Tuesday, October 27, 2015

American Exceptionalism

The phrase "American Exceptionalism" has been a staple of those wishing to convey their patriotism for many decades, but became a rallying cry for certain conservatives who used it during the 2008 presidential election as a way to extend the belief that then candidate Barack Obama was not American born because he implied that America was not the greatest country by saying that everyone believes their own country to be the best. 

Interestingly, the concept of American exceptionalism seems to have first been noted by the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville who used the word exceptional to describe America in his early 19th century work Democracy in America.  The phrase was subsequently linked with the concept of Manifest Destiny which justified America's expansion west of the Mississippi, sometimes through legal purchases such as the Louisiana Purchase, but more often by "claiming" the land from the American Natives who originally lived there. 

As I discovered on Wikipedia, an interesting note on its use occurred in the early 1920's as the world experienced Communist revolutions.  In June 1927 Jay Lovestone, described America's economic and social uniqueness.  He noted the increasing strength of American capitalism, and the country's "tremendous reserve power"; a strength and power which he said prevented Communist revolution.  In 1929, then Soviet leader Joseph Stalin called Lovestone's ideas "the heresy of American exceptionalism", the first time that the specific term "American exceptionalism" was used.  The subsequent Great Depression after the collapse of Wall Street in 1929, seemed to underscore Stalin's argument that American capitalism did not preclude our susceptibility to the economic laws of Marxism.  One might wonder if the recent economic meltdown of 2008-10, was again a reminder that capitalism, despite its advantages, does have flaws and that is an exceptional economic system  only when applied for the advancement of the majority as opposed to the benefit of the 1%.

I have said more than once that capitalism is the worst economic system except for every other one.  (Not my original idea).  Like all man made concepts, it can be perverted to limit opportunity and distort the rules to advantage those already with the most, blocking out access to those with the least.  (This is the crux, in my opinion, of the problem, in that some people believe capitalism to be a divinely inspired economic theory that cannot be questioned, just like Manifest Destiny was used to justify all sorts of horrific crimes because it was the will of God that we "civilize" the West).

The simple fact that a significant percentage of the wealth in America is controlled by only 1% of the population, and that that percentage is growing, indicates that the current version of capitalism is not an indicator of our exceptionalism, but more an indicator of the strong taking advantage of the weak, a concept that Americans claim to loathe, yet which is used to justify our interminable activities on foreign lands where we take resources in the guise of business opportunities, and alter political regimes based on ideological differences.  To me, the biggest indicator of American exceptionalism gone awry is the obscene amount of money that we spend on our military every year, a number that by itself exceeds the GDP of most of the countries on earth.  This juxtaposition of good intentions and self perceived Christian values with the sheer volume of violence and terror that our military industrial complex represents, along with our obsession with guns and the theory that guns in the hands of good people will make the world right, is a huge warning signal that American exceptionalism has been hijacked and has wound its way down a road where no happy ending is possible.

Yet, and I am sure that by now you will be surprised at this statement, I believe in a version of American exceptionalism.  I believe that our understanding of real freedom, even for those who are different from us, has greatly advanced race relations, evidenced by the simple fact that white only water fountains existed in the 1950's while less than 60 years later a black man was elected president.
And that this understanding has resulted in the recent Supreme Court ruling that the application of the right to the pursuit of happiness intrinsically includes the right to marry whomever one loves.  Yes, it is true that there is some backlash to both advances, but that is expected, and, in fact, is the normal progression of all great societal and cultural shifts.

I believe that our scientific and technological communities also represent American exceptionalism in action.  Everyday, new medical research moves us closer to solving the secrets of how diseases begin, new technological advances bring information about the world into the palms of our hands, and new scientific research opens alternative methods to feed our growing population, and satisfy our energy needs while preserving the beauty and purity of Earth's natural resources. 

Unfortunately, it is our current political system that interferes with tagging America as a truly exceptional country.  It is this polarized system that actually interferes with certain medical and scientific breakthroughs and revelations, by injecting outmoded religious and social beliefs into the dialogues concerning the issues of the day.  We (and I mean the electorate) have allowed our two party system to run rampant across the land, altering voting maps to guarantee successful reelections, while placing too much emphasis on what is good for the party as opposed to what is good for America.  (Not to mention creating obstacles to our right to vote).  Additionally, by breaking the remaining bonds on the caps on political donations, we have set the table for one issue super pacs to fund one issue candidates who align themselves with a one issue minority of the populace to effectively place blinders on our perspective, and the laws we create to maintain our freedoms.

There are those who like to say that freedom is God given, not derived from government.  One can't argue that a belief in a superior being should include the idea that She would want freedom for her children.  But a quick glance through history, a quick glance at the trouble spots in the world today, and it is also easy to conclude that a strong government, based on laws that respect all its citizens regardless of race, creed, gender or sexual preference, is the best place to live. 

To be an exceptional country, we need an exceptional government, and for an exceptional government to work we need strong leaders.  I don't mean bullies whose only platform is that they will get the job done, or whose popularity is based on a lie about our current president, and an even bigger lie about people who live south of the border.  I don't mean a leader who claims favoritism from their god while generating hate for those who believe in a different version of god.  I don't mean leaders who use their myopic perspective to block the work of organizations who actually serve the poor as opposed to those with large bank accounts.

We need leaders who see that there is a looming crisis, and it cannot be defeated with guns or bombs.  A leader who understands that a species which gobbles up all the resources of its environment without regard to the damage it is doing is a species with a limited life expectancy, not to mention a species with a huge bill coming due.  A leader who has a strong personal faith which inspires them to create a better world for all people, not just for those who agree with their particular version of faith.  A leader who represents the everyday people who do all the living, working and dying, without fanfare, and whose work if removed, would collapse our economy, and our way of life.  A leader with the vision to lead even when leading means less popularity. 

But even more so, we need an electorate who places more importance on their vote than on their football pool or their knowledge of who won The Voice.  An electorate which demands the opportunity to vote for any candidate regardless of party affiliation, and in all elections, primary as well as in November.  An electorate that gauges candidates on their actual voting record, not their rhetoric.  An electorate that holds those elected accountable, by removing those who do not improve the nation, or enacting term limits to help them rethink their candidates every 8 years.

American exceptionalism is only a phrase if we do not raise the bar of what it actually means today and stop pretending that past demonstrations of its meaning carry through forever.  It should be the ultimate what have you done for me lately.  And lately, our exceptionalism seems limited to a broken political system of gridlock, a democracy heading towards a plutocracy, a misplaced belief that Christianity means killing those with other faiths and denying freedoms for those with different perspectives, and the complete disregard for our hand in altering the climate of our planet.                       

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