Problems with American Exceptionalism

In the Charlton Heston’s 1959 film Ben-Hur, there is a scene where a Roman citizen, Messala, is encouraging his Jewish friend to be more accepting and less resistant to the Roman empire’s control of his homeland. He bluntly states:

It’s no accident that one small village on the Tiber was chosen to rule the world…It wasn’t just our legions…No, it was fate that chose us to civilize the world – and we have. Our roads and our ships connect every corner of the earth, Roman law, architecture, literature are the glory of the human race.

This strikes me as a summary of how all to many Americans view their own county: as a nation destined for a divinely sanctioned, continuous, reign of benevolent world dominance. It seems to me this sort of nationalistic exceptionalism has probably appeared in nearly every culture, especially those that have come to be major power players in the civilized world. The desire to think that the place one is from or the culture one grew up in is special is probably widespread. There seems to be an innate desire to believe that one’s homeland is God’s gift to humanity.

Apparently such a belief is seen as a badge of honor by much of the electorate in this country. The issue of the U.S. president’s belief (or lack thereof) in American exceptionalism received quite a bit of media attention when his opponents decided to question him it, during the last election cycle. Apparently believing your country is anything less than God’s ordained means of advancing humanity is politically suspect.

For many the term American exceptionalism entails the belief that our political system and economic system is an effective one, conducive to human development and that the country’s founders were in a unique position to put such a system into place, providing a good example for the rest of the world. I have little problem with this position, but all too often the term carries other baggage.

Specifically, American exceptionalism is often tied to the following beliefs:

  • The belief that the U.S. and it’s people are simply better than the rest of the world.

  • The belief that this country can do no wrong, that none of our overseas adventures were in error or should ever be apologized for.

  • The belief that our country and it’s government are the tools of a supernatural being.

  • The belief that the US is some sort of “City on a Hill” that the rest of the world should hold in high regard and emulate in every way.

  • The belief that we Americans are just simply special and wonderful and meant to be number one!!

  • That our government has every right to invade or intervene in any country it wants for the purpose of promoting democracy, opening markets or whatever.

Americans need to take a more mature view of their country and stop idealizing it. It is the recognition that our country is not infallible and that it can do wrong that makes us strive to make sure the U.S. is on the right side of history. The American revolution and the development of the U.S. constitution were undoubtedly monumental events in humanity’s endless battle against tyranny and have been a model for the rest of the world. That said, we must not fall into the trap of glossing over the dark side of US history: Slavery, the witch trials, the murder of the Indians and the theft of their land, the internment of Japanese citizens, the support of murderous, foreign dictatorships and death squads during the cold war, and a continued inability to balance the budget.

Furthermore, we have fallen behind much of the rest of the developed world in so many areas, that panglossian claims of “we’re number one!!” sound a little ridiculous. We have one of the world’s largest prison populations, we waste the most money on overpriced health care, we work longer hours, for less money, have lower job security and take fewer vacations than much of the developed world. We have fallen behind in social mobility, literacy, math and science skills and educational attainment in general.

While I love this country, I recognize that there are countless areas in which it can improve. Acknowledging this is a good thing. Superstitious beliefs about one’s country having some magical property of specialness, are an insult to our intelligence, and are extremely arrogant. Humans of all nationalities need to move beyond such thinking, and see the places they live in realistic terms.

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