10 myths that American believe about themselves

10 myths that American believe about themselves July 25, 2012

From John Cassidy:

1. Gun laws and gun deaths are unconnected.

2. Private enterprise is good; public enterprise is bad.

3. God created America and gave it a special purpose.

4. Our health-care system is the best there is.

5. The Founding Fathers were saintly figures who established liberty and democracy for everyone.

6. America is the greatest country in the world.

7. Tax rates are too high.

8. America is a peace-loving nation: the reason it gets involved in so many wars is that foreigners keep attacking us.

9. Cheap energy, gasoline especially, is our birthright.

10. Everybody else wishes they were American.

You can even see some of the points being made by American Catholics, who should really know better.


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  • You are, most unfortunately, right on every count.

  • Julia Smucker

    Some of these are pretty pervasive across the board, but others (especially the second) sound like one half of the polemic. But in any case you’re right that Catholics should know better: this country is far too beholden to what John Paul II called “the idolatry of the market”, and exceptionalism is the antithesis of catholicity.

  • dominic1955

    Yes, vague assertions implying those people who might hold them are ‘crazy’ from a magazine that uses a cartoon snooty socialite as a mascot. How very profound and meaningful…

    I will just take #1 to task for example. First, what gun laws actually prevent gun deaths? In Imaginaryland where the gun was never invented in the first place? People are always going to kill other people, no matter the tool at hand.

    I’m assuming that is the slant they are going for. Then again, imagine the firearm version of Prohibition. Gun deaths and gun laws certainly would have a connection then, but I don’t think it would be a positive one.

    • brettsalkeld

      First, what gun laws actually prevent gun deaths?

      Um, the ones in other countries without all the gun deaths?

      • dominic1955

        Yet they still have people getting killed by someone with a gun. How can that be when there are draconian laws making it practically impossible to own firearms in those countries? Yet, in a place like Switzerland where private persons have full auto SIGs sitting in their closets, they have a remarkably low gun crime rate. Obviously, there is something more than a simple guns = death.

        If we were really that concerned about saving life and wanted to do so through legislation, then we’d talk about the car culture in this country and how the deaths caused by car crashes would be like a full passenger plane crashing every day.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Yes, Switzerland has a low gun crime rate. But it does have a very high rate of suicides with guns, and military weapons stored at home are often used for domestic violence. (Per Wikipedia page and BBC reporting.) Switzerland recently proposed introducing stricter gun control laws; the referendum was narrowly defeated.

        • brettsalkeld

          There is a wide spectrum between the original “Gun laws and gun deaths are unconnected” and your “Obviously, there is something more than a simple gun=death.” Let’s try a little nuance here.

        • Two thoughts: First, why can’t we do both? Why does the number of deaths due to cars mean we can’t also deal with gun deaths? It’s a non-sequitur.

          Second, the end or purpose of a car is transportation. Thus when a death occurs, it is a case of a car not fulfilling its purpose. The end or purpose of a gun is to kill. So when a person is killed by a gun (or through the use of a gun), it is a case of the gun fulfilling its designed purpose. When one considers the telos of a gun, it would be proper to say gun=death.

          Regulations surrounding cars involve making them more effective at their intended purpose (transportation) and less prone to do something that is not their purpose (i.e. kill people). We need to deal with guns differently because we want to make them less effective at accomplishing their purpose (killing), or at least make sure they only accomplish their purpose in limited circumstances (i.e. killing animals while hunting but not killing people).

          Dominic, I completely support your desire to pass laws making cars safer. But I wonder, given that position, why you don’t want to talk about laws making guns safer (at least for people).

