This was actually taken from a speech given by President Barack Obama. He starts out saying, “I believe in American exceptionalism…” That’s obviously where the quote is from, but he doesn’t stop there. He continues, “I believe in British exceptionalism and Greek exceptionalism.”
Without trying to sound too much like those reporters that simply give you a sound bite, take it out of context and then expound on it, I’m going to do just that. He obviously goes on to give the rest of his speech, and wittily plays both sides of the field, appeasing those Americans that seem to just get hyped up into a patriotic lather by simply hearing that phrase, and also those around the world by substituting the name of their countries as well.
While I do believe that President Obama was trying to make a slightly different point, more one of “everybody is special,” I do find the phrase American exceptionalism to be quite interesting.
I do agree with it and I think it is a good phrase, however I think that the way it is used and the thoughts it conjures in most Americans hearts and minds is a perversion.
See these days most people think American exceptionalism means that Americans are exceptional, and better. They think that there are normal people living and working, and playing and dying all around the world and have been doing so for thousands of years…and then there are Americans, soaring through the heavens using their own intrinsic might and brilliance to reach a capability level, morality, and fire power that makes them not quite gods, but certainly not mere men. Our media hypes us up about all this stuff as if there is just something different about the DNA of an American that makes him superior to those from other countries.
Now of course the professional spinners out there could have a field day with this statement, but if you can sit still for a second, I would say that in one sense, this view of American exceptionalism has some, if not loose and shaky, grounding. After all, after WWII, America emerged as one of, if not the single super power in the world, dominating the sea, land, and sky, militarily, and even space for the better part of the rest of the century. And even before that the technological feats and innovations made by the United States elevated them to staggering heights, towering above eve that of Europe. Culturally the US exports more influence than anybody else, and while most western countries have dwindling populations, the US is still booming with immigrants. Americans have been smart, had full stomachs, been religious, and had wealth for so long, it’s hard to not get a little into ourselves.
But that’s not what American exceptionalism is at all. Or rather, America’s exceptionalism doesn’t come from some intrinsic soul made of pure energy and gold dwelling within each and every one of us born here that is somehow absent from the rest of the world population. What American exceptionalism means is that the system America was designed with, which was derived from Christian principles mind you, is a system that allowed the exceptionalism and potential inherent in every man and woman, given to them by God, to be exercised in a way rarely seen in political and cultural systems world and era-wide.
The innovation, the technology, the fervor was always there in the peoples of the world, but the American system was designed to allow that to spring forth from unattainable pies in the sky to pies that were cooked and eaten and then spread across the globe. Half of the great inventions and designs we take for granted today weren’t necessarily American inventions, but came from the minds of all kinds of others. The reason we think of them as American now is because these people often came to America, or were 1st or 2nd generation American, and being suddenly engulfed in a system that allowed for it, they were free to run with their ideas and everyone benefited.
The problem we have today, and what many successful families and companies and countries find once they get into their 3rd and 4th generations is that we get too used to the success. And we forget that the success comes from God blessing our own minds and labor with the freedom to take risks and exorcize innovation. We start to think that it’s not God, and it’s not the freedom and support system. It’s us. We really are that bad ass…which of course means that others just aren’t quite so.
And in times of trouble or fear or hesitation, instead of utilizing our freedom to work with those who have also found freedom, even if through following our lead, we get xenophobic, and adopt an attitude of fearful superiority, as if it were something inherent in our blood alone. And we take beautiful phrases like ‘American exceptionalism’ and instead of praising the idea of a political freedom that was always intended by both God and man to eventually be everyone’s, we pervert it to suit our current feelings of disappointment in our own squandery of such exceptionalism, in hopes that the utterance of the phrase will shield us from it.
America is the exception that was always meant to be the rule. Pride, however, has caused us to buck that God ordained inevitability. We would be wise to revisit our idea of this phrase before God truly does make us the exception, while we watch the rest of the world rise with progress, leaving us in their wake.