"You don't really think that, do you?" & other thoughts on American exceptionalism.

While the food sizes in America invoke a mixture of awe and annoyance, its belief that it is "the greatest country in the world" can result in laughter on a good day, an angry eyeroll on a bad day, and mixed feelings on most others. American exceptionalism is harder to process as a foreigner because it's so pervasive yet so invisible to Americans, even those who believe it's a myth. I figured unpacking it — for my own benefit as well as anyone else's — would make for a good mission for this blog's second post.

But what actually is American exceptionalism? If you have the time, read this excellent article by Australian author Ian Tyrrell, who is known for his writings on the topic. The Cliff Notes version, however, is this: American exceptionalism is the belief that the U.S. (1) holds a special place in the world because it is (a) different from and; (b) superior to other nations because of its values, and (2) that its success cannot be replicated by any other country. The term was coined as a way to explain why the United States of America had effectively bypassed socialism in the early 19th century, but today, it's used as a tool in bi-partisan rhetoric, designed to tug at your patriotic (or nationalist) heartstrings.

"Fair enough," you think. "We all feel patriotic and proud of our countries — nothing wrong with that." To which, I'd say sure, except American exceptionalism goes beyond just individual feelings and is woven into a variety of media — from political speeches to movies that are exported all over the world to foreign policy discussions — in a manner I haven't seen any other country adopt. The phenomenon itself may or may not be real, but it is used as if it is. And that makes it far bigger than any individual's feelings; it makes it a part of a national narrative.

Going by my very scientific analyses in the past almost-decade in this country, I can't say that the average American shows a lot of awareness of this attitude. At least partially, that's because they've internalized these messages to some extent, much like we internalize abject poverty in India. But as a foreigner, it's hard not to notice these things. There have been times when I've seen good ol' `Murrican exceptionalism hard at work, looked around the room for someone to make knowing, meaningful eye contact with, and been left high and dry. A few examples, in random order:

  • Every time POTUS is referred to as "the leader of the free world" in serious political speeches (to quote the children: lolwut, amirite?). I didn't realize the rest of us were still slaves.
  • Every time someone reacts to a terrorist act with "I didn't think something like this could happen here" — sadly, an all too common occurrence. I want to ask: "Why did you think it couldn't happen here? What makes America so untouchable in your mind?" But I bite my tongue.
  • Every time the U.S. ends up being the one saving the planet from aliens or an asteroid in a Hollywood movie that took millions and millions to produce — think Independence Day, Deep Impact, etc. (And don't miss the always caricatured Russian cosmonaut who accompanies the Americans for comedic contrast — nothing more, nothing less.)

To be fair, the U.S. is a great and wonderful country in many, many, many respects. There is a reason I've lived here as long as I have. And many of the reasons people give to justify its exceptionalism are true, even if to a limited extent. But its "exceptionalist" (I just coined that word — you're welcome) tendencies have also put it in an unfavorable place in global perception. On one hand — and this is admittedly a fairly simplistic analysis — its holier-than-thou attitude is the reason most Americans find themselves asking "Why doesn't anyone like us?", but on the other, the world also looks to the U.S. to come through on its word and step into crises around the globe. And when they don't, this very exceptionalism comes to bite them in the tuckus.

On a relatively lighter note, no ramble on American exceptionalism would be complete without a viewing of this clip from The Newsroom, where Jeff Daniels' character is on a panel and asked to respond to the question: Why is America the greatest country in the world? But I'm not sharing this here for the reason you think. While entertaining in its takedown of the concept, this clip in itself is actually incontrovertible proof of American exceptionalism. I point to three things: (1) The fact that "why is my country the best?" is asked as a legitimate question in a place of intellectual discourse — and no one bats an eyelid; (2) Someone saying "actually, honey, we aren't that great" stuns the audience into silence. (Quelle horreur!) and (3) Jeff's character — after a mighty tirade — goes soft and starts talking about when "we used to be great" and you realize he doesn't get the point either, so you turn off your computer and buy a one-way ticket to elsewhere.

Having said all that, one area where America does do better than the rest of the world is...public relations. (And as PR professional myself, I mean this in the best way possible.) America has done a great job of putting out messages of its exceptionalism for decades, and while the sheen may be coming off (#thankstrump), it has people here and abroad convinced that it is, indeed, something special. And for that exceptional task, I doff my hat to this country.