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John F. Kennedy’s “We go to the Moon” Speech – An Analysis

On September 12th, 1962, President John F. Kennedy ascended a podium in front of a large crowd gathered at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and prepared to give a speech that would dramatically shape the direction of the United States’ efforts over the following decade. Indeed, his speech would mark the beginning of a bold new era for humanity; an era of exploration and innovation in outer space. The context and circumstances of President Kennedy’s “we go to the moon speech,” delivered near the height of the Cold War and at the beginning of the “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union, were enormously significant. The Soviet satellite “Sputnik” had been beeping overhead for 4 years, and only one year prior Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human being in history to enter space. The United States was rapidly losing the race into space, and in turn a competition in technological supremacy and prestige, to its Cold War adversary. The American public was on the verge of panic over the implications of a “Red Moon.”  President Kennedy needed to forge a  new direction for the United States, one that would excite and energize the American public and reestablish American eminence in global affairs. And so, on that day in September, 1962, he did just that, powerfully declaring that the United States would “go to the Moon before the decade was out.” The lasting significance of his speech, and its resounding success as an example of skillful rhetoric and persuasion, was demonstrated when American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk the Moon’s surface in 1969.  This paper briefly analyzes Kennedy’s speech, highlighting its main points and the rhetorical tools he  so successfully employed. In it, I endeavor to point out the elements which allow this speech to still resonate strongly over 60 years past its delivery.

Kennedy’s speech can be broken into 4 main parts and points, each of which play a significant role in the overall construction of his message. He begins by addressing the various distinguished guests and members of the audience to whom he is making his speech. He continues by expressing his gratitude for the opportunity he has been given to speak, and touches upon the prominence of Rice University as a center of learning and knowledge. Such an introduction is merely a formality, yet it establishes a significant rapport between the audience and himself. By immediately establishing such a connection, Kennedy has made the audience more susceptible to agreeing with the content with will follow. His declaration of Rice University as “a college noted for knowledge” further establishes the underlying premise of his speech, that of a new era for exploration, learning, and discovery. Though Kennedy does not expressly delineate the main points or thesis of his speech in this introduction, he neverless braces the audience for what is to come. Indeed, for the purpose of this speech, such a choice was perhaps for the best; it allows the build up to and ultimate culmination of his thesis to be much more exciting and unexpected, and therefore more profound.

The first point Kennedy addresses in the body of his speech is the breakneck pace at which technology, knowledge, and discovery has evolved. He condenses 50,000 years of human history into an allegorical half-century, declaring that “10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves.” Only five years ago, he states, man learned to write, and less than two months ago, the steam engine was developed. Therefore, should American spacecraft successfully soon reach Venus and American astronauts land on the Moon, we will have “literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.”  Such is an incredibly powerful analogy, one that undoubtedly excited the audience sitting before Kennedy. He demonstrated to them that they were living at a time of rapid development, rapid change, and rapid advancement. To think that humanity had only emerged from its cave “10 years ago,” and by “midnight tonight” would be reaching for the stars! Kennedy undoubtedly recognized that he was speaking to an audience of scientists, engineers, and students, who understood the profundity of such breakneck advancement. By opening the body of his speech with this point, Kennedy is preparing the audience for the bold ambitions he will soon declare. Change is happening and change is happening fast; it is inevitable that man will reach for the stars. If it is to “happen by midnight tonight,” as Kennedy believed it will, then it would be the United States leading that effort.

