American Exceptionalism

Last Sunday John Oliver spent a good part of his HBO show ‘Last Week Tonight’ on work and family matters.   He started the segment by mentioning the disturbing fact that the United States and Papua New Guinea are the only two countries that don’t have some form of paid maternity leave.  Obviously this is one of the scandals of American society, and it made me reflect on American Exceptionalism.  According to Wikepedia that term was coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831, and “expresses the notion that the United States differs qualitatively from other developed nations because of its unique origins, national credo, historical evolution, and distinctive political and religious institutions.  American Exceptionalism is the idea that the United States and the American people hold a special place in the world, by offering opportunity and hope for humanity, derived from a unique balance of public and private interests governed by constitutional ideals that are focused on personal and economic freedom.”

It’s quite a mouthful, and therefore too complicated for many Americans, especially on the right.  To them, American Exceptionalism simply means that America is better than other countries.  These are the people who seize every opportunity to declare that ‘we’re number one,’ sometimes even in sports that nobody else in the world plays, and who habitually call the US Championship the World Championship.  In the political version of this kind of thinking the US has always been a force for good in the world.  America’s role in WWI and WWII and in ending the threat of communism is justifiably mentioned, but America’s crimes, ranging from Iran to Nicaragua, from Indonesia to Chile, and from Vietnam to Iraq, are conveniently forgotten.   Out of this dark ideological corner come the statements that Obama doesn’t believe in American Exceptionalism, followed by suggestions that he is a closet Muslim and in fact a traitor, no matter how many drone strikes he orders or how often he mentions that his life’s story is only possible in America, which he often calls the ‘indispensible nation.’

The absence of paid maternity leave is not the only area where America distinguishes itself.  The US spends over $600 billion annually on its military, more than three times as much as the next largest spender, China.   The size of the US prison population is more than 2.4 million, which means that more than one out of every 100 American adults is behind bars.  For African Americans that number is more than 2, for whites less than 0.5.  The estimated number of guns owned by civilians in the United States is 300,000,000 and correlates with an extremely high number of shootings, police shootings included.

These days, serious cracks are becoming visible in the ideology of American Exceptionalism.  The middle class, symbol of what the balance of public and private interests once brought about, is gradually disappearing, partly as a result of globalization and partly because of the lack of both political will and effective mechanisms to re-distribute work and income.  As a result, the US is rapidly becoming a bifurcated nation, with an overwhelming majority of have-nots and a small minority of have-it-alls.

But even apart from those developments, the thought of being ‘better’ than others is a dangerous one.   In ancient times religious Jews entertained the notion of being God’s ‘Chosen People,’ and they got into the Diaspora as a result.  Germans tried it with their ‘Übermensch’ ideology and didn’t fare very well either.   The US would be wise to either abandon the concept of American Exceptionalism or live up to it.

Hugo Kijne


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