- Dan Connors
American Exceptionalism- what kind of God blesses only one country?
How would you explain the United States of America to someone from another planet? Having grown up in the USA, it's hard to step outside of the considerable bubble that Americans inhabit and take any kind of objective view of our country and its history. But I feel it necessary to at least try. Because knowing the kinds of forces that mold and shape us and our experiences gives us the freedom to be able to become more human and less stereotype.
What can you say definitively about America? If anything, it is a unique nation among the 197 countries that currently make up planet Earth. At 245 years, the US has survived longer than many nations, and has mostly been spared the wars that infected the European, African, and Asian continents during the last three centuries. (Though we've participated in many of them from afar.) The US economy is 22 Trillion dollars and growing, and it has dominated the planet for over a century, though China is gaining fast. That kind of economic power has translated into many areas of dominance and given Americans a feeling of power and status that the rest of the world both envies and despises. With only 5% of the world's population, we somehow dominate in military power, economic activity, popular culture, and technology, but our growth has stagnated in many ways and our sense of superiority and entitlement has not helped us grow or learn.
American exceptionalism has grown in popularity as an idea since the days of Ronald Reagan's shining city on a hill. In this viewpoint, the US is seen as a divinely ordained country that is above all others and not subject to the natural and moral laws that bind other nations. Some have used the term pejoratively as a put-down, while others see it as the main point of being an American. The idea that a supreme being would favor one group of people over all others based on randomly drawn borders on a map calls into question the quality of any God that would behave that way. To some, the US is deeply flawed and anything but exceptional, but to others we are a beacon of light to the rest of the world.
So what makes America exceptional? It's democratic values and system of government? Many other nations have governments that are just as free, democratic or successful. It's economic dominance? Money comes and goes but hardly makes someone exceptional. It's military might? America's records in wars since 1950 has been spotty at best, and the biggest threats to security today can be carried out with a keyboard and modem. (Or a boxcutter and an airplane,) Even bringing up the possibility of exceptionalism is a dangerous one, because it encourages imperialist, entitled and unproductive thought while stifling curiosity and inventiveness.
Besides military spending, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), inventions, and technology, one area that the USA has been dominant in is popular culture. Hollywood has dominated movie production for over a century, and USA-grown blockbusters are shown all over the world. American musicians create music that's streamed all over the world, and studios like Disney and Warner Brothers create stories and content through their empires that fill screens of every shape and size in countries large and small. If anything, American dominance in pop culture has been it's biggest selling point for many decades, even if we've borrowed most of our ideas from other countries. The TV show "Friends" is broadcast in over 100 countries years after its last episode aired, and American tv stars are recognized widely around the world from shows such as this. Facebook, an American creation, is the dominant social media company in the world, and much of its content originates in the USA. American athletes tend to dominate the world of professional sports, especially in the Olympics, while the rest of the world remains obsessed with soccer. American sports like baseball, basketball and football bring ratings and revenues that dwarf most other sports teams.
Exceptionalism has a dark side. There are many ways that the US is different from the rest of the world that make me scratch my head and wonder how we do as well as we do. Here is just a short list of bizarre American outliers.
1- Americans have way more guns than any other nation in the world. The US has nearly 400 million guns (more than there are people) and gun ownership is much higher there than in any other country in the world.
2- The prison population in the US is the highest in the world, as is the incarceration rate. The country also leads in rapes, auto thefts, illegal drug use, and police officers.
3- The health care system in the US, because it is mostly privately run, is one of the most expensive and least efficient in the world. Drug prices are not regulated, so medicines that cost under $20 in most countries can cost in the hundreds in the US. Obesity rates in the US are also higher than in most countries, putting a large drain on the healthcare system.
4- The US political system is more divided the rest of the world. It is one of the only countries where leaders are not chosen directly, and where they can win even when receiving fewer votes than other candidates.
5- The American military is the largest in the world, spending more than seven times the amount spent by any other country. The US has more foreign military bases than any other country by far.
6- The US is one of the only developed countries that doesn't mandate paid parental leave after the birth of a baby.
7- While American colleges and universities are highly regarded, they are also among the most expensive in the world, and student loan debt is much higher there than anywhere else.
