Is America Exceptional?by Don Lacey on Sep. 08, 2012, under Critical Thinking, Economics, Education, Environment, Ethics, Freethought, Government, History, Logic, Middle Class, Question of the Day!, Reason, Responsible Government, Skepticism, That's Life!
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 put it bluntly:
“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 is a summary of how all too many Americans view their own count—as a nation destined for a divinely sanctioned, continuous reign of benevolent world dominance. This sort of nationalistic exceptionalism has appeared in nearly every culture, especially those that have come to dominate in the civilized world. The desire to think that the place one is from or the culture one grew up in is special is widespread. There is 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 opponent decided to question him it. 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. It is conducive to human development. They believe 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. There is no problem with this position but the term carries other baggage.
Specifically, American exceptionalism is often leads to the following beliefs:
· The U.S. and its people are simply better than the rest of the world.
· This country can do no wrong and that none of our overseas adventures were in error or should ever be apologized for.
· That our country and its government are the tools of a supernatural being.
· 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.
· That Americans are special, wonderful, and destined to be number one!
· That our government has every right to invade or intervene in any country for the purpose of promoting democracy, opening markets, or whatever.
A more mature view of the United States would include the recognition that our country is not infallible and that it has made mistakes and may make mistakes in the future. We should 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. The U.S. has been a model for the rest of the world. However, we must not gloss over the dark side of US history: slavery, the witch trials, the murder of the Native Americans, and the theft of their land, the internment of Japanese-American citizens, the support of murderous foreign dictatorships and death squads during the cold war, and a continued inability to balance the budget.
Furthermore, panglossian claims of “we’re number one!” are a little ridiculous considering how far behind the rest of the developed world we’ve slipped in so many areas. 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 we 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 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 extremely arrogant. Humans of all nationalities need to move beyond such thinking and see the places they live in realistic terms.