America’s claims to exceptionalism broke the surface again with the recent duel of words between Presidents Obama and Putin a month ago. Arguing in a televised speech for a punitive strike against Syria, Obama closed with “I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth”.
Putin bridled at Obama’s hubris. “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional” he wrote in a New York Times” op-ed. “There are countries big and small, rich and poor…but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal”.
Obama at the United Nations then doubled down with “I believe America is exceptional in part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest but for the interests of all”.
America’s spotty record brings into question just what interests have been served by those sacrifices given its disastrous missteps in Vietnam and Iraq, but, fair enough. It seems, though, that our exceptionalism is defined by our military rather. As he had said earlier, “For more than seven decades America has been the anchor of global security”. It may have peeved Mr. Putin that several of those decades had to do with holding his country in check.in our dna
America thought itself exceptional early on. The Revolution brought about the world’s first large republic to throw off the yoke of divine right and hereditary ascendancy, installing in its place, in Lincoln’s words, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. The world was watching this grand experiment, and this was understood from the very first in John Winthrop’s shipboard sermon to his fellow Pilgrims who were about to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony: ”We must consider that we shall be as a city on a hill the eyes of all people are upon us”. As Tom Paine put it, “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind”.
That we had landed on these shores, with a giant continent beckoning, inhabited only by those we thought a backward people, seemed to be telling us it was ours to take. It was our Manifest Destiny to do so. What was exceptional was the incredible courage of pioneers moving west into “Indian country” and entering on a perilous, hardscrabble, unforeseeable future. We would then go on to forge the world’s oldest continuous democracy, which could be claimed as the most exceptional accomplishment of all.
But that was then and this is now.
Now we lecture to the world about democracy, free speech, and human rights yet regularly violate our avowed principles at home. The 9/11 attacks caused us immediately to sink into a depravity of torture, rendition and indefinite imprisonment without trial. Racism persists, evidenced particularly by the otherwise inexplicable ratio of prison-incarcerated blacks. Government, this one especially, has increasingly acted to throttle and intimidate journalists and those who leak the truth to the press.
Our democratic structure has suffered erosion. There was a remarkable turning point when the Supreme Court intervened to choose a president. Then came its ruling that corporations and unions are “persons” in the political process and may now spend unlimited amounts in elections. And as this is written the justices seem sympathetic in McCutcheon v. FEC to the argument that there should be no aggregate limit to what a person may contribute to candidates in elections.
With a majority more than accommodating to business, the Court has allowed corporations to gain increasing sway over the populace. The Court has repeatedly restricted who may band together in class action law suits, leaving to the individual the economically impossible task of taking on big corporations. And to do business with those corporations mortgage lenders, credit card banks, securities brokers, all are grabbing this brass ring the Court has upheld their right to require you to agree to arbitration if any dispute arises. Which is to say, you, private citizen, have signed away what you might have thought was a fundamental right: your access to the courts.
The Senate has abandoned simple majority rule; a super majority is now required for anything of consequence.
States nationwide are adopting laws to inhibit voting by blacks and students. Gerrymandering after the 2010 census has made it impossible for one party or the other to have any prospect of electing their candidate in districts all over the country.
And now we witness a complete breakdown of government with a faction of Congress able to bring government to a halt to sabotage a duly voted and signed law it dislikes.societal decline
Americans tell themselves that we have the greatest health care in the world. The truth is far from it. We may spend triple what the average of the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) spend per patient, but the results are mixed highly ranked in heart disease and cancer treatment, yet 4th from last in infant mortality, for example.
In the most recent among many reports that compare health results in developed countries, the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine has us dead last among 17 advanced countries in “deaths from all causes” per unit of population. U.S. death rates for 15 of 21 diseases were higher than the average. A major contributor to this dismal statistic, as compared to countries with socialized medicine, is that uninsured low-income persons only see a doctor when a disease has progressed to a life-threatening stage.
We also allow our hospitals to charge whatever staggering amounts they choose to drive some 700,000 families a year to bankruptcy.
Most disturbing for our future is our steep decline in education. Once the pioneer in public education, America now ranks far down the list when measured by results. The OECD began in 2000 to evaluate student achievement at age 15 in 18 advanced countries with its PISA program (Programme for International Student Assessment). By 2009 their analyses placed the U.S. 17th in reading proficiency, 23rd in science and 31st in math. Finland and Singapore lead the list.
A UNICEF study in 2010 compared the well-being of children in 24 developed countries and found that the United States ranked 23rd in educational resources and child living space, 19th in math and science literacy and 22nd in health, including diet and exercise.
Update: Behind in Workplace Skills Also Oct.11: In a report just released, tests administered by the OECD to about 160,000 people of ages 18 to 65 in 23 countries found that Americans are well behind most other countries in basic math skills (3rd from last), literacy (6th from last) and working with technology (2nd from last).
Even in higher education, where more than half of the top universities worldwide are American and eight are in the top ten, we rank 14th in the world in the percentage of 25-to-34 year-olds with degrees.
No end of studies have found that the sooner young children are exposed to learning, the better they do in the years following, but we are 28th in the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-school, exceeded only by Romania. An Obama proposal in his 2013 State of the Union would provide funds to states to expand early learning, but Republicans viewed it as another entitlement program adding to the deficit rather than an investment in the nation’s future.
Speaking of Romania, at 34th we are exceeded only by that country’s greater proportion of children living in poverty. And for all our prattling about human rights, we were tied at 49th in civil liberties in the "Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index 2008". With the government spying that has been exposed since, it can only be assumed that we are now much deeper on that list. Several countries Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and Norway tied for first.
Our land of the free has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners, one in every 107 adults.
And for all our emphasis on business, we have been slipping every year in the World Economic Forum’s ranking of how competitive we are in world markets, dropping to 7th in 2012 behind countries such as Switzerland, Singapore and Finland.
Supposedly egalitarian America had the 4th highest measure of income inequality of the 34 OECD countries measured, and that trend has only grown worse in the latest findings of Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, economists who have regularly reported on this subject. They found that the top 10% took home fully half of all income earned in the United States in 2012. With the bottom tiers of U.S. workers stranded in low-paying jobs offering little opportunity for advancement, this country now ranks below traditionally class-stratified Europe in social mobility.
Put all that together and it is not surprising that the every five year World Happiness Report from the United Nations says Americans' level of happiness declining 4% since 2007.undiminished self-esteem
Yet despite all that, we are full of ourselves. Pew Research’s Global Attitudes Project conducted a survey in 2011 that asked agreement in whether “our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior”. France must have come out on top in notions of self-esteem one would think, but instead it was the U.S., leading Germany, Spain, Britain and France in that order. When they hear us speaking of our exceptionalism, people in those countries must wonder what on earth we are talking about.2 Comments