8- We watch way more television than any other country with the exception of the UK. We also are the number one country for pet dogs and cats.
9- The US is one of the only countries in the world to not use the metric system. Our system of gallons, inches, and degrees have to be converted by the rest of the world to do business.
10- The American divorce rate is one of the highest in the world, though it and the marriage rate have been dropping in recent years. Roughly 50% of all marriages result in divorce or separation.
The United States is a country of contradictions. Sometimes it is barely a country at all- more like several compact mini-countries at war with each other politically and culturally. The US is at once both one of the most generous countries in the world (based on charitable donations) and most stingy (based on social safety net). It is one of the safest countries in the world (fewest wars, most defense) and most dangerous (gun violence and drug use). It has some of the best medical centers in the world, but also one of the most expensive and inaccessible health care systems. The US is among the leaders of the world both in climate change research and in carbon pollution. And it's a diverse nation that both accepts different races and nationalities who immigrate, and demonizes them.
There are two aspects of American history that are somewhat unique that can help explain where it is today. One factor is very good, and one is very bad, but they both molded a nation that can produce great prosperity and social strife at the same time.
The good factor is the unique circumstances that led to the founding of the new world in the 17th and 18th centuries. At that time Europe and Asia were old, settled, and stagnant. People came to the new world simply because it was new and free from the old religious and nationalistic prejudices that dominated the old world. People felt freer to explore, innovate and experiment in the US, and it quickly became the hub of innovation for the entire world. We take the word "freedom" for granted, but in America at the beginning it was a huge advantage, (if you were the right race and gender, of course).
A strong streak of individualism led to a country where almost anything was possible, and that individualism served us well by building vibrant cities and industries and getting us to the moon. Today, with the frontier mostly gone, the need for collaboration and cooperation is much higher, so that kind of thinking no longer works too well. The United States relied a lot on luck to get to the top. It's remote location shielded it from wars, and its dominance on the American continent kept its neighbors like Mexico and Canada dependent upon it rather than competitive. The country benefited from rich natural resources and took advantage of cheap labor from other countries to build the biggest economy in the world. (And it certainly didn't hurt that massive epidemics killed off most of the native Americans who had lived there before.) The land provided high-quality farmland and rich mineral and oil resources, while the unfettered newness that an open frontier provided encouraged two centuries of wealth building.
The bad factor, of course, is slavery. More than any other nation in history, the US economy, both in North and South, was built upon the backs of slave labor. Without it, would the country have been nearly as successful? Many think not. Sure slavery existed in many places around the world during the 18th and 19th centuries, but nowhere else was it put to large scale production like the USA. Nowhere else was an entire region, the South, devoted to slavery economics, and most countries were able to eliminate slavery without costly civil wars. And even after the civil war, the freed slaves were still treated as second class citizens and exploited for their cheap labor to build, farm, and grow.
A strong racial caste system is what emerged from slavery, and it remains today as a reminder that not all races are treated equally. This original sin, as some call it, could be the cause of much of the distrust that we see in the country. The dominant race distrusts all the others, and that has prevented a robust safety net from emerging. It also has made Americans a bit more paranoid about retaining property and power, which is why we lead in guns, jails, and drug usage.
It's taken centuries, but there are signs that the racial castes are slowly dissolving and the country is finally able to talk about race, privilege, and its past. Here's hoping that our history of innovative thinking overcomes our distrust of other races to create a newer and better America.
So what would I tell visiting aliens about the United States? It's my home, so I'm not exactly the most objective one to ask, but it's clear that the US is a mighty country with a lot of hidden weaknesses. For most of the 20th century, it was looked up to as a world leader, and its commitment to individual freedom and democracy is one that can't be ignored. But because it still hasn't come to grips with its original sin, it's people are not united, and its current divisions make getting anything done problematic.
I still see hope for the country in the coming decades, if only from looking back at how my parent's generation overcame a depression and global war and built a vibrant society. We can do that again, but only once we overcome our faulty beliefs and divisions. Is America exceptional and favored by heaven? I believe in a God that blesses all of her creations, not just certain races or nationalities. And when I die, my citizenship will end, but hopefully the USA and all other 196 other countries will carry on, learning, growing, and collaborating so much that wars and racism become a distant thing of the past.