While waiting in a hotel lobby to meet a friend for lunch, I read a front-page article from USA Today: “Obama and America’s Place in the World.” The article talks about the way President Obama addresses questions of American exceptionalism and Republican attempts to capitalize on this in order to paint the President as un-American, without having to use those words.
American exceptionalism, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a belief that the country is unique and exceptional in comparison to other countries. Historically, it did not mean that America was better than other countries, but in the past few years the term has been coopted by those who would like to give that meaning to the phrase.
British writer G.K. Chesterton noted in a 1922 essay, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence…” The Declaration’s introduction defines this ideology as liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.
The ammunition used by those who believe that President Obama is un-American doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism, is his response in April 2009 (his opponents have to go back twenty months to dig up dirt on him, it seems) to a question by a British journalist about whether America is uniquely qualified to lead the world:
This strikes me, a passport-holding American who has traveled widely and has spent more than five years living overseas, as a tremendously reasonable, level-headed statement.
What also strikes me, as an American who has seen the way many countries in the world are rapidly moving from “developing nation” to “developed nation” status, is that no amount of arguing how exceptional we are or aren’t is going to help us compete in the 21st century.
Discussing the growth of China with a friend who recently spent two years working in Shanghai, he noted that in just the past few years, China has built the world’s largest high-speed rail network (already some 4,600 miles), and they are on track to have as much as 16,000 miles built by 2020. Compare this to America’s infrastructure, which the American Society of Civil Engineers currently grades as a “D” and will require more than $2 trillion to repair.
Is America exceptional? No doubt it is. But the issue isn’t whether we are exceptional or not, it’s whether we are willing to do the work necessary to remain exceptional in the century to come.
I think all of our mothers taught us that it is immodest to brag. We may well be the smartest kid in class (or at least want to think we are), but announcing it to our peers rather than spending our time studying for the next test is the surest way to become the schoolyard dummy. That’s a form of exceptionalism, too, but not one that I suspect any of us want to bequeath to our future generations.
What say you?
Related to this: do you remember the bruhaha surrounding a photo of President Obama reading a copy of the very insightful book “The Post-American World?” Blog entry from September 2009 about it.