        • dominic1955


          So people who are going to kill themselves in Switzerland more often do so with a gun. If there was no gun, they’d do one of the various other things people do to kill themselves. The study quoted about gun crimes involving domestic violence says that those crimes were commited using army weapons. The link quotes the study, but there was no link to the study itself and it looks like its in French. Basically, all it was saying was that gun crimes (which could be anything) involving domestic violence (again, could be anything) usually involved army weapons. So? If there was no gun, no domestic violence would happen? My main point with Switzerland is that, if one belives the hype perpetrated by anti-gun folks here in the States, that “evil” guns like “assault weapons” necessarily beget death and destruction with their banana clips and pistol grips you’d think Switzerland would be about as safe as Baghdad or Kabul.


          The end purpose of a gun is firing a projectile. What that projectile is fired at is intentional-thus its end is not to kill. A target rifle’s intended end by the manufacurer is to fire its projectile accurately at targets, yet you could use it to kill someone. Similarly, a butcher knife is intended to cut, namely meat, but you could also kill someone with it.

          I have no desire to pass laws to make cars safer, we do not need to legislate the snot out of everything. I grew up on a farm, there are all kinds of dangerous things out there. A little bit of common sense and paying attention to what you are doing goes a long way. Legislating will never take away the need for that, until they find some way to grow people in padded rooms all their lives. There is also the issue that we do not need folks from Chicago or New York telling us how we should go about our business or enjoy our hobbies out in Nebraska or Kansas. You do not read on the news about drive by shootings out in rural North Dakota or various “guncrime” perpetrated by hobbyists.

        • Yes, the purpose of a gun is to fire a projectile, and the purpose of a car is to make noise and spin wheels around in a circle.

          The “telos” of my .22 is to kill gophers, which it does admirably. The “telos” of my .30-06 is to kill deer. The “telos” of my shotgun is to kill geese. But the “telos” of an AK-47 or M-16 or AR-15 is something else entirely. That is the discussion we need to be having.

      • Dominic;

        Yes, the purpose of a butcher knife is to cut (animal) meat. And the purpose of a sword is to cut humans. Which is why we have restrictions on swords that we don’t have on butcher knives. Why can we not treat guns in the same way? Guns made with the purpose of killing animals have fewer restrictions than guns made with the purpose of killing humans?

      • dominic1955


        The reason I made that distinction is because the gun fires a projectile, but the intentionality has to come from the user. I use my military rifles to shoot targets and to hunt, there is nothing integral to them being military rifles that somehow necessarily make them death machines.

        The .30-06 was the 3rd U.S. smokeless military rifle caliber chambered in the m1903 Springfield. Both the cartridge and rifle are descendents of German developments (the 7,92×57 and the Mauser m93/95). Thus, its “intention” in the way you are speaking, is to shoot people. The 1903 Springfield in which it was chambered then is thus no different in “telos” than the AK-47 or m16, except that it doesn’t have all the scary parts that those two have. Yet, in essense, the m1903 is no different than a hunting rifle. You can attribute an integral end to anything you want in whichever way you want, but in essense we are still only speaking of inanimate objects that can only be used for good or bad but of themselves are morally neutral.

        As to the sword issue, many swords are not meant to cut at all. If you feel the edge of a cavalry sabre it is dull because its basically a club. Most samurai swords (which are made to be sharp) one could reasonably purchase are just cheaply made decorations that wouldn’t keep an edge or stand up to the actual rigors of use. In the States at least, there are practically no limits on swords or knives. If you’re 18 you can buy one.

        I could care less about an argument from laws. The people who put together gun laws in this country are completely clueless about guns. I always enjoyed watching liberal politicians and their sycophants trying to school the media on the dangers of “assault weapons”. They have no idea what they are talking about, they don’t even know what magazine (and that its a magazine, not a ‘clip’) goes to which evil black rifle and they do not know the rudiments of gun safety. How many times Diane Feinstein swept a crowd of media people with her finger on the trigger of whatever gun she was playing show and tell with, who knows. If the government decides to put a ban on certain guns, it tells me nothing about the gun but about the ignorance of the politicians. They are just playing politics, bowing to the constituencies and activist groups that keep them in their job.

