Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Delusion of American Exceptionalism

I know I’m not the first to say it, but American exceptionalism is an idea that really just needs to die. I’m sure that would seem unpatriotic to a lot of people, but I think that it’s actually the most patriotic thing one could propose at this point. I’d first like to explain, though, just what the problem with American exceptionalism is, and before that, even, just what American exceptionalism is.

American exceptionalism is, obviously, the idea that America is exceptional. Now, I want to emphasize that is not the same thing as just asserting America is unique—that would imply nothing in terms of its quality, just that it’s different from all other countries (and it is, that much is true). No, American exceptionalism would perhaps more accurately be called American supremacism, because, like every form of supremacism (white, black, male, female, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc.) the idea is that We are better than anyone else. Now, not surprisingly, this attitude runs rampant among (so-called) conservatives, but (so-called) liberals’ hands are not exactly clean either. Take the “inspiring” speech from then-candidate Obama back in 2008, when he stated that “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”

The first problem with this is that it’s utter bullshit. You’d be hard-pressed to find one category that the US leads the world in that’s even remotely positive. We don’t offer some unique opportunity for every American to succeed (we’re awful when it comes to social mobility) we haven’t been some great benevolent harbinger of democracy throughout the world (the truth is diametrically opposed to that), and Americans as a people are absurdly backwoods compared to any other similarly developed country. So, anyone who actually thinks we should be honest with ourselves just on principle is automatically obligated to oppose the idea of American exceptionalism.

America is, in fact, in a lot of ways, exceptional, but they’re not especially good ways. We lead the world in military spending and incarcerated citizens per capita (meaning we imprison more of our population than any of the authoritarian dictatorships we supposedly stand in contrast to), our healthcare system is an international embarrassment, and the number of creationists we have pretty much blows every other first-world country out of the water. Furthermore, we don’t have a good excuse for any of this; we’re essentially the richest country on Earth, so there’s no good reason for us not to be the best educated, most enlightened, most livable country on Earth—and yet, we’re none of those things. Not even close, really.

But besides from being dishonest, promoting the idea that we’re the best country in the world is counterproductive and dangerous. Every parent recognizes that if their kid has a report card full of C’s, the way to help them improve is not to tell them that they’re the best student in the whole school, and the same principle applies on a larger scale. For the idea that America is the greatest country on Earth to be coherent, one has to think there are legitimately fundamental aspects of our country that are better than any other in the world, which keeps us from addressing the obvious flaws that we have—it’s hard to address the lack of social mobility in the United States when you’re promoting the idea that we offer our citizens the best opportunities of any country out there.

American exceptionalism also prevents us from learning from other countries; so many people (both on the “left” and “right” of our political spectrum) reject the idea that the social welfare models of the Scandinavian countries and other European countries could possibly be the right approach here, because, of course, we’re America, and they’re not. While right-wingers virtually never promote a program or an idea on the basis that it’s been successful in other countries, “liberals”—at least those who are actually holding political office—don’t seem to do it all that much, either. At the heart of the problem is the fundamental arrogance that still exists in America and that results in us categorically rejecting the idea that we might actually be better off following the examples other countries have set.

Worst of all, though, is the easy cover American exceptionalism provides for the barbaric foreign policy the United States has consistently championed. For instance, in a completely deranged column, Dr. Keith Ablow advocated an “American jihad” of imposing governments based on our own, on the basis that “our democracy [is] superior to all other forms of government.” That overlooks the minor fact that our current system is, for all intents and purposes, a corporate oligarchy. In less extreme ways, the same idea, though, has been promoted by President Obama, who stated last year that America’s role has been that of “the anchor of global security.” True, if he means the security of corporate and government interests—as for the security of democracy and human rights, the counterexamples are too numerous to list here.

 I’m not asking for some gratuitous hatred of America or embarrassment to be American, but it’s time to outgrow the downright childish idea that we really are somehow better than any other country on Earth. There are no facts to back the idea up whatsoever, and it’s an idea that damages both us and everyone else. There are parts of American history to admire, and Americans throughout history to be inspired by, but unless we recognize the numerous ways in which we diverge from the ideas of democracy and individual rights that we’re supposed to represent, we’re going to keep down the same path we’ve been on for a long time. And it’s not a path that leads anywhere worth going.

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