He seamlessly transitions this allegory into his second main point, which is that “the exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not.” Space exploration is, he again reinforces, an inevitability. Yet he continues his point by stating that the United States has vowed never to see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with “instruments of knowledge and understanding.” Connecting this point with an earlier statement, that “no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space,” politicizes and ideologically frames the American effort of space exploration. If the United States does not lead the adventure into space, it will, according to Kennedy, fail to see realized the ideals which we uphold as a nation. If “our hopes for peace and security” and “our obligations to ourselves as well as others” are to remain steadfast, we must “become the world’s leading space-faring nation.” We must again keep in consideration the context and circumstances of Kennedy’s speech, delivered at the height of the Cold War. The United States was locked in an intense struggle, not only of geopolitics but of ideology. American freedom and liberty was being threatened by the Soviet Union. Kennedy rightly recognized that no American living at the time could disagree with the premise that American liberty would be secured through supremacy over the Soviet Union.  As such, his connection of the American efforts in space, and the need for American leadership in space, with the ideological struggle the United States was engaged in, strongly supports his coming points. If we must land on the Moon in order to preserve a peaceful and free world, then landing on the Moon is an absolutely necessity. Such an ideological framing, especially in the Cold War context, circumvented and delegitimized any criticisms against American space exploration.

Kennedy’s next point, however, addresses some of those potential criticisms and concerns, and culminates in his ultimate thesis. Space exploration is hard and costly. The hazards of space “are hostile to us all.” It will be an ultimate test of American skill, expertise, and talent. In face of all this, perhaps the challenge is too insurmountable, too dangerous to pursue. Yet, Kennedy rhetorically asks the audience, “why do we climb the highest mountain? Why fly the Atlantic?” Injecting some humor into the speech, which resonated with his particular audience, “why does Rice play Texas?” It is not because it is easy, it is not because it quickly achievable, but rather because it is challenging. “We go the the moon in this decade,” says Kennedy “not because it is easy, but because it is hard… because the goal organizes and measures the best of American energy and skill.” With this, Kennedy has established that the United States will pursue a landing on the Moon. Yet this is not just a claim, this is a challenge. Kennedy is challenging his audience and the American public to rise to the occasion, to demonstrate the best of their skills, and to reinforce American leadership as an innovative power. The American spirit, the premise of what makes us American, is our ability to boldly accept challenges and rise to conquer them. Kennedy is thus framing this challenge around the American character; if we as a nation cannot achieve what we are known for achieving, then has become of us? Again, in the Cold War context, such a challenge was strongly appealing. Failure to reach the Moon would not just be a failure in technological or scientific terms, it would be a failure on the part of the American people, American spirit, and the premise of the United States of America. Such a challenge, indeed, still resonates to this very day.

Having gone through a buildup which demonstrated to his audience the political, scientific, and ideological importance of space exploration and reaching his thesis on the necessity of a moon landing, Kennedy finally addresses his last point. He spends the latter part of his speech discussing the steps the United States and his administration have already taken to achieve that ultimate goal. He points out the facilities that have opened to support an effort in space exploration, the Saturn rockets which are currently being developed (and, coincidently, which would eventually take American astronauts to the moon), the satellites which America has already put into orbit, and the plethora of high-paying and high-skill jobs which the space industry has already created. Kennedy, it seems, goes through the effort to describe all this for two main reasons. The first is to win further support for his ambitious goal; what validity would a landing on the moon before the decade is out have if nothing had already been taken to support such a goal? By demonstrating to the public that steps are already being taken, they are more likely to support the continuation of such an effort. The second main purpose of this effort is revealed in the statements he continues with, that the exploration of space is going to be a costly and dangerous effort. He states that the American budget for space is going to increase dramatically, and, as such, the average American is going to need to pay more and more for space exploration efforts. As we are quite familiar with in our contemporary political environment, telling people that they will be giving more to the state through taxes, especially for something that does not directly and tangibly impact their daily lives, is an unpopular action. Thus, Kennedy needed to demonstrate to the public where that money was going to, and show that, it was supporting the creation of high-skill jobs and space technology capable of supporting security and weather monitoring activity on Earth. As such, we see Kennedy being the archetypical politician in the part of his speech; he tells the American public that they will need to pay more in taxes, but that paying those taxes will ultimately be in their interest.

