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Monthly Archives: August 2012

American Exceptionalism?

I was recently reading posts on Facebook from my hometown regarding the relative merits of the two rival high schools. The argument boiled down to lists of celebrities who came from the two schools and how often each had beaten the other in various sports and band. To someone more than 30 years out of high school, it sounded absolutely ridiculous. I’ve also, like everyone else, been watching the London Olympics, noting the “medal count” for each country as if it has some intrinsic meaning.

I find myself reacting the same way to those who have a belief in some form of “American exceptionalism.” I define that as the belief that the US is somehow automatically superior to every other country in the world. I love my country, too, just like I loved my high school, but I don’t expect that there is some sort of divine blessing on the United States (it would be tough or me to believe anything like that anyway, as I don’t believe much in the divine in any context). It’s hard for me to listen to these folks without feeling like they are just like the people who are saying “my high school is better than yours.”

Once we leave high school, we end up working with supervisors and co-workers from many other schools, so we have to grow up and realize that those old rivalries weren’t real, they were simply for fun.  I am informed that Olympic athletes party together as soon as their games are done. The US has to do the same thing.

Yes, the US has tried to be a force for good in the world. We were an early adopter of democratic government in the modern era and have served as a model for many other countries. But we must also accept some errors of omission and commission, even in the current day. We also have to accept that other countries can have some good ideas too – either globally or something that simply works well for their specific situation and culture.

Having spent some time in another country (Germany – West Germany at that time), and having taken history and civics courses at the gymnasium (high school) level there, one of the things I really took home with me is that the American viewpoint is not the only one, nor is it even necessarily correct from an objective standard. We often view ourselves as some sort of first democracy, which is demonstrably inaccurate. We ignore the thousands of years of world history that came before us, assuming our nation and its system developed in a vacuum. We ignore the positive developments in the world around us, believing that the only valuable things can come from here.

Healthy relations with the rest of the world, both allies and challengers, will benefit from us taking ourselves down a peg and treating them as equals.

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