“America is an exceptional country.”
— Sarah Palin
“I do believe in American exceptionalism.”
— John McCain
When I return from a trip abroad, my friends invariably want to know how people elsewhere view America. It’s different from how we view ourselves.
What’s called “American exceptionalism” claims there is something inherently unique and different about America because we were a younger nation 200 years ago. We are more religious than others, separated from the world due to two oceans, are richer and practice an unusual form of democracy.
“American exceptionalism” believes that our behavior isn’t determined by ordinary rules, morals or judgments that determine the behavior of other counties and people.
Often this notion of exceptionalism manifests itself in a nationalistic love of country, expressed in bumper stickers that read, “God Bless America,” “Proud to be an American,” “Support Our Troops,” and “These Colors Never Fade,” which display an American flag invariably bleached white by the sun. The true nature of these themes go a step farther to reveal an uglier underlying sentiment: “And Just Why in the Hell Do I Have to Press 1 for English,” “Support our Troops: Shoot the Media,” and “America: Bailing out our critics since WWI.”
First used by Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who visited the U.S. in the early 1830s, American “exceptionalism” now has a long history that derives from the United States’ “special role” in the world. Basic concepts developed through historic claims such as Manifest Destiny, the U.S. destiny to rule the continent; “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” Theodore Roosevelt’s policy of threatening European powers who might intervene in South America; and the “American Dream,” the entitlement of every American to own a house and become wealthy or at least well off.
Neocons reverently trumpet the notion that the U.S. can “go it alone.” We have both the right and the duty to operate unilaterally, taking any action in the world that we want with no regard for other countries or the consequences. It sounds nutty in today’s inter-connected world, but after eight years of rule by a fanatical right-wing ideologue, the government swarms with people who share these views.
The U.S. overturned international treaties, denounced the U.N. and international cooperation, except when it’s to our advantage, and our courts now declare noncompliance with legal views routinely accepted around the world. Neocons claim for the U.S. it’s own set of rules and judgments, and special treatment based on national advantage in every field.
Pointing out differences in the historic development of the U.S. is one thing, but using it as a foreign policy doesn’t work. Today the concept of “exceptionalism” is being used to justify a hyper-nationalism that denies a common humanity with the rest of the world, undercuts cooperation and reveals an arrogant disregard for international opinion.
I bring up the concept of American exceptionalism to emphasize one of the main lessons gained from travel-learning about myself, including my culture, politics, values and practices. Once we reach maturity and become responsible for ourselves, it’s time to explore the world and determine fact from fiction. I find that one of the most difficult things about traveling is learning that the way I do things isn’t necessarily the best and it doesn’t work for everyone. This includes politics.
Is it any wonder that two major Republican figures had not traveled outside the U.S. until they ran for office? George Bush and Sarah Palin believe in American exceptionalism, partly because they never traveled and never engaged other cultures on an equal basis. No wonder they espouse culturally myopic views.
There is much to learn from other cultures, including how they care for their citizens. My wife received free or low-cost medical care in other countries where health care is a right, not a profitable business. We discovered that Europeans live to eat, while Americans eat to live, gobbling food in a rush to accomplish more. Europeans work to live and enjoy life, family and friendship, while we live to work and buy things. Europeans judge people by their attitudes and outlooks, while we judge people by their accumulated wealth.
Europeans realize they depend upon each other and must act in a concerted effort.
Are our attitudes a result of a poverty of imagination or a lack of travel? One of our foremost myths is that we lack a class system. How can we ignore our system that’s set up to favor the wealthy and powerful? Or believe in myths that pacify us and perpetuate the status quo? Why do we nominate people like Bush and Palin to govern us?
Obviously, I cannot answer these questions. But traveling allows me to see how others live and govern themselves. While they may have just as many problems, they are often far more advanced and humane in their solutions. One thing is for sure-human values, morality, and characteristics are similar everywhere.
The U.S. is an exceptionally arrogant bully on the world stage today. Voting for McCain and Palin will only perpetuate this kind of exceptionalism; with Obama, it might begin to change.
DON MONKERUD is an California-based writer who follows cultural, social and political issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.