Janice Kennedy writes: My fellow North Americans, can we talk? Yes, I mean you, my starred-and-striped friends.
I’ve been mesmerized by the election campaign that will send you to the polls shortly, and I’d love to bounce an idea off you.
True, I’m an outsider. And I know what you think about outsiders, when you’re even aware they exist. (We Canadians sometimes get huffy that you pay no attention to us, but we shouldn’t. Unless you’re being attacked, you don’t pay attention to anyone beyond your borders.)
But I hope, as continental cousins, you’ll give me a moment of your time.
Here’s my idea. How about climbing down the hill? How about abandoning that shining city you love so much, and joining the rest of us here in the real world?
I realize that will be hard. The “city upon a hill” has been your informing inspirational metaphor since John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, invoked it in a 1630 sermon. Be a beacon unto the world, he urged the colonists. It’s a powerful image, crucial to your nation-building mythology. I can see why you’d be loath to abandon it.
But it’s time. American exceptionalism is no longer taking you where you need to be.
As long as you keep insisting you’re the biggest and best (a superiority complex that really grates on your world neighbours, whether in the Middle East or next door), your arrogant fantasy deprives you of the realities you need to fix your problems. In truth, you’re far from the best in many areas, as a brilliant essay in last Sunday’s New York Times suggested.
In The Opiate of Exceptionalism, reporter Scott Shane pointed to such things as the U.S. ranking in child poverty (34th of 35 countries); higher education among young adults (14th); infant mortality (worse than 48 other countries); incarceration rates, guns and obesity (top spot in all three).
And your cradle of modern democracy has become a sick joke, whether your gauge is woeful voter turnout (the U.S. ranks a distant last among G8 nations) or the plutocratic politics you have created.
But there has been no suggestion of such truths, from either party, during the campaign. In the presidential debates, there wasn’t even a hint that the U.S. is anything less than naturally the brightest and best. The mainstream credo of American exceptionalism means that some truths simply cannot be acknowledged.
In Tuesday’s debate (ostensibly about foreign policy, though the “foreign” seemed marginal), the president asked Mitt Romney how America can be expected to lead the world if it doesn’t maintain the world’s best school system — the assumption being that it’s already in place. Except it’s not.
Exceptionalism not only doesn’t recognize the truth, it doesn’t even accept that it might exist.
Nor does it accept abiding by the same rules that govern everyone else. Consider the murder of Osama bin Laden by Navy Seals — or other enemies, by drones — approved by a liberal president and applauded enthusiastically by Americans of all political stripes.
Romney (a classic exceptionalist, and not just because his Mormonism holds that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri) even voiced support for Obama’s kill missions during Monday’s debate. It is indeed desirable, he suggested from an ethical landscape shaped in the Wild West, to shoot up the bad guys.
In your city on the hill, might is usually right.
The thing is, you do yourselves no favours, at home or abroad, with your misplaced swaggering. We all like to think we live in “the greatest country in the world,” but only you Americans believe it wholeheartedly. Your claim to greatness is legitimate, but THE greatest? Ever? [Continue reading…]