Having completed the body of his speech, Kennedy thus begins his concluding remarks. He again says that he thinks that the moon landings must be done, and that they will be “done while some of you are still here at school… during the term of office of some of the people who sit here on this platform.” Again, Kennedy is tangibly connecting his goal to the lives and experiences of the people listening to the speech, thereby making that goal resonate more strongly with them. Indeed, he continues by saying that he delighted that the university is “playing a part” in that goal, further connecting his audience to the topic of his speech. He finally concludes by recalling the statement of British explorer George Mallory, who climbed Mount Everest. When asked why he wanted to climb it, he said, “because it is there.” Kennedy does not directly address the point, but by saying this, he is alluding back to a beginning premise of speech, that exploration and conquering the challenging is part of the human spirit. And, as such, conquering the challenge of landing on the moon is part of the American spirit. “Space is there, he says, and we’re going to climb it… new hopes for knowledge and peace are there… the greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” Such is how Kennedy ends his speech, and a compelling conclusion it is. It is a concise summation of his various points and premises, fit into a sentence which draws on the audience’s natural compulsion for adventure. Space is there and is to be conquered, the United States will do so to preserve peace and seek knowledge, and it will be the greatest adventure in which man, let alone the United States, has ever engaged.

Such is an outline of the content and structure of Kennedy’s speech. He intricately wove a narrative, touching first upon the human tendency for exploration and the rapid speed at which it was developing, then addressing the importance of outer space to humanity’s future, and finally laying out what the United States must do and is doing to achieve that goal. His points are soundly supported with not only ideological and political framing throughout, but with the basic human tendencies for discovery and knowledge. Recognizing his immediate audience to be scientists, professors, and students, yet acknowledging that he is addressing the American public at large, he combines both technical language and specific scientific detail with broad, rhetorically-flourished, yet easily comprehensible statements. The overall tone is set to excite the scientists for the  scientific implications of space exploration, excite the American public for the great adventure that lay ahead, and excite the politicians who must legislate for space exploration  by the geopolitical and ideological implications of such an endeavor. As an analyst of this speech, I perhaps run the risk of giving Kennedy too much credit or praise him in too lofty of terms, for I am an avid enthusiast of space exploration. Yet, ultimately, the persuasive nature of his content is clear; the United States, before the decade was out, indeed did land a man on the moon. To this day, Kennedy’s speech is pointed to as the beginning of that great effort. Clearly then, in terms of content, the speech was a resounding success.

Yet a speech is not only about content; if this was, it need only have been published as an op-ed or as an article. Rather, a speech is also significant in its delivery, the manner in which it is presented. What could otherwise be an incredibly moving or persuasive speech might fall completely short if it is presented in a sub-par or non-persuasive manner.  Yet, again, Kennedy succeeds soundly in his presentation.  Known already as a persuasive and eloquent speaker, Kennedy utilizes fully the public speaking skills he has throughout the extent of his speech.  He speaks with a real passion, as if he himself recognized and truly believed in the significance of the endeavor he was laying out to the American public. Indeed, perhaps this is the most significant part of his delivery, and in turn of the entire speech. To many alive in 1962, the notion of landing a man on the Moon was absurd. Indeed, the United States, at the point of his speech, had only been sending men into orbit for less than 5 years. To dispel the absurdity of the goal, to make it believable, to make it seem remotely possible to the average American, Kennedy needed to speak with exuberance and passion. He needed to energize the American public. Watching the speech and listening to his delivery, that passion and energy is clearly expressed.

There are other points where his delivery succeeds. Between points, he naturally pauses and breaks, so as to allow the significance of his words to be digested and considered by the audience. His voice rises during during the most significant and compelling parts of the speech, most notably during his delivery of “we choose to go to the moon.” He is making bold claims and bold goals, and he is supporting them by a bold, clear, and authoritative delivery.  He allows the audience time to laugh at his few humorous quips, and indeed pauses to laugh himself. Doing so conveys a sense of humility and humanity, personifying the character of president which otherwise might seem distant to the average American listening to him. By humanizing himself in this way, he is, again, making a real connection to his listener. He is making himself easier to be believed, and his message therefore more resonant and goals more achievable.

