Monday, February 7, 2011

The Inherent Contradiction of American Exceptionalism

I've been a little disturbed lately by how others perceive the world and wanted to share with you a contradiction that I've observed in American Ideals. But first, a quick introduction. The other day I read this article on the situation in Egypt arguing that Democracy often leads to Tyranny and that we should not be quick to cheer on the revolution that is happening in Egypt right now. I can only assume this also means that we should have been against our own revolution, the color revolutions that were instrumental in the end of the Cold War, the current Tunisian, Jordanian, and Yemeni revolutions, and all similar revolutions where a downtrodden people sought to overthrow a despotic government that was holding them down.

I also read a comment on facebook recently with an argument saying that you can either believe in American Exceptionalism or you can agree with President Obama. Of course, in that actual post referring to the President with any term of respect would have been impossible, but I digress. Last year when the health care reform bill was passed I read a different facebook comment about why the reform was bad saying that we have the greatest health care in the world and we don't want to mess with that.
Arguments like these frustrate me to no end because they promote this concept of American Exceptionalism, that we are the best at whatever we do. That this nation has been blessed to be the greatest nation on earth and as such we will succeed. I'm sorry, but although we are a great nation and are the strongest nation militarily, and the most powerful economy in the world, we are not guaranteed to be such nor do military and economic strength equal greatness in all areas. For all those who believe we have the greatest health care system in the world, I apologize but the facts just do not back that up. Our health care system is broken, the new law attempts to fix it; I believe it helps but understand how others can disagree. I do not understand how anybody can disagree with the objective reality that our health care system is in disrepair.
Similarly, one of the best regarded documentaries of 2010 is a documentary entitled "Waiting for Superman." You can watch the trailer here or at the end of this post. The United States has fallen behind most other developed countries in terms of educational achievement and yet our students still believe they are the best in the world. American Exceptionalism is dangerous because it promotes complacency. We believe we're the best and refuse to acknowledge evidence to the contrary. As such we sit and watch others surpass us all the while burying our heads in the sand and saying to ourselves, "we're the best."

But my argument today is not because of the inherent dangers in American Exceptionalism, it is because American Exceptionalism contradicts our most treasured ideals. Last night before the Super Bowl they read the Declaration of Independence, word for word. It is the document that stated our ideals, despite its lack of legal force it is a vital and important part of our history and identity as a nation. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." These are words that should echo in every patriotic American's heart, they are profound and powerful and encapsulate so much of what the United States is at its best, and strives to be. It does not say, "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Americans are created equal and all persons of any other nationality are inferior to us." Yet that is what American Exceptionalism says at its core, if America is the best then every other nation is worse. If you believe that the United States deserves to be the greatest nation in the world because of an inherent value in its people, then you do not believe all men are created equal.

President Ezra Taft Benson, in his seminal address "Beware of Pride" spoke about the nature of pride, that pride seeks to put itself above another. If we want to be humble, it is okay to be proud of our country but we must also acknowledge that there is good elsewhere as well. We are not the best at everything, until we recognize that and seek to learn from the great examples of those who have excelled where we do not, we will sit complacent and watch as the rest of the world passes us by. Then we will be behind everybody else in all things except our confidence. I'm proud to be an American because we haven't historically done that; we've promoted democracy and cheered it on, even when it may not be in our best interests. Because we're not just self-interested, we want for all to rise up and be great.

I'm a Mormon.


Anonymous said...

Isaac- I LOVE it! I've thought this about a hundred times (especially since moving to Guatemala) but haven't ever seen it put as eloquently. Well done. Hope you are well.

Lildonbro said...

Side note: I totally saw a nervous ostrich sticking it’s head in the sand and with wandering, suspicious eyes saying, “We’re the best” in a whisper only it could hear (and if he could he would have made a fist too). It cracked me up. I agree though, it’s like the saying, “You can’t learn what you think you already know”, how can we make ourselves better if we think we’re the best?

This is very well written. It was easy to follow (p.s. I am one of those people who is horrible with world events, politics, etc. so this was nice to help me be a little more informed) and I like how you got some LDS stuff in too :)