Sunday, October 21, 2012

American Exceptionalism

In an interesting article in the NYTimes, Scott Shane (10-19-12) posed a question: what if presidential and other leading political candidates told the full truth? What if they emphasized problems that need addressing and embarrassing facts that detract from the myth that we are No. 1 in the world in all things?

He mentions our being no. 1 in obesity and in energy use per person; he cites figures on child proverty (we rank 34th, near the bottom of advanced economies), infant mortality (where we rank near the bottom), and education (we rank 14th in the number of 25-to-34-year-olds with a university degree).

The point is not whether these statistics are correct--some facts can rapidly change--but whether most people in America want to be reminded, as Obama sometimes does, of our problems and failures, or whether we need to be comforted with reassurances that our country and its achievement are extraordinary.

Of course, candidates can talk about problems--but only if they mention concrete solutions in the same sentence; they cannot dwell on chronic problems, like crime in inner cities, without being attacked as unpatriotic.

In wanting our president to be a cheerleader, ever-optimisitic, I wonder if we remain--a glittering generality is being unleashed--immature, naive or romantic in our devotion to our special place in history.  In my study of English history, I know that, in the 17th century, whenever the King or Oliver Cromwell spoke of the turbulent revolution they were part of in overthrowing the monarchy, they not only invoked God's will but reassured their audience (non-voting) that England was destined by God as a special place superior to other nations.  Political myths about being exceptional are nothing new.

Perhaps it is part of the myth of the modern nation-state that its citizens must be told of the glories and unique status of their inherited land. But nothing is gained by being simplistic, and much damage is done if political leaders, in refusing to face problems, avoid solving them.  As Allan Lichtman of American University is quoted as saying, there is more avoidance of wrestling with real problems now than in the past. "It has a pernicious effect on our politics and our governing because, to govern, you need a mandate. And you don't get a mandate if you don't say what you going to do."

Does this sound familiar in the exchanges between Romney and Obama, each accusing the other of not being specific?  Yet the people are thought to want what Ronald Reagan gave them: soaring rhetoric about a city on a hill, a new morning for America, after the humiliation of our hostages in Iran (1979). So Jimmy Carter was seen as a one-term failure who talked soberly of an American malaise, to the horror of the politicians, and Obama is attacked for not being sufficiently optimistic about the greatness of America.

No wonder people get tired of these much-too-long campaigns; it is not only the negative ads but, for the intelligent voter, the avoidance of real issues, the emphasis on superficial debates and poll numbers and donations along with political slogans, at the expense of an honest, serious examination of the many problems we face and what can be done so that the great American experiment can always move toward being more perfect.

We are not perfect, never have been and never will be since human nature is imperfect. Where in history is there a perfect society? Why do we want to be flattered about our greatness when the business of politics is to make improvements so that we become a more just society?

I can be proud of my country and its achievements without claiming its exceptional status, beyond criticism. We criticize what we love and want to improve.

Perhaps many Americans agree with T. S. Eliot's dictum, even if they never heard of him: "Humankind cannot bear too much reality." It is easier and safer to escape into a fantasy relationship with politicians and the political process, to simplify issues into black and white, pro or con, and to go on the attack.  It is easier to lie and demonize one's opponent than to raise questions that seem to deny the pre-eminence of our country in all things.

But then, as George Orwell wrote in 1946, politics is a mass of lies. A lot of people like living with them, it seems.

1 comment:

Chris McClelland said...

This raises some important questions about the level of intelligent discourse in our society about social/political issues. Unfortunately, at this stage in our digital technological development, the mass media, including the internet, drives a "sound bite" mentality. Compare old TV news/discussion shows from the 1950s and today, for example. True, there can be elegance and clarity in simplicity of expression, but most things aren't simple or clear, especially when it comes to vital questions that face our society.

Yes, patriotic exceptionalism is nothing new. Every human longs to feel special in some way, even as the wise tell us we are each unique, just like everyone else is. After visiting the poverty-stricken Yucatan in 1993, I saw how blessed I was to live in the United States, a land of plenty. Of course, if you believe in American exceptionalism, I also believe it follows that we have a sort of noblesse oblige as a nation. Without royalty and a peerage system, the US hasn't quite figured out yet how charity and patronage should look like in this country. On the right, one would argue corporate and individual charity should carry the day. On the left, the royal role is taken by the government. We have a mix here now. But there are programs out there where one can for very little money invest in small businesses both in the US and abroad. I have participated in one of these programs and it is satisfying to know a concern in Africa or the Carribean is flourishing because of such contributions. But in the US, we also have a role to help other nations both through NGOs and governmental agencies, and to have that remain a vital part of foreign policy. I was saddened watching the debate last night that, though there was much talk about securing peace, the material substance of that was left out, particularly in terms of the US government and business investing in overseas development while providing more and better jobs for those in the US as well.