Kennedy makes acceptable use of the space that has been provided for him, remaining at his podium yet shifting in position and stance. Though much of the speech is spent looking at the paper, he does look up and address the audience eye-to-eye during the most significant parts, and during the points which he wants to hit home. He employs his hands and arms to a minimal degree, yet nonetheless uses them in a similar manner, to hit home significant points. Indeed, he employment of his body’s stance and his hands’ movements seem to be in cadence with the rise, fall, and flow of his voice. By doing this, he almost makes the connection between body and voice, between content and presence, seem seamless. All this adds to the authoritative presence he has at the podium, a presence that is needed to make claims and goals as bold as those about which he spoke.

For me, Kennedy’s “we go to the moon” speech is perhaps one of the most moving, most profound, and most successful of the speeches I have ever witnessed. Thus is why I chose it for my analysis. On that September day in 1962, Kennedy stood before an audience afraid of Soviet domination in space and declared goals which, for many, may have seemed outlandish or impossible. The fact that those goals were then fully achieved, in the span of time that Kennedy wanted them to be achieved, goes to show how  powerful, how resonant, and how persuasive he must’ve truly been for the audience sitting before that podium. I am hard pressed to think of any other examples of rhetoric, be them spoken or written, by them persuasive or informative, which managed to achieve the goals intended for them in a manner similar to this speech.  It is a classic example of powerful persuasion, of successful public speaking, and is clearly demonstrative of the remarkable things that a good, strong, well-constructed, and well-delivered speech is capable of.

A Brief Analysis of Presidential Scandals

The office of President of the United States of America is the most important in the world, and the person who holds it is granted a massive amount of power and responsibility. The President is the top elected official in the United States, someone who the American public put their trust and faith into when deciding to choose him. He is the representative and embodiment of the American people, the leader of the United States’ government, and represents the pinnacle of achievement towards the ‘American Dream’. Yet he is also human, and like all humans he is prone to error, miscalculation, and lapses in judgment.

Of course, because of the trust granted to him by the public, and the perceived higher moral and occupational standards that come with the job, when a president errs he is subject to much more scrutiny than the average person. The term ‘scandal’ is applied to the famous cases in which a president has suffered from such a error or lapse in judgment, and in these cases various consequences have befallen the office of the President, ranging from the erosion of public trust in the position to impeachment processions being undertaken. Yet the parameters defining a ‘real’ scandal are ambiguous, and history has shown that some actions have caused more and less of a scandal than they really warranted.

No president ever acts or has ever acted out of malicious intent. The people who execute the office of the Presidency often do so following a prestigious or lengthy career in public service, or who are genuinely concerned about the condition of the country they are running. Their intentions and actions are always, in their mind, beneficial for the nation. This must be kept in mind when considering the reasons behind why certain presidents subject to scandals acted as they did. However pure the intentions of a president may be, however, the office he holds is the top official position in the United States, and thus is expected to be the most upstanding and upholding of law and accountability. When a president circumvents or disregards the law or refuses to be accountable and take responsibility for his actions, a scandal is often the result. Examples of this are seen clearly in the Iran-Contra and Watergate Scandals that befell the Reagan and Nixon presidencies. In the case of Iran-Contra, president Reagan, along with members of his staff and the CIA, set into motion a complex series of interactions, arms and drug trades, and money peddling in order to secure the freeing of American hostages held by Iranian-backed militants and also topple the left-leaning Nicaraguan government. The intentions of the American operatives who oversaw this were, in their minds, good: they were attempting to seek the release of hostage Americans and topple a government that they perceived to be an ideological threat to the United States. However, the way they went about the operation, by trading through arms dealers, supporting drug cartels, and assisting a militia known for its notorious human rights abuses, was outside the realm of law. To add to the issue, Reagan’s refusal to acknowledge the events that took place, as well as the destruction of evidence and documents by his operatives, eliminated any accountability in his position as president.

