American exceptionalism. I discussed this in a post that hit a nerve yesterday. Yowch. I want to clarify a few points of opinion here.
I think America can be a city on a hill, if we allow that other countries also shine in exceptional ways from their own hills. Yes, America is special in some ways – as is every other country on this planet. Yes, America shares much in human nature, if perhaps somewhat less in culture, with all these other countries.
America is not the only nation of immigrants. Include Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, to start. America is not the only multicultural game on the planet. The foregoing come to mind, along with Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, Nigeria, Mexico, Peru, the U.K., Ireland, and more. If America were the only city on the single hill in this cherished extended metaphor, why would people ever have emigrated anywhere else?
American exceptionalism paves a slippery slope to personal exceptionalism. If I live in a special country, then I too am special. I mean – yes and no. I remember years ago realizing with a shock that I was simultaneously the most important thing and the least important thing in my life. The individuals who comprised the mob last Wednesday certainly invoked a personal exceptionalism. They stormed Congress while our elected representatives were in active session to validate the Electoral College tallies and expected impunity.
Much has been made in the past decade of the echo chamber of social media. I want to highlight its close cousin, the cultural echo chamber – when Americans talk to Americans about America. Yes, this is a fine and useful thing, but suffers from a lack of interrogation and analysis without outside perspectives. I think we can and should learn from other countries, as well as asking them how they see America. Every country, to some extent, struggles with class, income inequality, equal rights, sexism, food poverty, healthcare access, civil strife, political volatility. Why reinvent the wheel on every possible pain point? Why go it alone? Why not connect with people in all places to get some insight? I am reminded of one fractious meeting in my time as admin staff on campus, when I suggested that my university employer benchmark international enrollment strategies with peer institutions. The then-powerful dean of the College of Arts and Sciences snapped, Those are the last people I would want to talk to! He didn’t say why. End of discussion.
America, if we know who we are, then we know who we are not yet, and we can chart that path forward. But we need to be honest about who we are now, and who we want to be. Yes, there are flaws, but a lot of it wants to work. This discussion is going to be painful, because people are going to disagree. But I think we can do it. There are many, many people of good faith in America who want to support the cause, this ongoing experiment in democracy.
Extremism on either end of the spectrum is not the way forward. I love America. I’m a product of the country that raised and educated me, employed and challenged me, and yes, at times disregarded me and caused needless suffering. I want to help heal it and help make it a better place – more fair, more just. I’m doing that by writing about the positives in our culture and government while calling out issues that require the attention of fair-minded people of good faith. I’m exercising free listening with my free speech.
I’ll close with an anecdote. A few years ago, after we’d been living in Italy for a year, I flew into LAX for a professional conference. I waited in line with my blue passport, holding onto my suitcase in one hand, documents in the other. This was some months after the Muslim Travel Ban was enacted as an executive order. When it was my turn to be stamped in, an African-American man in a nylon cap waved me toward him. His name tag said Muhammad. Welcome back home, Monica, he said with a big grin. We’ve missed you. I almost started crying. No better welcome could have been imagined for me. This reality did not match the news. It didn’t matter what the White House said, or tried to do; here was proof of my America, different and warm and welcoming and defiant.