Thursday, August 11, 2011

American Exceptionalism

I've been hearing a lot about something called "American exceptionalism." Chris Matthews on MSNBC has a promo spot in which he relates how Barack Obama came from a relatively lowly background and ascended to the heights of American politics. He made the point that someone couldn't go over to China and become the President of China. Matthews attributed it to "American exceptionalism".

I wasn't sure what that meant, so I went to that Oracle of the Internet, Wikipedia. They said that is the belief that the United States is qualitatively different from, and by inference superior to, other nations. This supposedly came from the fact that America was born from a revolution, and developed it own ideas of egalitarianism, populism, laissez-faire capitalism, and individualism. It traces its roots to Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) who first referred to the United States as "exceptional."

This concept has also been linked to another concept, manifest destiny, which said that it was inevitable that early settlers of the United States would in time spread across the entire North American continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was their destiny, and it would happen in spite of the fact that Native Americans and untold billions of other mammals were there first.

There is something about American exceptionalism that kind of creeps me out. I think that while it's something that has a tinge of validity, it is also something that can be monstrously perverted to suit a particular agenda or justify a whole range of activities. Any idea that seeks to set up one group of people as somehow having better attributes and qualities than others for no discernible good reason other than it sort of sounds good and fits roughly in with historic events, seems a bit desperate to me. It's just one short step from claiming to be the divinely "chosen ones" and whenever you get the approval of some religious deity, then you assume you have carte blanche to do anything you damned well please, no matter how awful and hideous. History abounds with examples of this.

Now, "animal exceptionalism" is something I can totally get behind, because I believe that animals are far superior to human beings and have every reason to be considered exceptional. You never hear of animals calling each other racist names, or killing enormous numbers of each other in pointless, ill-conceived wars, or making themselves miserable by wallowing around in bottomless pools of regret or resentment. Animals don't really concern themselves with what happened yesterday or 50 years ago, and they don't spend their lives fretting about stuff that may or may not happen tomorrow or 50 years from now. They live wholly and completely in the present moment.

Humans, however, do not do the same. Is it this human understanding of time and history that separates them from the animals and makes them "exceptional?" Probably not, since as far as I know all humans understand the concept of past, present and future pretty much the same, so I can't see how that can be used to establish some kind of superiority of one group over the other.

I'm not sure Americans are all that exceptional. We have an exceptional country, blessed with enormous natural resources, but the same can be said for Russia and China. We have a system of government which at least in theory allows people the opportunity to succeed as much as they are able or want to succeed, but so do a lot of European countries and some Pacific Rim countries like Australia, Singapore and Japan. We have a culture that values egalitarianism and rugged individualism, but so does Canada, South Africa, Chile and Argentina. We have a legal system that, while corrupted with money, favoritism and biases of every kind, still argues the point that anyone is innocent until proven guilty. But much of our system of laws is based on British Common Law which has its origins in Teutonic Germany, so it isn't a uniquely American construct.

So what is it that makes America exceptional? Maybe it's the belief that we are a "shining city on a hill," as crotchety, Alzheimers-ridden buffoon Ronald Reagan said. Maybe it's our common belief that freedom is the cornerstone of our country, even though our freedoms get eroded more and more every day by politicians who constantly hide behind the shield of patriotism, while doing very unpatriotic things. And most of all, even though our country is reviled and criticized in many corners of the world, it's still the Promised Land for many people and an irresistible draw for the talented and ambitious. We have our flaws, but we are also the best the world has to offer.

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