Independence Day

Ours is a nation of malcontents and rebels. Men and women who were dissatisfied enough with their homeland that they didn’t simply move to another country, they created a new one that better fit their idea of what a country and its government should be like. Who didn’t trust in complacency to the point that one of the founding fathers believed in periodic armed revolution just to keep everything in check.

How far we’ve fallen.

The phrase “American exceptionalism” is used in the pejorative by liberals and in a more positive fashion by conservatives. Republican candidates are asked if they believe in American exceptionalism, under the presumption that they will say yes. It’s a litmus test of sorts for them. The problem is that the belief in American exceptionalism is the very thing that has caused the United States to be far less exceptional than it once was.

If there’s one phrase we can use for generations prior to the boomers, it’s “elbow grease”. The (possibly idealized) image of our grandparents and great grandparents is one of people working 28 hours a day, eight days a week, for almost no pay, busting their asses to better themselves and, by extension, the country as a whole. These people understood that our country is only as “exceptional” as those who inhabit it. We’re nominally a democracy, and that means that “America” is us. If we aren’t exceptional, then neither is our country.

The belief in America as having some intrinsic value to it that by pure virtue of being America makes it better than everyone else has led to both complacency and a frightening “head in the sand” approach to bad news. It doesn’t matter what the situation is, many of our citizens refuse to believe that certain things are going wrong because we’re America god dammit and that means we’re the best. As our economic inequality becomes worse than the recently-revolution-ravaged Egypt and our education threatens to fall out of the top 20, many Americans continue to wave their “We’re #1” flags.

Al Franken once said that the difference between right and left is looking at the country in the way children do versus grown-ups. I don’t know how true that is, but what I can tell you is that I, as a person, am generally more critical of that which I love.

Let me take a quick side step to illustrate what I mean. I was having a conversation with frequent-collaborator Will and we got to talking about Pixar’s film Cars 2. We disagreed about how much criticism the movie deserved in that it’s not a bad movie, just below Pixar’s standards, which still makes it better than the majority of dreck out there. I took the tack that Pixar has set itself such high standards that simply giving bad product a “pass” because it’s not as bad as the crap others make is dangerous thinking, and could lead to a quick drop from “still the best” to “still above average” to “still not the worst”.

What I’m getting at is that, in my case at least, my harsh criticism is rooted in my love of my homeland. If I had any legitimate disdain for the country at its core, I’d either look into getting the hell out or simply throw my hands up and look out for myself. My standards of the United States are higher than they could possibly meet, and that ends in my frustration. I want us to be the best, and the only way for that to happen is to not only accept where we’ve messed up, but point the spotlight at it so we can fix it.

Ours is the oldest existing democracy. We fought wars of independence, to save Europe’s ass twice. We invented the automobile, the airplane, we put a man on the motherfucking moon. The United States has a superlative track record, and we’re slacking. We’re not living up to the standards set by our predecessors. Conservatives might be quick to blame the “culture of entitlement”, a thinly-veiled criticism of social security and welfare, but they’re wrong. The cause is the culture of “American exceptionalism,” and those who seem content to rest on the United States’s laurels and coast along, believing we can be the best without putting the effort in just by virtue of being us.

That ain’t gonna work, folks. We’re falling and we’re falling fast. Our health care is a travesty, education standards are slipping, the dollar’s losing power, we don’t have diplomatic clout like we used to, the economy is crumbling, we’re getting sexually molested at the airports and we’re being spied on under the guise of “security”, and our government is happily shielding itself from scrutiny and accountability. Turning a blind eye to our faults isn’t going to do anything but make us look more and more deluded as these problems get worse and worse.

Today, feel free to blow things up, drink, eat, and have a great time. But in the upcoming year and a half as we near elections and campaign season, keep these things in mind. Then when someone says “until now, I wasn’t proud to be an American,” it’ll be considered a good thing. It’ll mean forward movement.


5 responses to “Independence Day

  1. Why America *is* exceptional:
    Countries like America do not attack one another.
    When America attacks your country, we’re not trying to annex it.
    Even our “poor” are wealthy by international standards.
    There *are* such things as right and wrong.  Americans are not trying to prevail over everyone else — they are trying to be right.

    • Your first point has nothing to do with “America” just democracies in general. As a rule, democracies don’t attack one another. As for not trying to “annex”, if you honestly believe all American military involvement is for altruistic purposes then you aren’t being partisan, you’re being naive. History does not bear you out in this case, sadly.

      Our armies fight for American self-interest, and that isn’t a bad thing by any means, but don’t twist it like we’ve ever fought out of philanthropy. There’s a reason the US didn’t enter WW2 until a ways in, and why we went into Iraq instead of, say, North Korea if our hopes were to depose a dictator. 

  2. I certainly hope we always fight for our self-interest.  What’s exceptional is that said self-interest is consistently about protecting our right to trade with our partners, and not about taking whatever we want.

    When America’s interests are advanced on the world stage it usually improves things for everyone else as well.  Like it or not, that is exceptional in international relations.
    And yes, I think some other democracies are similarly exceptional — particularly those of British descent.

    • It’s great, but… not particularly exceptional. Australia and Japan don’t exactly go attacking anyone, and I can’t recall the last time Norway invaded Portugal. It’s awesome that no democracies attack for no good reason, but it’s not an especially American thing. Or British. Or white, for that matter. Pay attention to which brown countries actually do the attacking and which don’t.

      And again, when any Democracy gets involved militarily it’s generally for the greater good with an angle toward self-interest. Not exceptional at all on our end when we do things that way (as opposed to the equally common times when we do it despite other country’s protests). There’s nothing “exceptional” about any of this.

      Actually, it’s like saying we’re “exceptional” just for doing the kind of thing any civilized society SHOULD be doing. And what they’re ALL doing.

      • I hardly think “they’re all doing it.”  Not like we are.  America is the only country that will strike first simply because “it’s the right thing to do.”  Even if we haven’t been attacked.  And arguably even if we haven’t been directly provoked. 

        That’s not the same as countries that just want to enjoy their prosperity in peace, and that only show the courage of their convictions when the national face has been slapped.  On the world stage, we are exceptional.

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