Editors 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.

Secularists point to such factors as America’s fortunate location on a continent rich in natural resources, insulated from Eurasia’s endless conflicts by two vast oceans. We’re also blessed with a Constitution that has sustained the world’s most long-lived democracy. For this, we can thank our Founding Fathers, perhaps the most extraordinary aggregation of leaders in political history.

However, our sense of exceptionalism has begun to tarnish. The uncompromising extremists in 21st century Washington will never be confused with Jefferson and Franklin. For example, both Democrats and Republicans saw sequestration as disastrous, but were too intransigent and incompetent to avert it.

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%.

In overall education, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked the U.S. 17th out of 50 countries, trailing such nations as Finland, Ireland and Poland. American students’ test scores in math and science are even more dismal, which isn’t surprising when half the populace doesn’t believe in evolution or manmade global warming, which are accepted by 97% of scientists, according to the nonpartisan Pew Poll. Even some conservatives worry the GOP has become the evangelical anti-science party.

Ironically, access to vast new domestic fuel reserves may finally bring us energy independence, while pushing the planet past the global warming tipping point. And although we spend more on our military ($711 billion) than the next 12 countries combined ($671 billion), we’re incapable of preventing nuclear proliferation by some of the world’s most insane and dangerous regimes (e.g., Iran and North Korea). Sometimes, being No. 1 — as we unquestionably are in military power — is more a curse than a blessing.

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.

On February 15, asteroid DA14 passed within 17,200 miles of Sumatra on the same day a meteor exploded over Russia. Many larger bodies have collided with the Earth, including the asteroid that landed in the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago, obliterating the dinosaurs. Scientists tell us a collision with an object large enough to destroy all life on the planet is a matter of when, not if.

In March, NASA astrophysicists asked a skeptical Congress for money to defend against such catastrophes. Physicist Stephen Hawking has advocated for settlements on Mars to preserve the human race in the event of a civilization-ending natural disaster. Other scientists recommend building off-world colonies to save our species in case nuclear war or a manmade runaway greenhouse effect renders the Earth uninhabitable.

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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