The Downfall of American Exceptionalism? an Overview
On August 3rd, HBO’s Last Week’s Tonight did a segment on how history is taught in America in regards to racism. It has been a hot button topic since the murder of George Floyd and has kicked off a domino effect of checking every aspect of history where the treatment of Black people was ignored, rationalized, or downplayed by the society at large, starting with the tearing down of statues of people who played a part in it.
John Oliver’s take runs the US educational curriculum through the grinder on how uneven and sometimes ignored our history is regarding racism. But perhaps the biggest standout to me was his quotation of a White parent in Texas who while defending American pride, commented that,
"... A worst day in America is still better than the best day elsewhere"
A number of Youtube commentators from other countries who watched the segment were not pleased to say the least. Even many American viewers who lived overseas called out the statement as ignorant and something someone might say who has never traveled outside the United States before. John Oliver called this mentality “American Exceptionalism”, that is, the idea that American lifestyle and values were the best thing on Earth, even if not perfect.
Same Shit, Different Country
If you look back at it, American exceptionalism really isn’t that new. In fact, nearly all human civilization has concocted some sort of narrative of why it’s people should believe that they are somehow special and stand out from the rest. The American version is more prominent for several reasons though.
First, it’s a young country. Other nations that are 400 years and older have largely outgrown their sense of entitlement, though not entirely. Anything remaining is more subtle now. Those older countries that still are loud about their own exceptionalism is largely due to their competition with the United States such as Russia and China. Every team has to have a cheer after all.
Second is that our exceptionalism was born out of ‘successfully’ colonizing what was then called by Europeans, “the New World”. It was seen as a major accomplishment in human history and a major shift in the European history as well. As time went on, this sentiment evolved from a bond with their parent countries, to an active feeling of separation from them: that colonials were somehow something new, different. This sentiment was only compounded upon by the later American independence from what was one of the major world superpowers of the era, Great Britain.
The third factor in American exceptionalism was the geographical boundaries of an ocean on either side of the continent. This allowed a unique and separate internal evolution from the rest of the world, whereas civilizations in the Old World often came into contact with each other through violence, treaty, or trade, and thus giving it’s governments a sense of real world comparison. America has never truly had that experience and similar models can be seen in the Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan and the biological diversity of Australia.
Lastly and the most foundational to our attitude is American involvement in World War Two. The fact that it was no secret that France and Britain needed help to overcome Germany, while we were fighting a war with Japan at the same time and still came out victorious, catapulted American exceptionalism-or ego- over the top. Not only was there barely any physical damage to the mainland after the war, but we came out as one of two remaining superpowers that many countries looked to for nearly fifty years. That other countries seemingly prospered under the umbrella of the US military and economy fed into a sense of superiority as many of those countries might not have prospered had we not helped or protected them.
These are the narratives that gave birth and continue to feed into American exceptionalism.
Today the world has moved past that however and many American citizens appear to be unaware of this, even the most progressive and liberal of us. Since the 1990’s, many nations have become more vocal about their own national pride, especially with no looming threat like the Soviet Union present anymore. Citizens in many countries have also more and more regarded Americans as self-entitled loud mouths that were being disrespectful of other peoples’ pride, homes, and cultures.
Youtube segment of HBO's Last Weeks Tonight covering the slewed way American history is taught
Look to Your Own Problems
I myself got into a debate with a New Zealander over this specific issue some years ago. She took great offense to the idea that Americans considered their culture and place in the world as special and even superior. Despite what our media presents, America is no longer the paragon of freedom and democracy. Yes, other nations still want our money or will often call upon our military when facing open war. However, that only makes us a resource to them, not an inspiration. Our culture, while aspects of it were adopted, is no longer sought to be emulated.
Take for example a Norwegian phrase, “Helt Texas!”. In their usage, it's usually interpreted to mean something as wild,batshit crazy, or extreme. While not always used in positive context no or days and not necessarily meaning what the people actually think of Americans, the fact that name would somehow find itself falling into such an association does say something about how other cultures actually interpret our own.
We are characterized as overbearing, boorish, uneducated, loud, and in many cases except arms, behind the time and now racist. Even our progressive values are viewed as overly sensitive,while still cocooning ourselves in a sense of entitlement as the center of world values. And as I learned in Morocco, anytime an American DOES NOT fit this stereotype, it appears to locals as something out of the norm.
We are going to war over words rather than maintaining and improving the institutions and systems that make the country run and improve our knowledge of the greater world we exist in. This is not to say that our culture is hated, as one Iranian said during a BBC interview regarding the assassination of one their generals, Qassem Soleimani, via drone,
“I’m saying we love Americans, but we hate your president.”
Many experts have commented that America’s economy is still the largest in the world and that while new challengers have arisen to challenge the country’s global hegemony, they are also still unwilling to go directly to war with us because their weapon systems are still behind ours. That all may be true. Yet equally, these are not viewed as marks of respect or anything deserving of it, but rather as the last gasps of an formerly great monarch who now has no clue that the people beyond his kingdom have moved past idolizing him.
Moreover, that kingdom has now been revealed to be in such a state of chaos that it might soon collapse due to the internal weight and pressure of the realities that it has long blinded itself too. Realities that the king and the people were always quick to call out on others. Those of us who are still prospering in this country may find such criticisms bullshit or simply not care as long as they feel provided for and important. However, the world may be preparing itself when the day comes that the kingdom disintegrates under its own weight.
© 2020 Jamal Smith