        • Even inanimate objects must have a purpose or end towards which they were built. The purpose is not what they do, but what they are intended to accomplish. Thus the purpose or end to which a gun is designed is not to fire a projectile – that is merely what a gun does. If you wanted to get technical, one could say that the purpose of a gun would be to puncture the intended target with that projectile, whether that target be a series of concentric circles, a paper outline of a human, a human being itself or an animal. I suppose one could say that the puncturing of a target is a morally neutral purpose and the intent of the human and the nature of the target would determine the morality of the act.

          But, as you say, even guns used for hunting today were originally designed to kill humans. And the shooting of targets was initially a practice designed to increase the accuracy of shooting animals or humans. Given this designed purpose, and the possible illicit use recommends that some restrictions are placed on the possession, sale and even manufacture of firearms.

          I am not American, so I could care less about left-wing posturing and right-wing posturing. What really bothers me is that we can’t even have this conversation – and I’ve been on the receiving end of both sides. I’ve tried to explain the importance of rifles and shotguns in rural life to Toronto urbanites and been defriended (for real, not just on Facebook). And I’ve tried to talk about tightening rules on handguns or semi-automatic weapons, or limiting the size of magazines, and gotten shouted down by my gun-loving parishioners in Montana. While Top 10 lists are not the best form of communication either, at least here we’re civil

        • Then there would be no reason not to leave loaded assault weapons laying around on a public playground, in the event that somebody who knows the difference between a clip and magazine might happen to come by and want to do a little target shooting. I get it. *shakes head* Those silly liberals! Makes you wonder!

        • dominic1955


          That is fine, we have had restrictions on firearms much like we do on driving cars. One has to be a certain age to purchase/use/own them. Same with the ammo. That is one thing. When some folks talk about banning them, OK, let’s slow down a bit. Why and for what purpose? Fully automatic machineguns already have a rather stringent limit placed on thsm. Same with anything that the ATF considers a “destructive device”.

          But, like anything, do we really need the government in everything legislating on matters it knows practically nothing about? The real issue is that we have activist interest groups that want their way. People get all shrill and bleedin’-heart about some issue so we have to get draconian about laws? Please.

    • Dan

      Do a lot of people actually believe that stricter gun laws won’t reduce the number of gun deaths? I know that viewpoint does exist, but I’m not certain that’s the primary position held by many who support the right to bear arms, which is, I think, what you’re really trying to criticize here.

      • I agree that stricter laws won’t do much good, so long as there are millions and millions of weapons available to be sold illegally, to whomever, on the black market. The strict controls need to be placed on the manufacture of weapons designed for military use and police work, and the eligibility to purchase them should be restricted to those groups, under contract to those groups. Then, “gun show” loopholes would need to be eliminated, etc.
        It would still take a long time to get all the weapons out of circulation, but at least a start will have been made.

        • dominic1955

          Care to tell us just what a “gun show” loophole is?

  • Frank M.

    I agree whole-heartedly that these shibboleths are held by many American Catholics, and what I’d really like is some help in dealing with them. (The Americans, not the shibboleths.)

    Arguing with someone who holds any such belief is mostly pointless, because it reinforces the illusion we’d like to dispel by arguing with it. I say “mostly” pointless, because there’s a deliciously pridefuly pleasure in exploring just how much more enlightened I am than they are.

    So far the best ways I’ve learned to deal with these illusions, when I encounter someone infested with them is: (1) Accept that anybody else’s enlightment is God’s business, not mine. Just honestly bearing witness to what I do and do not believe is enough. (2) Accept that my awareness-altitude is my business, but God alone will change it. Though none of these obvious illusions infest my mind, there must be others in here which I haven’t uncovered yet.

    The example given by the”America is the greatest country in the world” crowd, of what blindness looks like from outside, is the best picture I can have of what I look like from the outside.

    Any other ideas, how to deal with these?

