The Fallacy of American Exceptionalism
I hate to burst anyone bubble but the idea of American Exceptionalism left us in the early ‘80’s and has not returned. I figured it left us in 1984, that’s the year my High School fenced in the students who formerly enjoyed an open campus. A fence you say, is that all you got? No, but it may have been the most shocking sign of the times for me. I’m fortunate, I graduated from that school the year before but the shock of seeing that fence pounded home that changes were afoot.
It could be argued that the height of American Exceptionalism was the generation that Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation” in his 1998 book by the same name. This generation that fought World War Two was not aware per se of American Exceptionalism except where it meant riches in natural resources, liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, and populism. Indeed, Alexis de Tocqueville commented on “An exceptional America” a century before. The term “American Exceptionalism” actually was first used by members of the American Communist Party in the 1920’s (yes you read that right, the Communist Party). It makes sense in a way, this is post World War One and the country was working together to build a modern industrial base, the proletariat working together, a communistic ideal. After WWII this growth ramped up beyond all measure and by the time a new generation had come to the fore in the late 1960’s Americans could rightly sit back a bit on their well-earned laurels and extol the virtues of American Exceptionalism, but by that time the term “American Exceptionalism” had become synonymous with “American Superiority” and things changed.
Another President has stood in front of Congress and proclaimed “the state of the union is strong” but this is just so much more rhetoric for the masses that has become meaningless. We are not the exceptional Americans we once were and when we brag such the world laughs at us because they know we fail in many crucial areas. They know our education system is a mess, our values are self-centered, our health institutions are more interested in profits than people, our financial system is set up to spilt the country into the haves and have not’s, and politically we are so stymied that we can make no progress. Those simple examples and many more do not point to an exception America.
It is not possible to point to all the problems that must be solved for the United States to once again lead the world in the things that really matter, but maybe I can illustrate a few. Corporations need to be concerned more with people than profits. Yes, the point of a corporation is to make profits but when profits displace concern for their own employees they are doing a disservice to everyone. Likewise a corporation needs to be a good citizen of the country and ask what will help the country as well knowing that in the long run helping the country helps them. Families need to pay more attention to the values, morals, and responsibility than they are currently doing. It does not matter the values you use as long as they are responsible. It is just as responsible to bring up children with strong Christian values as it is to bring then up with strong Jewish values, or Muslim, or Hindu or even strong civic values an Atheist may instill. These values all teach self-respect and instill a sense of responsibility. Finally, hate must end. This is not to say that you cannot disagree with someone, but the vitriol we are seeing now corrode out society so much it could threaten the very existence of our country. My favorite author, Robert Heinlein, point out the first signs of a dying society is the collapse of common courtesy. This is so blindingly obvious that we can’t see it until we look for it. When civility leaves it leaves gaps in the psyche that are filled with the blackness of bad behavior that spreads like a cancer.
We are no longer the exceptional Americans that de Tocqueville saw. We are no longer the Americans of the greatest generate, for how could we ever live up to that moniker. We are instead a desperately searching people looking to reclaim that exceptionalism that we so honestly delude ourselves that we have. What is wrong with this country and maybe with the whole world is not something that can be legislated; it is an issue of heart and perspective. It is an issue of pride, both personal and civic, in knowing that your actions are not only right for you, but right for everyone around you. We need to throw off the egotistical view we have of ourselves and broaden it and take the lead of spreading these more humane moral and ethical concepts.
Do we have the nerve, each and every one of us, to hold up a mirror to ourselves and honestly see how own actions help or hinder the people are society around us? Are we going to see a person that really only gives a hoot for him/herself, selfish and arrogant, or are we going to see a person that is trying as best they can? My suspicion is that there are some of both people in all of us, some good, and some bad. But on balance, where do you fall on the scale? We all know that a law will not make a difference; we know that the true nature of change can only come from within.
It’s out there of course, our American Exceptionalism, if we can all find it in our hearts to live up to it. And if that day ever comes, and it is my hope that it does, we can all be proud of the country we have raised up from a low spot in our history. Let us all turn the fallacy back into a future reality.