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American Exceptionalism

February 18, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments


[NYT graphic, February 17, 2013. Source: Children’s Chances: How Countries Can Move From Surviving to Thriving by Jody Heymann With Kristen McNeill.]

It’s been a while since I wrote about American exceptionalism, which has evolved in Republican discourse from the belief that the US is special in a way related to its values, its law, its history, its example to the more simplistic belief—or axiom— that the US is just simply the best. Ever. And if you don’t agree, then you’re un-American. Like, you know, that Kenyan socialist Obama.

Which I find hard to reconcile with the enormous map that greeted me yesterday in the centerfold of the NYT Sunday Review section, accompanying a piece by Stephanie Coontz titled Why Gender Equality Stalled. You can see a reduced version above. The eight countries in red—the US, Suriname, Liberia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Western Samoa, and Tonga— are the only countries in the world without paid maternity leave. Exceptional for sure. But the exceptionalism of greatness? Or is it just possible that we’ve got something wrong here?

By chance, Glenn Greenwald used his column today in The Guardian to ponder Charles C.W. Cooke’s tweeted assertion that the US “is the greatest country in world history.”

At the very least, the tendency of the human brain to view the world from a self-centered perspective should render suspect any beliefs that affirm the objective superiority of oneself and one’s own group, tribe, nation, etc. The “truths” we’re taught to believe from birth – whether nationalistic, religious, or cultural – should be the ones treated with the greatest skepticism if we continue to embrace them in adulthood, precisely because the probability is so great that we’ve embraced them because we were trained to, or because our subjective influences led us to them, and not because we’ve rationally assessed them to be true (or, as in the case of the British Cooke, what we were taught to believe about western nations closely aligned to our own).

That doesn’t mean that what we’re taught to believe from childhood is wrong or should be presumed erroneous. We may get lucky and be trained from the start to believe what is actually true. That’s possible. But we should at least regard those precepts with great suspicion, to subject them to particularly rigorous scrutiny, especially when it comes to those that teach us to believe in our own objective superiority or that of the group to which we belong. So potent is the subjective prism, especially when it’s implanted in childhood, that I’m always astounded at some people’s certainty of their own objective superiority (“the greatest country in world history”).

In a similar vein, but with less at stake, I was surprised to discover when I moved to Seattle a few decades ago that some people in these parts thought Seattle was the greatest city, Washington the greatest state. I mean, really! Didn’t they know New York is?

Categories: Politics, Society

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