    • Jordan

      Frank, I agree with you that the absurdity or illogical nature of many of these shibboleths is a matter of perspective. As a New Yorker, my understanding of MM’s list is likely quite different than someone from the Deep South. In fact, even the descriptors “New Yorker” and “Deep South” are laden with prejudicial overtones which stretch back for centuries. One might say that the northeast is still a de facto different country from the south despite the almost 150 years since Appomattox.

      Sadly I suspect that politicians cynically manipulate memes such as American exceptionalism and the “American dream” to purposefully perpetuate the red state/blue state divide. I watched the documentary Jesus Camp with mostly agnostic friends in New York City. We recoiled at the camp pastor’s conflation of American exceptionalism and evangelical Christianity. Some in the party simply dismissed the conflation of exceptionalism and evangelicalism as “flyover” or worse epithets. Is it any surprise that the northeast is a solidly “liberal” while many parts of the midwest and southeast are “conservative”? While embers of the American 50/50 political deadlock are culturally deep-seated, the duopoly’s fanning of partisan fires relies on the reinforcement of shibboleths to the detriment of even a spark of national harmony.

  • Bill Wilson

    I’d love to see the research behind some of these assertions. A number of them are simply straw men the list maker has set up so he/she can look much more clever than the putative troglydites who actually believe in things like the Second Amendment, the noble ideals behind the American experiment, and the market economy that provides the money for the public entitlements of which you are so enamoured. Incidentally, Canada has very liberal gun laws and a very low gun-related homicide rate.

    • Rodak

      “Incidentally, Canada has very liberal gun laws and a very low gun-related homicide rate.”

      And another unsubstantiated statement made. It’s catching, I guess…?

      • Bill Wilson

        My bad! I committed the very shortcoming I was so busily deploring. I was also misquoting a FaceBook friend who said that Canada has a higher percentage of gun owners and a lower gun-related murder rate than the US. I have not verified this statement. I ask your forgiveness for bloviating from within my own ignorance.

    • Wait… what? Canada has liberal gun laws? As a Canadian, that’s news to me. Before you can even possess a firearm in Canada, you need to take a Firearm Safety Course, pass the Firearm Safety Course test, and apply for a license (which includes a Royal Canadian Mounted Police background check that may involve contacting anyone you lived with in the previous two years to see if they have concerns). If you want to buy a firearm, you need a firearms acquisition certificate to purchase a firearm.

      And this is just for non-restricted firearms such as long guns. Any restricted firearm, such as a handgun, requires an additional Restricted Firearm Safety Course. You must also be a member of a gun club, since it is illegal to shoot a handgun anywhere other than a gun club (even on your own property). To take a restricted firearm out of your house requires a permit that is only valid for point-to-point transport (i.e. home to gun range). You must have a trigger lock installed and if possible the bolt must be removed.

      Until recently, all firearms were required to be registered in a central database. All restricted firearms must still be registered. Essentially all automatic weapons are prohibited. Does that sound liberal?

      • dominic1955

        Extremely liberal. Diana Feinstein and Chuck Schummer would be proud.

      • My bad. I took “liberal” to mean “permissive”.

  • gadria

    Frankly I find posts like this not particular helpful – such ‘Top 10l ‘ lists further alienate a good number of fellow Americans, are not even particular creative – and have a strong smell of arrogance ( ‘look at me/us I/we have it all figured out ain’t we insightful unlike the rest of you … )

  • Rat-biter

    “Any other ideas, how to deal with these?”

    ## Agree (where possible), and point out that what is said of the US is also true of others – something like this:

    “3. God created America and gave it a special purpose.”

    ## True enough. IOW, the US is a Talking Horse – among other Talking Horses. The point of the idea is to exalt the US over other nations; pointing out that others have many good things it has, or good things it has not, or lack some of the problems it has, allows the statement to be true, while depriving it of its boastfulness.

  • Rat-biter


    “to exalt the US over other nations;


    “to exalt the US over other nations, or horses not able to talk;”

    “Aslan admonishes Bree for his hubris, but says that *Bree can change his ways as long as he realizes that he will be “nothing special” once he returns to Narnia, where he will be only one talking animal among many*.”


