Getting a Refund from American Exceptionalism

The view that is American Exceptionalism is one that I was greatly exposed to for a few decades. Later on, I got to visit other places on this great Earth and to know other cultural views face to face. Buildings, rituals, and clothes may look different around the world but everyone has the same feelings. One of those feelings is the entitlement to live free and well and not have that abridged unnecessarily.

Not everyone has the social character to fight hard for freedom, but everyone seeks to live well. A polite countenance is not willing acceptance of oppression. An unwillingness to speak out is not agreement with the political conditions that foster disenfranchisement. Noble expressions are good and the reality of sub optimal situations can be improved by ways that are more diplomatic than coercive.

American exceptionalism is the topic of a piece from the Washington Post. The article, American exceptionalism and the ‘exceptionally American’ problem of mass shootings speaks about a connection between this view and societal problems. As a viewpoint, American Exceptionalism is very seductive. It shrouds you in a thought process that resolves many questions about living. When taken to the extreme, it is a view tragically sustained at other’s expense.

What to do then? If you don’t believe you are #1, and make that true, then you set yourself up to be run over by others. At a national level, if you talk through many of the real implications of this, eventually, this view does not make sense. Exceptionalism costs a lot to achieve and maintain. As time progress, you come face to face with financial and moral bankruptcy. At the same time, you live a fiction that leaves endless problems in its wake.

A strong defense does not derive from an exceptionalist view. When you have valuable interests (like freedom and benevolent evolution) that need to be preserved from the coercive efforts of others, a very strong defense is simply a prudent matter. A line is wrongly crossed when such arrangements are improperly applied from defense to offense. The real problems of people get ignored. They are pushed down the road for someone else to deal with until they eventually fester hard.

As individuals, we are advised to emphasize that individuality. Some of that is good, some of it goes too far. I was brought up on this view and much of it still appeals to me. Early American pioneers are a testament to the choice to live despite tough situations and the potential for a better tomorrow through perseverance. Somewhere along the way it morphed into an every person for themselves kind of deal in which the like-minded seeing themselves on the way up or on the way out are going to obliterate others.

The concepts, American Exceptionalism and inclusiveness, are not compatible with one another. At least not in terms of how American Exceptionalism is often and popularly represented. The conflicted exceptionalist view may be no better chronicled than in the article, The Myth of American Exceptionalism by Stephan Walt. He shows an even view of both the fortune and fallibility of putting too strong an emphasis on manifest destiny. It robs you of the senses needed to engage with reality in a more balanced way.

Inclusiveness is the higher value as is the willingness to share and not perceive threats in every corner. I am convinced that some of the fears of our time are overstated. The benefits and potential for being an exceptionalist is also overstated and, by definition, unavailable to all. Therefore, more is possible if more people worked together. Not in the groupthink of things pursued but a true agreement on values, what is valued, and ways of communication and interaction that fostered a greater good.


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