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A Tale of US Exceptionalism
Chess The Musical
I’m not using the term American exceptionalism because that term is in of itself a form of exceptionalism. The United States is not America. America is two continents with 35 countries, over two dozen non sovereign territories, and thousands of indigenous peoples. You can read more about why we should not use the term “America” to refer to the United States in America Belongs to the People - All the People by Erin McCarley.
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines US exceptionalism (found under American exceptionalism) as:
[The] idea that the United States of America is a unique and even morally superior country for historical, ideological, or religious reasons. Proponents of American exceptionalism generally pair the belief with the claim that the United States is obligated to play a special role in global politics.
This is an absurd notion as any look at history can see that the United States as a nation has never been a moral force for good. It was founded on genocide and slavery after all. Nevertheless, this myth of superiority persists throughout the layers of US culture. What follows is one example of how this myth has been perpetuated.
Chess the Musical
Chess the Musical was a collaboration between Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, and Tim Rice. Inspired in part by the famous "Match of the Century” between US grandmaster Bobby Fischer and Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky, it was a tale of the Cold War. But it was not the historical tale of Fischer’s victory and the characters were only loosely based on history. In Chess, it is the Soviet (referred to as The Russian in the album and named Anatoly Sergievsky in the stage variation) who comes out on top in the world championship over the US champion (The American or Freddie Trumper). This was all very reasonable as from 1948 to 1993, Soviet Grandmasters held the World Championship every year except 1972-1975 when the US held the title with Bobby Fischer. The story is more complex than this, but the only part that applies to this article is that the Soviet player defeats the US player.
This was how it was originally conceived and performed in both the album (1984) and the stage version in London (1986). This was all well and good until it was decided to release it on Broadway in a distinctly US version. While some of the music remained the same, the entire story was reworked for a US audience. The result is that predictably the US player, Freddie Trumper, emerges victorious in the final act. The song that accompanies this victory includes the crowd chanting “USA! USA! USA!”
Compare the original album version of Endgame:
With the Broadway variation:
The Broadway version concludes with “This is a great day for American chess” and the “USA” chants. Where in the original, the US player is soundly trounced by the Soviet, the Broadway version had to end with US victory. The United States must always be the good guy and must always win is the clear message. In the original, Freddie Trumper is portrayed as a bit of a caricature of the US - a narcissistic dick interested in making money. He becomes the hero in the Broadway version. The United States ruins everything, even musical theatre.
While changing a musical around to theoretically appeal to US audiences (it failed to be profitabe at Broadway) is relatively harmless, US exceptionalism is not. US foreign policy is rife with US exceptionalism. The “rules-based international order” touted by the US state department is based around US rules and order, not any sort of true internationalism. The rules only apply when they benefit the US and maintain their hegemony. According to exceptionalism propaganda, only the US is a true democracy, even when Cuba, Venezuela, and China all show forms of democracy that are better than the flawed system in the US.
US exceptionalism pervades everything. It is rare to find a Hollywood film or a TV series where the US is portrayed as anything other than the good guys. An article by Matthew Alford published by The Independent found that:
Files we obtained, mainly through the US Freedom of Information Act, show that between 1911 and 2017, more than 800 feature films received support from the US Government’s Department of Defence (DoD), a significantly higher figure than previous estimates indicate. These included blockbuster franchises such as Transformers, Iron Man, and The Terminator.
The national security state has a profound, sometimes petty, impact on what Hollywood conveys politically. On Hulk, the DoD requested “pretty radical” script alterations, according to script notes we obtained through Freedom of Information. These included disassociating the military from the gruesome laboratories that created “a monster” and changing the codename of the operation to capture the Hulk from “ranch hand” to “angry man”. Ranch Hand had been the name of a real chemical warfare programme during the Vietnam war.
This is why it is so rare to see truly left wing films see the light of day. Even our entertainment is used to manufacture a false narrative of US exceptionalism. We end up with films like Zero Dark Thirty being commonplace and Oliver Stone’s Platoon and JFK being rare standouts. Netflix was happy to publish the western propaganda film on the Maidan, Winter on Fire, but Igor Lopatanok’s Revealing Ukraine, Maidan Massacre and The Everlasting Present: 30 Years of Ukrainian InDependence cannot be found on any major streaming platform. Ukraine on Fire was actually removed from YouTube briefly in March 2022 before being returned and flagged as violent content.
Censorship is not always out in the open. It starts with the very creation of content. This is why Seymour Hersh created a substack to release his bombshell report on how the United States carried out the Nordstream 2 bombing - mainstream media would not touch such content. The United States is not a morally superior country. More often than not, it appears as the villain in global politics - spreading totalitarianism and overthrowing democracy. The only thing exceptional about the US is how bad it is.