Nixon’s scandal was a result of a break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee headquarters by men hired by Nixon’s campaign staff. Following the break-ins, Nixon attempted to cover-up his connection to the burglars, and, as an investigation was mounted, refused to release tapes that recorded conversations which would have proven his guilt. Nixon’s refusal to take responsibility, as well as his guilt in the entire affair, destroyed the accountability of the office and also caused what is considered to be the biggest scandal in presidential history. As these two examples in presidential scandal have made apparent, actions taken outside the realm of law and for which responsibility is not taken cause scandal, and these scandals are often very warranted. The President is elected into his position by a trusting public, who believe that he will execute his office under the same laws and guidelines that they are subject to. When the president fails to do that, he has destroyed not only the trust of the public in him, but also in the office itself. When accountability cannot be held for the presidency, the perceived superior values and conduct that the office entails disappear, and the position is not as sacred in the eye of the public.

Yet these are not the only examples of scandal in presidential history, nor are the reasons behind them the only cause of political scandal. The ‘Teapot Dome’ scandal which befell the Harding administration did not involve actions taken by the office of the president which were outside the realm of law, but rather involved cases of corruption within the president’s staff. Interior Secretary Albert Fall leased oil production rights at Teapot Dome, which was an oil-producing area designated as a Naval Oil Reserve, to Mammoth Oil and Pan American Petroleum. These leases were issued without competitive bidding, were very favorable to the oil companies, and resulted in a number of kickbacks for Fall. Fall illegally received over 500,00 dollars in kickback money from the owners of the oil companies. The deal was later investigated by the Senate, in 1927 the Supreme Court ruled that the oil leases had been corruptly obtained, and in 1929 Fall was found guilty of bribery. A case like this also warrants a scandal, because illegal activity was undertaken by the President’s staff. While Harding himself was not implicated in the scandal, the fact that one of his political appointees took part means that Harding holds responsibility as his boss. It is highly unlikely that talk of the transactions never reached Harding’s ears, but regardless of whether or not Harding was responsible for the actual actions himself, the wrongdoing of his subordinates can be linked to the administrative style of the president himself. Illegal activity took place, and the Harding administration’s public reputation was largely destroyed.

Another important scandal in presidential history is the Monica Lewinsky scandal which hit the Clinton administration. Monica Lewinsky was recorded by coworker Linda Tripp saying that she had had a sexual relationship with Clinton while working in the White House from 1995 to 1996. Clinton at first denied having a relationship with Lewinsky, though would later admit in grand jury testimony that he had an ‘improper relationship’ with Lewinsky. The scandal resulted in an impeachment procession against Clinton, though he was acquitted of all charges. The Lewinsky scandal represents a non-political related scandal, in which Clinton had engaged in highly immoral, but not illegal, activity. The ultimate result was that the later part of his presidency became highly bogged-down and revolved around the scandal, while actual punishment was not brought upon Clinton.

Having examined some scandals that have taken place in presidential history, the actions taken or necessary for something to be considered a ‘scandal’ become clear. A president must do something that either is illegal or outside the realm of law, and/or refuse to take responsibility or be accountable for his actions. In each of these major scandals these actions can be seen: a refusal to be accountable and illegal activity took place in the Nixon and Reagan scandals, illegal activity took place in the Teapot dome scandal, and the Lewinsky scandal stemmed from Clinton’s denial of a relationship. A scandal must, in some way, damage the office of the presidency. When a president is unaccountable or when an illegal activity is undertaken by the office, the presidency looses the public’s trust, looses its appearance as being held to a higher standard, and is therefore weakened. Nixon was forced to resign from the presidency, Reagan saw his operatives indicted for illegal activity, Clinton’s presidency ground to a standstill during the investigation, and Harding’s administration saw its Interior Secretary get sent to jail for his actions.