    *my emphasis*

  • Ryan Klassen [July 26, 2012 9:54 am]: When one considers the telos of a gun, it would be proper to say gun=death.

    I completely agree that the absolute telos of a gun is to kill an animate being. A belief in anarchical autonomy and class equalization is a secondary and culturally conditioned telos of American gun culture. Some might contend that the choice to not own firearms is a concession to tyranny, as owning a gun protects the self and family against the possibility of martial law. Also, many (including myself) harbor the prejudice that some persons consider firearm possession as protection against perceived oppression by more educated or wealthy persons. Obama’s “cling to God and guns” gaffe in the 2008 election cycle illustrates this latter prejudice well.

  • Pinky

    I don’t know anyone who believes #2, #5, and #9 in the unconditional form they were presented here. As for #3, did God not create everything and give it a special purpose?

  • Mark VA

    This is a list of comforting short fables the Left is in the habit of reciting so as to reassure itself of its omni-superiority.

    Such lists cater not to reasoned discussion, but to ideological posturing of the ridiculus kind. Essentially, a security blanket for the Left.

    • gadria

      I am on the left and I agree with you to a point – I find such lists silly

      • @ gadria

        How are they silly? In my view such lists raise pertinent questions concerning what motivates people to adhere to certain ideologies, and to likely vote accordingly. If the issues on this list are “silly,” then our whole system is silly. That may well be the case. If so, then the list is deadly serious in its exposure of the futility of the system.

    • Jordan

      I’m not quite sure what you mean, MarkVA, as many of MM’s shibboleths are Republican candidate stump or conservative superpac staples. Until their general expulsion from the Republican establishment, socially moderate fiscal “Rockefeller” Republicans would have probably agreed to some degree with many Democrats on the negation of MM’s points save perhaps #2 and #7. Today’s extreme duopoly polarization has made MM’s list an across-the-board litmus test of party allegiance. In past times both Republicans and Democrats would likely agree or disagree to various points and maintain party identity.

      I’ve read a number of conservative apologies for the Republican strategist/conservative superpac distortion of Obama’s “you didn’t build that” speech as a necessary defense of the myths of American exceptionalism and individual economic autonomy. The meme is, “Horatio Alger is dead, the empire is sunsetting, but don’t tell the demos.” MM’s list is often used to distort current socioeconomic realities by playing on national myths which were always counter-factual. This tactic isn’t deceptive. It’s machiavellian.

      • Pinky

        Jordan, do you really think those things are said? I haven’t heard a lot of them. Some of them are said as shorthand for more complicated things. Take #8 at random. I think that generally we are a peace-loving nation – once we got the North American map to look like we wanted it. We are uniquely able to support freedom-fighters, and we have a lot of alliances, so we end up getting involved in a lot of military actions. We don’t as a policy seek to conquer, and we were attacked on 9/11. If you wanted to shorthand those statements, or caricature them, you might come up with something like #8, although, again, I’ve never heard it. There are elements within both parties who would be sympathetic to it, or who would oppose it, but you’ll never hear it as presented.

        And I’m not just arguing semantics. When one side shorthands its arguments, or caricatures the other side’s arguments, information is lost. Sometimes false information is introduced. We can fairly argue over the meannig of “you didn’t build that”, but we can also unfairly argue over it: by twisting it or by ad hominem attacks.

        So, does anyone believe that we get attacked a lot? No. Does anyone believe the idea that’s being caricatured by #8, that America isn’t imperialist? Sure. If you want to argue that question, great. I believe that it used to be standard practice in medieval theology to not begin a discussion until both sides could state the opponent’s argument to the opponent’s satisfaction. That would be a good starting point for a political debate as well.

        I hope you respond to this, because I think we could have an interesting discussion.

  • Mark VA


    The purposes of such lists seem to be to reinforce and discipline, if need be, the party faithful – this particular list, for example, draws a clear boudary between the acceptable and the unacceptable thoughts. It’s also an amalgam of half-truths, prejudices, and stereotypes. There is one good word to describe it – propaganda.

