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.