However, despite these events being scandalous, the actual actions that caused them weren’t all in actuality a scandal. When the president does something that would be illegal for a common man to do, that action is indeed a scandal. While in his position, the president is circumventing the laws of the country he is running. Illegal activity is thus scandalous in itself, and should lead to a scandal. Personal behavior, however, or any actions undertaken by the president outside of the realm of the presidency, should not be considered a scandal. What Clinton did was morally bankrupt and wrong, but not illegal, and thus not necessarily worthy of a scandal and definitely not worth of an impeachment hearing. It was his lying to the American people, however, and his overall handling of the chain of events that would cause the scandal to erupt. A president must follow the laws and rules of the country that he governs, and be honest and accountable to the people who trusted him enough to vote him into office. When he does that, he will not see a scandal erupt under his administration.

American Exceptionalism: Nationalism, Imperialism, and Ethnocentrism by Another Name

During the 2012 American presidential campaign, the Republican frontrunner Mitt Romeny accused his opponent, President Barack Obama, of not believing in “American Exceptionalism”. He continued by questioning Obama’s “commitment to the view of America as a unique and unrivaled world power.”[1] While Romney’s accusation was partly a move to pander to the Republican constituency and discredit Obama, it raised interesting questions about the philosophical nature of political exceptionalism and the ramifications of its permeation through American society. A philosophical study of exceptionalism, especially in American society, can reveal the true nature of our political and social culture as well as the ethical norms and values we possess when viewing the world.

Exceptionalism describes the perception of a country or society in a certain time period that it is ‘exceptional’ in some away and thus does not need to conform to general rules, norms, or principles. In order to arrive at this perception, however, ethical values, political viewpoints, and philosophical realities such as nationalism, cultural imperialism, xenophobia, and ethnocentrism need to be present and come into play. The simple act of considering a country or society ‘exceptional’ means that it is being judged and valued above other countries and societies. If all were valued equally or looked at in a relativistic manner (that is, the true value and worth of a different country or society could only be judged accurately by a member of its own culture and society), then there would be no ‘exceptional’ country. By approaching the concept of social and national worth using a relativistic or egalitarian frame, it would be unreasonable for a person to expect to accurately judge that their society was superior to others. Doing so would be impossible: they lack the capacity to accurately judge the worth of other societies, and thus could not weigh them against their own. Rather, they would have to accept that there can only be a system of equal, albeit culturally and institutionally different, societies and countries. The fact that American political leaders and our political cultures espouse ‘exceptionalist’ values, however, demonstrates that this is not the case. Thus, the conclusion must be made that our perception of other countries and societies against our own is not drawn from a relativistic or egalitarian frame, but rather is being skewed by other philosophical viewpoints. Further, because we uphold our own society as being superior to others (hence why it is ‘exceptional’), these viewpoints must be ones which support the notion that something about our society is inherently and intrinsically better than others.

Arching over and intertwined with these viewpoints is the concept of nationalism. Nationalism is a political identity that involves a strong identification of an individual with a nation. With this identification comes the development of a loyalty and pride from the individual towards his nation, its culture, and its society. The United States has developed a strongly nationalistic culture, which is ingrained into the American youth and which is referred to in much of the political environment. Much of this nationalism is developed as a pride in our country’s civic and legal concepts and norms, as well as on a common language and cultural tradition. At a young age, American youths are taught the Pledge of Allegiance, the stories about the founding of our country, and about our ‘founding fathers’. The stories of ‘throwing off British oppression’, the romanticizing of events in the Revolutionary War such as the Boston Tea Party or Paul Revere’s ride, and the cults of personality built around founders such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin all help in the development of pride in our country’s origins. Lessons in how the United States serves as a bastion for the lost, the oppressed, and the helpless (consider the famous quote on the Statue of Liberty, “give me your tired, your poor”), as well as how we were the first country developed along liberal democratic guidelines, with due process of law, political representation, social equality, individualism, and capitalist tendencies, help develop a pride in our country’s civic and legal roots. It’s from this nationalistic pride in our country’s civics and society that large portions of our ‘exceptionalist’ outlook stem. The historian Gordon Wood argued this point by saying that, “Our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolutionary era. So too did our idea that we Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy.” We are taught that the American ideals of liberty, freedom, and democracy originate uniquely from the United States, and that it is the American duty to lead the world towards embracing these ideals.

