exceptionalism. That can be morale-building and invigorating. It is quite another to arrive in another country—Iraq, for example—of whose history one knows little and whose language one cannot speak, and expect the inhabitants to accept one's claim to exceptional virtue, especially if one's actions do not immediately confirm it. (2009: 14)

This paradox lies at the heart of what Michael Ignatieff has described as "the messianic American moral project" that imagines "America teach[ing] the meaning of liberty to the world" (2005: 14)—and the paradox might nowhere be more apparent than in Franklin D. Roosevelt's conceptualization of the United States as the "great arsenal of democracy" (2013 [1940]: par. 71). Not coincidentally, Uncle Sam quotes this oxymoronic phrase (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: I.39; see illustration below) and, in the process, questions America's practice of bringing freedom and democracy to the rest of the world by military force without necessarily considering the larger implications while at the same time turning a blind eye to its own flaws.

Novus Ordo Seclorum? Uncle Sam's Exceptionalism

Uncle Sam finds itself in a dilemma, for the comic proves to be well aware of all the paradoxes at the heart of America—and American exceptionalism, for that matter. Yet it seems as if Uncle Sam embraced these apparent contradictions—following the Whitmanian national credo of "I contradict myself," for "I contain multitudes" (2004 [1855–1892]: 1323; 1325)—because it concludes in an ambiguous way. In the comic's climax, its idealist yet disillusioned protagonist defeats his evil double by inhaling his foe. By metaphorically smoking the opium pipe of self-absorbed and self-righteous American ideology, Sam effectively incorporates all of America's negative facets that Evil Sam had represented. After the—quite literal—clash of titans, Sam suddenly reassumes his role as an elderly homeless man in the streets of an anonymous late-twentieth-century American city. Not surprisingly, Sam is slightly confused at first, but after having discovered his beloved and believed-to-be-lost hat that screams American patriotism, he seems to go about his daily chores re-invigorated, happy, and goal-driven again, as he struts around singing "Yankee Doodle."

Yet Sam's apparent happiness leaves a sour aftertaste, for a question emerges: Has he, the embodiment of the United States (or the embodiment of freedom?), again forgotten? Will he blissfully ignore his experiences and what he has (supposedly) learnt from them? Uncle Sam's final two panels are decidedly undecided about the issue. In the comic's second-to-last panel (see above), Sam drops a dollar bill and apparently does not care about losing the money. This seemingly irrelevant gesture may suggest that Sam's (and thus the United States') disposition has fundamentally changed—Idealist Sam has won, he will fight for an American version of welfare capitalism, and the world will become a better place—thanks to Uncle Sam's leadership, of course.

On the other hand, Sam's blissful ignorance of dropping the dollar might just as well be indicative of a self-centered neglect of events occurring around him on a much larger scale. Columbia's first appearance without disguise in late-twentieth-century America in the comic's final panel, in fact, supports the latter interpretation. Tellingly, she, who was replaced by Sam as the embodiment of the nation in the second half of the nineteenth century, picks up the dollar. Her look is one of resignation, as if she had realized that Sam was to forget (again) and continue his (downward) path; a path that will lead the United States ever farther away from what America was (supposedly) meant to be. While until this point, (Good) Sam had represented the American collective, Columbia, who apparently needs the one dollar so much more than now high and mighty Sam, assumes this role in the final panel. Sam, on the other hand, comes to embody the aloof American government, which has lost touch with reality, as Uncle Sam's critique of America suddenly also includes liberals who have become absorbed by conservative ideas of what America is (meant to be).

In the comic's concluding panels, Uncle Sam's protagonist is heading towards a sign displaying the Great Seal of the United States, underscoring the call for a return to the ideals and dreams America was meant to represent that is omnipresent throughout the comic.5 Despite the prominent display of the year in which Americans declared their independence from the British Crown on the sigil, the comic's socio-historical contexts and setting in late-twentieth-century America raise the question whether this 'new order of the ages,' the beginning of the new American era approved by God at the end of what Henry Luce termed "the American Century" (1941), is (or, rather, will be) different from the 'new order' in 1776.

