Every once in a while I hear the phrase “American Exceptionalism.” It’s usually used in the context of one politician tearing another down by saying that they don’t believe in it. The inference there is that the speaker does believe in American Exceptionalism and is therefore a better American because he or should wont tolerate criticism of America.
This always makes my head hurt.
According to Wikipedia, American Exceptionalism “refers to the theory that the United States is qualitatively different from other countries.” Since that idea was first presented by Alexis de Touqueville, I think it’s fair to say that he was right. At that time. Now? I dunno. Maybe. Probably. Or not. I’ve never lived anywhere else so I can’t say if other places are better or worse, other peoples better or worse. I do think it’s a bit arrogant to assume one nation is the best one simply by virtue of having been born there. And claiming unilateral exceptionalism with no qualification of America’s flaws is simply intellectually dishonest.
If you had to ask me to give an example of American Exceptionalism, I would be able to give an instant, unhesitant answer: on September 11, 2001, Americans acted exceptionally. On that dreadful, frightening day, as we all struggled to make sense of the tragedy, we didn’t riot, loot, or hoard. Instead, thousands upon thousands of Americans lined up to give blood. Americans gave of themselves and waited for what each minute of that day would bring. It was remarkable. I tear up just thinking about it.
I have a harder time coming up with another example as clear as that one. Which is why I wonder, are we really exceptional among the human race? Or are we a flawed nation with the promise of being exceptional when the opportunity arises?
Americans created the cotton gin, the assembly line, the automobile, the airplane, the nuclear bomb, chemotherapy, and the Internet. All of that is exceptional. But American history is also riddled with racism, sexism, homophobia, class inequality, corrupt politics, and unequal distribution of resources of all kinds. That is not exceptional. That is exactly the same set of issues that every society has faced since the dawn of civilization .
So are we exceptional or not? Are we in a decline? Are we rising to new heights? Is being American something to be proud of or just an accident of birth?
And does being proud of America matter?
It is possible to see the flaws in a landscape and still long to beautify it. Unconditional pride and acceptance are not always virtues. In fact, they could be seen as failings in a situation such as this. Like the parent who beams as their child tears apart the department store, smiling blindly on a flawed nation leaves one unable to seize opportunities for improvement. Some of the most exceptional Americans knew that: Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., and FDR all come to mind.
Just as the doctor who understands disease hasn’t lost faith in the human body’s abilities, a citizen who understands America’s weak points probably hasn’t lost faith in America’s ability to be exceptional. Demonizing the politician or the pundit or the blogger who points out areas for social improvement as being a non-believer in American Exceptionalism, really says more about the intractable nature of the the critic. And a nation of intractable critics unwilling to work to improve our nation? Would be an unexceptional America indeed.