It is from this societal embrace of the ideals of democracy and liberty, and our perception of us as a ‘chosen’ people ‘destined’ to spread these ideals, that an underlying ethnocentrism is revealed in the American psyche and the overall resulting trends towards cultural imperialism demonstrated. Ethnocentrism describes the judgment of other cultures by the values and standards of one’s own culture. For us in the United States, we judge the merit and value of other countries and societies based upon our own civic institutions and legal history. For cases in which other countries are democratic in nature and have societies rooted in liberal philosophy, we can better associate ourselves with them, and generally form cooperative ties with these nations. They are relatively similar with our own society in how they are structured and the civic values they possess, and thus we weigh these countries with relatively high value. However, even then, these societies are unlike our own in that they lack the American ‘nature’ to spread democracy and liberty to other countries. Hence, we do not perceive them as ‘exceptional’, nor do we believe that they are ‘destined’ countries like our own. American nationalism, always floating above perception of other societies, thus ties into this judgment: even though these other countries are like our own in the values that we take pride in, they are not American, and thus they lack the American ‘spirit’ and the American ‘destiny’ to spread them. Therefore, they are inherently lesser. What are of even more philosophical interest are the cases where the society we are judging does not mirror our own in their societal values. In such cases, we immediately discard it as a society with less worth than our own. Cases like these would be for autocratic and nondemocratic countries, which lack the same legal and civic foundations that we so pride ourselves with in our country. The American response to such cases is to, as Wood previously argued, ‘lead’ these societies into democracy and liberty. Indeed, it is this sort of crusade for democracy that led previous administrations, such as George W. Bush’s, to engage in operations seeking democratic regime change abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan. The entire ‘Bush doctrine’, as it would come to be known, was designed to seek the spread of democracy across the world. Such a doctrine, and our world view it is the result of, is as great an example of cultural imperialism and desire for cultural hegemony as any.

Cultural imperialism is defined as the cultural aspects in the creation and maintenance of unequal relationships between civilizations favoring the more powerful civilization. For the United States, the exportation of American values such of liberty and democracy represent the imperialistic control of what the French philosopher Michel Foucault described as “governmentality”. He described it as the “art of government”, and represents “the ensemble formed by the institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, the calculations and tactics that allow the exercise of this very specific albeit complex form of power, which has as its target population, as its principal form of knowledge political economy, and as its essential technical means apparatuses of security.” By controlling such factors in a government, Foucault’s argument means that the United States could gain hegemony on the ‘truth’ in the government, and thus gain power. He described the ‘truth’ as inherent in systems of power, coincides with hegemony, and which is culturally specific, inseparable from ideology. By controlling the ideological framework of a government, by shifting it into a liberal democracy along the lines of how the United States is framed, the United States could thus shape and therefore control the power of that government and gain hegemony and influential clout over it. The United States has, aside from the recent Bush-era endeavors to spread democracy, historically embarked in a sort of cultural imperialism. Following the Second World War it spearheaded the development of many of the norms of the ‘free, Western world’ to counter those of the Soviet Union. These norms included adherence to capitalist, market economies, a respect for international law and organization, and general liberal, democratic tendencies. From these norms developed institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the United Nations, which the United States has since used to coerce other, lesser powers into conforming to the capitalist, liberalized, democratic worldview. Aside from such power-politics, however, the transmutation from other societies ‘governmentality’ to those of our own across the globe is still the goal which we seek because our society tells us we have been ‘destined’ to do so. Our willingness to supplement the political norms of other societies with those of our own is demonstrative of our imperialistic societal view, and it happens that our possession of the capacity to enact this cultural imperialism enables us to do so. Little consideration is placed into the standing norms of those societies, and little conceptualization of cultural relativism explored. Again, our nationalistic tendencies make us perceive these other societies as inferior, and our ‘destiny’ dictates to us that they must be changed. Hence, because of our willingness to change these ‘inferior’ civic societies and that our capability enables us to do so, a sort of American cultural hegemony has appeared across the globe in the form of our civic values.

