NOTE: This post was changed for some unknown reason by WordPress after it was posted. In its original form, it was a much more serious post, but much of that language was lost. I’ve tried to make sense of what they left, but have had to make it much more trivial and apologize for the loss of the original post.
The term “American exceptionalism” has been bandied about by politicians, pundits, historians, and others with increasing frequency. Attempting to catch up on the latest atrocities against democracy and the rule of law, I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about the term: how it was used throughout history and how it has become weaponized in our divided political culture.
The phrase may have originated in the 1830s with the first great observer of American life, the French political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville, but the meaning has changed over time.
We clearly are not exceptional. It doesn’t take too much to see that. Try looking at, for instance:
- Modern Japanese toilets
- Healthcare in just about any developed country other than the U.S.
- High-speed train travel in Japan, Germany, and yes, even Spain, which makes us look like a third-world country*
- Infrastructure in most modern countries vs. the crumbling infrastructure of the U.S. (recently given a D+ grade)
- The statistics on U.S. voter turnout as compared with other industrialized democracies.
- Rankings that show that six countries in the world — Brazil, the United States, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Guatemala — were responsible for half of all gun-related deaths in the world in 2016.**
- And, of course, those Japanese self-parking slippers!
America as “the best” in everything we do is a naïve belief that is easy to debunk. But the concept of American exceptionalism that does require serious consideration is constructed on the idea that we created something new in 1776 out of whole cloth; a “new history” if you will. And moral superiority is a key part of the argument that this new nation, with its unique commitment to freedom and democracy, is exceptional.
Any serious reading of history will tell us that this simply isn’t true. We need to understand our history if we are to begin to help America live up to its exceptional ideals.
More to come…
* Not to mention the good systems in the U.K., Italy, and so many other countries.
**I guess this does prove that we are exceptional in some things.
Image: Uncle Sam at the Takoma Park July 4th parade