"Of course" would only be a logical answer to this question, for 221 years passed between the Declaration of Independence and Uncle Sam's publication. And one would expect things to have changed in the course of more than two centuries. Indeed, even though America had taken a central role in global politics soon after its 'discovery', and the United States had assumed a leading position in several industries by the end of the nineteenth century, it was only in the aftermath of the two world wars that the United States emerged as the global power known today. That Uncle Sam was penned and published towards the end of the American century and a couple of years after George H. W. Bush had declared the dawn of the New World Order6 (eleven years to the day before America and the world witnessed an attack on said order on a sunny September morning) is not only indicative of the increasing U.S. dominance in the course of the twentieth century, but, even more so, the changing geopolitical landscape of the late twentieth century. After all, for a large proportion of the twentieth century, American exceptionalism was primarily defined vis-à-vis the Soviet Union as representative of the counter-ideology to Americanism. With the disintegration of the U.S.S.R., the United States lost its decades-long foe that, somewhat paradoxically, served as an anchor for order, an easily identifiable Other, the disappearance of which led to insecurity. For many, the Soviet Union's collapse harbingered an age of chaos and confusion, while others even connected it to an impending end of history, for "[t]here [was] no real opposition any more," as "the great anti-capitalist ideology ha[d] been emptied of its substance" (Baudrillard 1989 [1986]: 116).

Tellingly, in the comic, Sam is first shocked and then confused when he meets the Russian Bear in the pantheon of national symbols. Sam notices that his former enemy "sounds […] fragile" and "doesn't look like an Evil Empire" (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: II.29), which underscores how quickly Reagan's messianic rhetoric and religious polity had been outmoded in view of the increasingly interconnected and interdependent global world of the late twentieth century. That the bear even shows sympathy for Sam's situation and tries to offer advice for the future, for Sam "cannot win the battle the old way" (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: II.29), provides a nearly too obvious example of the changes many felt were taking place during the 1990s, in which former enemies suddenly emerged as potential allies. Especially in some of his first speeches in office, Bill Clinton drew on these ideas and anxieties. For example, in a glowing commitment to American exceptionalism at American University in Washington, D.C., just five weeks after his inauguration, President Clinton said:

[A]cross America I hear people raising central questions about our place and our prospects in this new world we have done so much to make. They ask: Will we and our children really have good jobs, first-class opportunities, world-class education, quality, affordable health care, safe streets? After having fully defended freedom's ramparts, they want to know if we will share in freedom’s bounty. […]
I believe we can do that, and I believe we must. For in a new global economy, still recovering from the after-effects of the cold war, a prosperous America is not only good for Americans, as the Prime Minister of Great Britain reminded me just a couple of days ago, it is absolutely essential for the prosperity of the rest of the world. (1994b [1993]: 208)

Clinton's words pay lip service to the chaotic times he was living in, but these contexts quickly disappear behind the patriotism inherent in his description of the United States as the 'leader of the free world' and concurrent conjuration of American exceptionalism. Similarly, Uncle Sam's concluding panels suggest that while Uncle Sam—and thus the United States—might be somewhat aware of all the geopolitical changes occurring around him, he has, to quote the Mr. Bones doll, "a tendency to forget these things" and to re-focus on the ideals and myths that (supposedly) made the nation unique.

As one of the—if not the—foundational myths of the nation, the myth of American exceptionalism assumes an incontestably crucial role in the creation of the imagined American community and its role in the world. Constantly invoked by politicians and frequently employed in popular culture7, the idea of American exceptionalism is still thriving. While voices condemning United States' exceptionalist thinking have emerged in large numbers in the more recent past (which, of course, is not meant to suggest that this is an entirely new phenomenon, for even Tocqueville had already diagnosed problems in Americans' exceptionalist attitudes), it should not be forgotten that these critical voices are often enmeshed in a discursive field that still perpetuates and often promotes American exceptionalism's ideas and ideals. Uncle Sam presents a case in point, for even though the comic clearly criticizes the United States' self-image as 'the great arsenal of democracy,' its lack of state-funded social programs, its commodification of politics, its media (over)saturation, and its tendency to ignore its own fault lines (fault lines that in many ways have not only defined the nation, but made it unique in one way or another), Uncle Sam still advocates America's exceptional role in the world by repeatedly stressing that, to quote Columbia, even "if America sometimes fouled up along the way—and it did—that was the fault of the dreamers. It wasn't the fault of the dream" (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: II.28).

