Thursday, December 17, 2015

American Unexceptionalism

America has a remarkable story to tell, from its very beginning to our recent past. It is one of the few countries that was created almost entirely by colonization, drawing diverse multi-cultural immigrants from all over Old Europe (even though many Americans erroneously think we were begat only by colonists from England). It created the model of directly-elected representative democracy in a time where there was no precedence for it; such a concept was an extreme threat to the existing world royal power structures. America broke the back of economic status being restricted by privilege of birth, and expanded opportunity to those with the creativity and vision and work ethic to achieve their potential. It sanctified each person’s right to speak freely, and to privately practice their religious beliefs, without persecution or hindrance – regardless of how that speech and religion might differ – an exception to the cultural homogeneity of European nations. It opened the door to invention and entrepreneurism and rewarded handsomely those who turned ideas into mass-marketing success, creating legions of individual success stories.

Stealing from this meaningful story, some self-serving politicians have created empty buzz word – “American Exceptionalism” – in another attempt to reduce serious political discussion into meaningless demagoguery. (Just as they did with the American flag lapel pin by making it into an obligatory ornament by which to measure one’s patriotism.) To wit, if one is said to not believe and espouse American Exceptionalism, then one is inherently anti-American and out of step with true Americans and our heritage. It is all good fodder for a political ad and a TV commentator’s soapbox, but a worthless basis for moving America forward.

By definition, being “exceptional” is to be different from the normal state of things. Certainly America has gone against the prevailing grain and been exceptional in many ways over its four centuries. Yet it has not always been committed to consistency or universality as it developed, often taking one step backward between its two steps forward.

Historically, America uniquely created a government defined by a written Constitution, an exception to governments then in existence (even as we have grappled ever since with conflicting opinions about what that Constitution says). Our Founders declared that all men are created equal, a revolutionary exception to governmental thinking of the day. Nevertheless, they refused to give equal rights and privileges in that Constitution to all men; women were ignored almost entirely. It was an exception to the civilized world in retaining the bondage of slavery long after other countries ended it – even fighting our most deadly war (in both real numbers and percentage of the population) in a futile effort to keep slavery going. In the early 20th century, the promise of economic opportunity for everyone was smothered and redirected to a small group of mega-rich monopolists who made themselves exceptions from the rules of free-market systems (not that different from today.) A country that was built on a foundation of diverse immigrants made future groups exceptions to our open door. Even for those lucky enough to get in, they were relegated to the bottom of the economic heap, thereby made exceptions to the promise of the Opportunity of America.

We arrive at our modern period of exceptionalism when we compare ourselves to other “developed” nations across the globe. For example, we are exceptional at spending more money on our military than the next ten countries combined. Most of that money is spent on defending other people overseas, not on Americans themselves. Not a bad deal for them when countries can get Americans to provide their military defense for them, especially when they do not have to be concerned whether America can actually afford to spend 50% of its budget on that military.

We have more people in our prisons than any country in the world. Yet we claim to be revolted by repressive and/or violent regimes that attack and imprison their own citizens.

For the country that created electoral democracy, in 2014 only around 40% of our eligible voters turned out to fulfill their most fundamental obligation of citizenship. So much for world leadership by example in demonstrating democratic principles.

In test after test of educational achievement, America – the earliest provider of free universal education – consistently ranks between 20th to 30th in world rankings. Approximately 25% of our children fail to get a high school diploma; approximately 25% of adults have a college degree. College debt weighs down graduates for years, many with no guarantee of getting the high-quality job and lifestyle that was promised from that expensive education.

In America, access to fundamental medical care is predominately a privilege of income and employment, not a benefit of citizenship – an exception to all other developed countries. Even the price of such care is shrouded in secrecy beyond the control, much less restraint, of a dependent patient base. Medical care in America is a market-based commodity, but health care corporations have made themselves exceptions to the rules of the free market.

The list goes on. As the supposed leader of the free world, we are woefully mediocre in some important areas, and an unquestioned leader in some very questionable areas.

All of this is not to demean or diminish the very real greatness of America. The gifts of America continue to flow, and will hopefully do so for some time to come. We still do some amazing things, even as we also do some exceptionally stupid things. The first step in solving our difficult problems is to acknowledge truthfully our shortcomings, without being deluded by or trapped in past glories. It is only in grounded clarity and honest self-reflection that we can properly address the needs and unfulfilled potential that we have, whether as an individual or a collective society. The determination to confront our challenges by working together on pragmatic solutions used to be the essence of “the Americans.” That ability has been lost in the myopia of political infighting that now paralyzes us into inaction.

It is this gap between what we believe we once were and what we are now, and what has thereby been lost, that troubles many Americans today – even if our perspectives and preferred actions differ greatly among us. A willingness to confront, and an ability to solve, our problems was once America’s true exceptionalism. Today, being drawn into false slogans about American Exceptionalism takes us away from the hard work that we need to do. Such slogans seek to insulate us from acknowledging our shortcomings, and from being humble enough to listen to and learn from each other. We should be inspired by our past to keep America moving forward. But we should create our actions influenced by coldly objective truths, not empty slogans designed to deceive and distract us.

©  2015  Randy Bell