Editor’s Note: Wikipedia defines American exceptionalism as “the proposition that the United States is different from other countries, in that it has a specific world mission to spread liberty and democracy. It is not a notion that the United States is quantitatively better than other countries or that it has a superior culture, but rather that it is qualitatively different.” Wikipedia associates this concept with French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville.
Exceptionalism: Dead or Alive?
We humans have an exaggerated view of our place in the cosmos. We inhabit a small planet, circling an ordinary star on the periphery of an unremarkable galaxy — one of 200 billion stars in the Milky Way, which is itself just one of 200 billion galaxies. Nonetheless, we consider ourselves the “crown of creation,” as if the goal of the universe’s 14 billion years of evolution has been the ascent of mankind.
On a smaller scale, this idea expresses itself in the concept of American exceptionalism — the notion that the U.S. holds a privileged place in history. Some believe that Americans are a “chosen people” inhabiting some sort of “New Jerusalem.” As Western Europe was outgrowing the concept of the divine right of kings, we were embracing manifest destiny.
Even the slaughter of children with military-style weaponry can’t get Congress to stand up to the NRA, which represents only a small percentage of us and, on issues such as universal background checks, doesn’t even speak for most gun owners or Republicans. The gun lobby’s clout overshadows our children’s welfare, and politicians’ fear of anti-government extremists, survivalists and Second Amendment absolutists will enable us to continue leading the developed world in both gun ownership and firearm-related murders.
We spend more per capita than any other country on earth on healthcare, yet, as of 2006, we ranked 39th in infant mortality, 42nd in adult male mortality and 36th in life expectancy. In 2011, Japan ranked third in life expectancy, despite spending only 8.5% of GDP on healthcare, compared with the U.S.’s 18%.
On the other hand, millions of immigrants still strive to come here, even as we disagree about whether that’s a good thing or not. The wealthy come from all over the world for American medical procedures, China sends 160,000 students a year to be educated in our universities and we lead the world in entrepreneurial innovation.
Nations are a mixture of exceptionalism and error. Our treatment of Native Americans was a national disgrace, as was our attachment to slavery, which lasted through most of the 19th century, long after Europe had abandoned this evil. However, in the 20th century, both the Soviet Union — truly an evil empire — and the Nazis were defeated, neither of which could have happened without the United States.
Exceptionalism is earned, not bequeathed from above. Whether we’re earning it now is open to debate, and, with globalization, the same can be said of humanity as a whole. We threaten future generations with overpopulation, pollution, global warming and our nuclear arsenals. Mankind has multiple ways to make the planet uninhabitable, and we’ve done little to demonstrate the moral or common sense to avert potential disaster.
I’m not sure I’d vote to budget money for this latter purpose. Like American exceptionalism, human exceptionalism should be earned. If we’re unwilling or unable to protect and preserve our own planet, maybe we don’t deserve to infect other worlds.
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