American “Exceptionalism”

| Senior Forum Editor

Last week, I was chatting with a few friends and happened to bring up the state of the Chinese economy. China’s economy, which had been experiencing double-digit growth for two decades, has slowed. One of my friends positively perked up, doing a little jazz-hands move usually reserved for Super Bowl touchdowns and sorority bid acceptances.

When I asked him about his reaction, he replied, “I just don’t want any other country to be on top.”

Don’t get me wrong; I want America to be a great country as well. However, American “exceptionalism,” or perfection, is a myth. While we might be a world superpower, able to throw our weight around politically and culturally, America has real domestic problems that are put to the wayside. True patriotism is not predicated on self-delusion and mindless cheerleading but rather on seeing the flaws of one’s country and seeking out substantive policy solutions.

In a recent article published in the New York Times, “The Opiate of Exceptionalism,” reporter Scott Shane addresses the “peculiarly American brand of nationalism” that favors optimism over directly addressing ugly social issues. Shane asks, “Could a presidential candidate today survive if he promised to wage a war on poverty, as President Lyndon B. Johnson did in 1964?” He thinks it would be unlikely, and I agree. While the economy is a favorite issue, the candidates focus on giving the middle class a fair shake. Mentioning poverty is pretty much taboo, unless it’s mentioned in a roundabout way, embedded in discussions of failing schools or, occasionally, obesity. Most politicians tailor their platforms to the perceived needs of ordinary Americans—the middle class. While this is a smart move politically, blowing past issues like poverty because they’re unsavory and require spending defeats one of the main points of politics—namely, working to make the country better.

Let me rattle off a few statistics that could probably be addressed: the U.S. ranks second in childhood poverty and 31st in terms of perceived nocturnal safety for women. These statistics, it should be noted, were compiled by Mark Rice on his “Ranking America” site, drawing mainly on polls conducted by Gallup, UNICEF and other reputable organizations. Hell, America ranks 50th in erection length, leading me to speculate that perhaps America’s involvement overseas is the national equivalent of compensating for a Freudian disorder with a large truck. According to one Gallup poll, Americans aren’t even number one in “having a favorable view of the United States;” that would be Japan. Simply reducing the quality of a country to a bunch of comparative statistics is only helpful to a limited extent. Certainly, I feel lucky to live in America, a country with a relatively high standard of living and baseball. But when our political rhetoric, not to mention domestic policy, fails to address such findings, the statistics cease to be trivia and become calls to action.

This is a bipartisan issue. To generalize broadly, as Shane says, “Democrats are more loath than Republicans to look squarely at the government debt crisis…Republicans are more reluctant than Democrats to acknowledge the rise of global temperatures and its causes and consequences. But both parties…prefer not to consider either trend too deeply.” Americans live in a feel-good environment of slick marketing and a mythos of greatness. It’s not that voters willfully ignore problems with the economy or America’s educational system; it’s more that the depth and complexities of the problems are glossed over.

Patriotism and nationalism are not new concepts. All of us who identify as American have been inducted into the cult of Washington, and the equation “World War I=nationalism” has gotten countless slobs through modern European history. There’s nothing inherently wrong with expressing a love of one’s country. But when defining what makes America great is based mainly upon abstract democratic ideals and references to bygone days of prosperity, we need to take a closer look at the reality of our situation. In our age of ubiquitous flag pins and increasing paranoia about the rise of China, patriotism has been reduced to obsessing over gross domestic product and hoping China falls apart.

Now, all of this is not a reason to defect to Canada. Actually, Denmark might be a better choice; it’s ranked first in “freedom from corruption’ and “happiness” by Gallup. Denmark is doing pretty darn well, considering that it’s a pretty socialist country that Texas could swallow whole, no chaser. Deciding my entire life based on rankings and polls is neither practical nor scientific, particularly given the statistical margin of error. The best I can do, and any of us can do, is to be aware of the shortcomings of America and actually work to improve them, either through our votes or, better yet, through political activism. America deserves better. We deserve better.