    If an equivalent shameful list was made and peddled by some on the Right, it would most likely start in this fashion:

    (1) The Left is atheist.

    • Jordan

      re: MarkVA [July 30, 2012 10:33 am] and re: Pinky [July 30, 2012 10:29 am]

      Please excuse the length of this post.

      One possible means to demonstrate that John Cassidy’s liberal shibboleths of conservatism (as quoted by MM) more accurately represent the biases of liberals against conservatives is to provide negations of Cassidy’s shibboleths and see the way in which these negations align with general liberal political sentiment. Shibboleths directed against one party, when negated, should vaguely reflect the beliefs of the accusing party. Only then would charges of psychological projection hold. Let me begin by negating Cassidy’s sibboleths of the Right through a modification of his statements. Similarly, I encourage MarkVA to write a list of Right shibboleths about the Left. The same process could then be performed on those shibboleths as has been performed on Cassidy’s. In this way, we can see if the negations substantially reflect the positions of the accusing party.

      Perhaps Cassidy’s shibboleths could be negated like this (negation italicized):

      1. Gun laws and gun deaths are connected.

      2. Private enterprise is bad; public enterprise is good.

      3. God did not create America and did not give it a special purpose.

      4. Our health-care system is not the best there is.

      5. The Founding Fathers were not saintly figures who established liberty and democracy for everyone.

      6. America is not the greatest country in the world.

      7. Tax rates are too low.

      8. America is not a peace-loving nation: the reason it gets involved in so many wars is because we keep attacking foreigners.

      9. Cheap energy, gasoline especially, is not our birthright.

      10. Nobody else wishes they were American.

      Do these negations adequately characterize, even though gross exaggeration or diminution, liberal thoughts? As a liberal, I would confirm that the negation of Cassidy’s shibboleths begin to express my views on each subject, albeit without specificity or qualification. I am interested to see if others agree.

      A list of “shibboleths of the Right towards the Left” might proceed in this matter:

      1. The Left is atheist. negation: The Right is Christian. etc.

      • Pinky

        Jordan, I’m not sure what the payoff is supposed to be here. You are, I gather, a liberal looking to verify if a list reflects liberals’ views of conservatives by inverting them and seeing if a liberal would agree with them. The more important question is whether the characterization matches what conservatives think.

        A further problem with your approach is the implication that there are only two possible views of reality, and that they are mutually exclusive. I’d hate to think that I could be defined so readily, by simply taking someone else’s beliefs and writing the word “not” in every sentence.

        Lastly, there’s an implicit alienation in this presentation claiming to speak for Americans. As if all Americans are conservative, and the writer (if American) doesn’t feel like he belongs here.

        • Jordan

          Pinky, the exercise I propose purposefully presents artificial facile dichotomies. The examination of a phenomenon such as political cliches requires absurd simplification before an expansion into multifaceted arguments. The destruction of simplistic dichotomies is the beginning, not end, of political statement investigation. With time, the complexities of discourse deepen beyond simple negations.

          Yes, it’s important to gauge how blanket accusations affect the party accused. This is not the only effect of political statements, however. Many often forget to consider that a political party’s accusations towards another party reflect the insecurities or anxieties of the party’s own platform. The analysis of statement negations gauges the way in which statements reflect the accusing party’s anxieties first. This method purposefully inverts the usual process of investigation to provide a new perspective.

          I cannot speak on behalf of John Cassidy or Morning’s Minion, but I can say that as a “liberal” (specifically, a Christian social democrat) that not a few American Catholics are at once alienated from their institutional faith and politics. Follow Vox Nova long enough, and you will find many who have argued and will argue (certainly including myself!) that registering in the GOP is not the eighth sacrament. While I would say that MM does not speak for all Americans or all Catholics by any means, he often argues well for the institutional anomie politically “liberal” Catholics experience regularly.