The permeation throughout much of the world of capitalism, liberal civics, and democracy has largely been the result of the United State’s efforts as a superpower in the past half century, and the United States, as the source of these values, can be claimed to hold cultural hegemony over the globe. Cultural hegemony is the manipulation of societal cultures so that it is imposed as the norm, and then is perceived as a universally valid ideology and status quo beneficial to all of society. In the terms of global society, liberal democracy, by which it is meant political representation and the right to personal freedoms and liberties, is now accepted as a universally valid right. Additionally, they have become status quo norms in the global society: societies and countries which rebuke liberal democracy are viewed as pariahs in the international community, such as Gaddafi’s Libya, North Korea, and Iran. Thus, the United States has enforced and pushed its own societal values across the globe so that they have become the international norm, and from this it has gained hegemony over the values which the international community subscribes to. The fact that the United States has been so successful in shaping the international society, and that it is the uniquely American values which have become the norm, lend support to the perception that the United States is therefore uniquely ‘exceptional’ and above all other states, include those which also adhere and subscribe to our societal values.

Challenges to the American hegemony on international societal values do arise, however, and in the present day and age the United States appears to be gradually slipping in its position as the unrivaled global power able to exert its force to enact its ‘destiny’. These challenges reveal an underlying xenophobia within the United States: a fear that other societies will be able to enact and enforce their societal norms upon the international community. Because we perceive our society to be ‘exceptional’, and therefore better than all of the rest, we are concerned with the prospect that a society of lesser ‘worth’ will shape the norms of the future. Nationalistic pride in American civics, as well as the belief that it is our ‘destiny’ to spread and convert the world to our style of liberal democracy, means that we are determined not to allow foreigner societies do what we have sought out to do. It is not, in our minds, their destiny to have. Perhaps this can explain why Mitt Romney accused President Obama of not believing in American exceptionalism: He was assaulting Obama’s commitment to the American ‘destiny’ while making subtle nods to this underlying xenophobia in American society.

American exceptionalism is thus a powerful and motivating experience in the American psyche, as is the worldview it espouses (one in which the United States is a unique, unrivaled state with a morally-superior purpose to spread liberal democratic values). However, this exceptionalism is a result of underlying worldviews and philosophical frameworks which operate within the United States, those of nationalism, ethnocentrism, cultural imperialism, a desire for an American-dominated international cultural hegemony, and an underlying xenophobia. While, in the perspective of an American who adheres to the American civic values and societal norms, the American ‘destiny’ to spread democracy and liberty is a good one, the underlying philosophical frameworks which result in this destiny and are a result of the perception of other societies because of this destiny lead to ethical quandaries.

Works Cited

[1] Romney questions Obama commitment to ‘American Exceptionalism’. The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/election-2012/post/romney-questions-obama-commitment-to-american-exceptionalism/2012/03/31/gIQA7xKUnS_blog.html. 31 Mar. 2012, Accessed 12 Apr. 2012.

Dolan, Chris J (2005). In War We Trust: The Bush Doctrine And The Pursuit Of Just War. Ashgate Publishing Ltd, pp. 229.

Foucault, M. (1991). ‘Governmentality‘. The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, pp. 87–104.

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