It would be all too easy to conclude on this quotation, yet this punch line oversimplifies matters, for not only does it disregard America's global entanglements, but also the fact that the dream per se is so idealistic and utopian that it can never be reached. In his book on the paradoxes of American exceptionalism (America as the land of the free, yet also featuring the highest number of people incarcerated, to name just one of these paradoxes), Seymour Martin Lipset correctly highlights that there is "a persistent value strain within [American] culture," which "leads Americans to evaluate their nation and society according to pure ideals. No country could ever measure up to [Americans'] ideological and religious standards" (1996: 268).

But high goals are needed if one wants to better oneself. Indeed, the pursuit of these unreachable goals is necessary if America seeks to maintain its image, maybe even role, as world leader. The continuous pursuit of these utopian American aspirations presents a key component of the perpetually "unfinished country" (Lerner 1959) that is America. At the same time, the loss of these American ideals is one of the aspects that Sam strongly critiques throughout the comic, for he sees a "nation that's happy with itself" (Darnall & Ross 2009 [1997]: I.36) despite (or maybe because of?) its flaws. In the end, Sam's effective call to, as Langston Hughes put it, "let America be America again" (1995 [1936]) remains unanswered, for the call yearns the imagined loss of an America that never was but always will be, for America never was—and most likely never will be—America to everyone.


1 Emphasis in original unless noted otherwise. | return to main text |
2 Like many comics, Uncle Sam is not paginated. In order to facilitate cross-referencing, I have decided to provide issue numbers in Roman and page numbers in Arabic numerals. | return to main text |
3 While Britannia, Marianne, and the Russian Bear appear in—and thus add a transnational dimension to—the comic, the Vietnam War is merely alluded to once (when Sam quotes William Westmoreland's infamous statement that "[t]he Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does the Westerner" [Darnall & Ross 2009: I.20]), and it appears as if, in the words of Jean Baudrillard, "the Gulf War did not take place" (1995 [1991]), since except for a rather random image of Saddam Hussein displayed on one of the screens Evil Sam's throne is made of, there are no references to the (First) Gulf War in the comic. Uncle Sam's strong focus on events that occurred within the United States' borders stresses that in order for America to fulfill its utopian promises, it must turn inwards, focus on itself, on the inside, not the global arena on the outside. | return to main text |
4 Especially in the American context, such reasoning is highly problematic, for this type of rhetoric was employed by anti-abolitionists and white supremacists. In Thomas Dixon's Clansman, for example, black liberation leads to widespread laziness among the freedmen, including an unwillingness to plant crop, for "[t]he negroes are all drawing rations at the Freedman's Bureau," and black retaliation for decades of suffering by promptly "disfranchis[ing] their former masters" (1970 [1905]: 117; 247), i.e., celebrating their freedom by taking it from another group. | return to main text |
5 Of course, ambiguity strikes here, too, for the sigil can be easily linked to the dollar bill, thus suggesting that while Sam might ignore the one (insignificant) dollar, he won't be ignoring larger sums of money and will continue on the 'American' path that has given birth to corrupt politicians and cut-throat capitalism. The sigil's representation in the comic, which resembles a sign advertising some 'weird' cult, only adds to the ambiguity. Finally, it seems as if Sam has passed the sign without even looking up in the final panel, which, of course, suggests that Sam no longer thinks about the ideals represented by the sigil. | return to main text |
6 It should not be forgotten that Mikhail Gorbachev conceptualized his New World Order nearly three years before Bush gave his "New World Order" speech. | return to main text |
7 For an extremely telling example, consider the aptly titled Independence Day (1996), directed by Roland Emmerich, a German, in which humanity at large is attacked by an extraterrestrial civilization, only for Americans to discover a way to counteract the aliens' technological superiority through self-sacrifice for the nation. In the movie's most blatant advocation, if not invocation, of American exceptionalism, the United States circulates a message among the world's nations that a counterattack is being planned—a British officer's reaction? "It's about bloody time," as if no other nation could devise and lead such a counterstrike. | return to main text |


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