Notes on American Exceptionalism
A couple of weeks ago, I got into a discussion about geopolitics with my dad over dinner. We touched on a number of topics, ranging from the rise of China to the 2008 Presidential candidates and things of that nature.
Now, my dad is a smart guy, and we don’t actually have a lot of disagreements. Further, he actually has a unique perspective on the whole globalization thing – he heads a division with a good number of employees in India (and isn’t too happy about it). But towards the end of the conversation, after I’d expressed the many things I’m pessimistic about*, he basically offered this: “Yes, but there’s just something special about Americans.”
Now, here’s the curious thing about that. Though my dad has seen much of the US, he’s only been outside the country twice. Once almost 15 years ago during a family trip to Japan. And not again until a few years ago, when he took a business trip to India. Which begs the question of what he’s basing that opinion on, exactly. (I asked – mostly he’s comparing “Americans” to the code monkeys he works with in India. Given that, I can hardly blame him, but that’s hardly a representative sample of India’s population, let alone the world population.)
Indeed, most people who espouse views of American exceptionalism seem to have little experience with anything other than America, if any at all. Most who do have experience limited to tourism – but realistically, going up the Eiffel Tower doesn’t really tell you much about what the French are like or how they live. So given that Americans don’t have much of anything to compare themselves to, one might wonder exactly why so many believe that America is so exceptional.
The reasons become evident once you start to think about it though. From our first day of elementary school, we’re taught that “My country t’is of thee a sweet land of liberty” – the “home of the free and land of the brave” that “belongs to you and me”. The founding fathers are practically mythological heroes. America’s greatness is reinforced in ever history lesson, in every movie, by every politician. Almost all the media we consume is made by Americans for Americans It’s not surprising that the message sinks in.
Certainly, none of it really stands up to scrutiny. The “land of the free” actually offers considerably less freedom than many other first world nations, by pretty much any metric you might use (case in point). The “land of opportunity” has less social mobility than Europe, and more of our citizens lack basic necessities. “Give us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses longing to be free” has given way to the pronounced xenophobia that currently dominates Republican party politics. And especially given all that, I find the level of jingoism displayed by Americans frankly disturbing, as it should be to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with history. “My country, right or wrong” has paved the way for some horrifically wrong things.
But the more interesting thing to me is an observation I’ve made about how my own opinion was formed, and how I’ve come to such a different conclusion than my dad.
I can’t confess to have done that much more world traveling (yet!) – though I’ve done slightly more of it than he has. Instead, I think the chief difference is the digital generation gap. I’m exposed to the rest of the world, constantly. One of my best friends lives in the UK (depressingly, I don’t get to talk with her that regularly anymore though). I have friends I do still talk with daily though – in Canada, Australia, Norway, and every region of the US. I debate my views in global forums. Granted, the majority of the participants are American and the rest are English speaking, but it’s a far, far more diverse range than fills my immediate circle in the real world. When a major event happens elsewhere – whether flooding in England or elections in France – I get to here descriptions of it from people who live there, in their own words, unfiltered by any media and often in response to direct questions by me. I read international news and international blogs. The internet is truly a global medium. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly less US-centric than the mainstream media from which my dad’s generation gets most of their perspective from.
For example, take the healthcare question. My opinion on universal healthcare systems vs the train wreck in the US is based on talking directly with people who live under them. I don’t rely on Michael Moore nor Rush Limbaugh nor CNN to tell me what it’s like in those countries, I hear it from people who live there. It exposes right wing propaganda about choice and wait times under these systems exactly for what it is – a myth. In fact, most people who have universal healtchcare seem to be horrified at the idea of American healthcare (and honestly, I can’t blame them). From the earliest days I began learning of the issue, I had the benefit of a global perspective. Many still do not.
In general, here’s the conclusion I’ve drawn: all people are basically the same. Across geography and culture, people have the same drives and motivations. Every culture has its innovators, its ambitious, and its risk takers. We share the same range of attitudes and intelligence, and our problems stem from the same human flaws. The US has risen to a world power not because of some innate difference that separates Americans from everyone else, but rather a set of fortuitous circumstances that Americans were able to exploit. We’re nothing special.
I originally titled this post “The Death of American Exceptionalism” but I think that might be a bit of an overreach. I don’t expect nationalism will ever disappear completely. But, it’s possible that my generation will break out of the bubble that previous generations have lived in, and develop a more global perspective on problems both home and abroad. And that gives me the tiniest bit of hope.
* Basically, peak oil, and our ability to act with enough foresight to avoid disaster when the shit hits the fan.