I absolutely support the idea of promoting exceptionalism, and I am proud of what the US has achieved and continues to achieve, but I am frustrated that the discussion of American Exceptionalism (particularly by the right wing of our political system) seems always so one dimensional. Exceptionalists want America to be its best, continue to be its best, continue to lead the world. But lead the world in what? The exceptionalist talking points usually have to do with technological, ideological, and even military supremacy. But what about the supremacy of our health, supremacy of our freedoms, supremacy of our happiness? The Declaration of Independence wisely identifies all three of these as our unalienable rights ("Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.") Our model for exceptionalism as it exists today doesn't meet our unalienable needs. It is far too limited in scope. It requires a holistic revision.
On the matter of life, there is no denying that, ignoring cost, US healthcare is the envy of the world. We have focused on developing technologies and doing research which has produced results which has no peers. But that hyper-focus on new machines and new treatments has created a healthcare industry that many Americans can't afford, many Americans struggle to afford, and the remaining Americans pay dearly to afford. And the question must be asked, does our superior medical prowess and spending translate into more lives saved? The answer is clearly indisputably, "No." We're ranked 38th in longevity, and ranked poorly in many other metrics related to overall health and lifespan. The model of exceptionalism we've adopted and wish to export has us working diligently to create drugs to treat obesity rather than encouraging us to develop the discipline to eat less and exercise more.
On the matter of our freedom we have now legally legitimized invading our citizen's thoughts (with and without court involvement and with and without our knowledge). Warrantless wiretaps, warrantless analysis of phone and internet data, warrantless seizure and analysis of citizen's encrypted and unencrypted laptops at our nation's borders, warrantless and waranted examination of our web searches, web readings, book purchases and borrowings, etc. all show that this nation has completely lost its passion for liberty. Freedom is now just a pretty word we emptily use.
And on the matter of happiness, I would argue that our nation has completely lost its way. Most American happiness is now found at the bottom of a glass, in the unboxing of a new 57" HD TV, in the firing of a virtual gun in a game machine, and in the laughing at a prime time joke told on a major network. Obviously we still find joy in the more appropriate things as well, such as the enjoyment of our family, pets, nature, religion, etc. but few can argue how very much our happiness has shifted to the fleeting satisfaction of the material, technological, etc. If one of our national goals really is the pursuit of happiness then we must admit our increasing failure.
I want the world to learn from us, but let us devote ourselves more to the business of getting our own house in order rather than trying to export our distressingly devolving values.
Often politicians from both parties invoke the founding fathers when engaged in modern political debates, and to my ears it always sounds grossly myopic. Just today the republican Gary Johnson invoked the founding fathers in his refusal to go along with the majority of his party in pledging to oppose gay marriage rights. Included in his rejection was the phrase, "The freedoms that our forefathers fought for in this country are sacred and must be preserved." And while that sounds on the surface like a fantastic reference to the founding fathers, it rings entirely hollow.
The founding fathers did not see women as equals, did not see black people as equals (discriminated against the free and kept the slaves in bondage), nor did they see people of various other nations as equals. I find it impossible to believe, therefore, that men so willing to restrict the rights of others would have been in support of gay marriage; they would certainly not have considered that to be a right they had been fighting for. I'd even go out on a limb so far as to say it seems far more probable that many of those esteemed men have abandoned the revolution had they been told that their rebellion would ultimately lead to interracial marriage, homosexual marriage, and women having the same rights as men. So let's not invoke their names to support causes with which they never aligned themselves, nor imagine them to be more high minded than they actually were. They did a very good thing in founding a nation with pretty words that took on prettier additional meanings over time, they should be given full credit for that, but for nothing more.
Political Correctness often runs amok, and when it does its primary fault is that it denies very real but unpleasant truths. We shrink from the real discussion of the issue by being offended when a little boy tells an emperor he has no clothes. In the news today is the story of Harry Reid apologizing for making racial remarks about Obama during campaign. The comments he's being made to apologize for are:
He [Reid] was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama -- a 'light-skinned' African American 'with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.'
To those who find offense in the idea behind the words he chose, I say... What I find deeply offensive about that statement is that it is a true and accurate reflection of our still racially biased America. There is nothing we should find offensive about someone acknowledging that truth. Would anyone seriously argue that Obama's odds of election would have been greater (or exactly the same) had his skin been very dark? You and I may wish his skin color didn't matter to many of the voters, but I'm not so naive as to believe it doesn't. And no one could reasonably argue that Obama's oration, and its lack of Ebonics, didn't make him a far more palatable candidate. Harry Reid made a true and accurate statement, and now must apologize for it, because that's easier than requiring those who find knee-jerk offense acknowledge the shameful truth in his statement.
To those who find offense in the phrase "Negro dialect", I say... The phrase may have been poorly chosen, but I'm not clear if that phrase would necessarily offend most people. And I'm not sure what phrase would have been the right one. The term "Ebonics" seems to be the preferred term for what he was referring to, though I must confess I feel somewhat uncomfortable using that term, it has never felt like a legitimate word, being used primarily in non-serious contexts, as part of late night comedians' joke. And it seems like that word only came into being within the last 10-15 years. Would African-American dialect be an acceptable term? The term "Negro" can certainly be a charged word, but I've never understood it to be an automatically offensive word. The word is to be found in the terms "Negro spirituals" and the "Negro League", and while those terms represent things born of cruel and always unequal treatment, the "Negro" in those phrases calls to my mind the very best of men and women. The "Negro" in those terms is the one who triumphed against adversity, found beauty in despair, demonstrated excellence in injustice. But perhaps the word has a very bad association for many, I can certainly imagine some hideous people using it offensively, but there I think it's the context and not the word that primarily offends. (To be safe, I never use the word.) Whatever the case, I would hope people could see beyond the word, and find in this context no offense.
To those who find offense in Reid suggesting Obama could choose to speak in Ebonics, well, that is reality. People routinely vary their speach patterns to fit in. I've seen African Americans do it, Southerners do it, rednecks do it, Bostonians do it, etc.)
(I know little of Harry Reid. I've heard his name quite a lot over the last few months with regard to the health care debate, but other than that I'm woefully ignorant of the man, and am certainly not defending him on the basis of any knowledge of him or fondness for him.)
It's a few days later, and the more I see people react to this, the more it puzzles me. When I've listened to people, from pundits to politicians to people on the street, no one seems sure exactly what part of what Harry Reid said was offensive. It's quite bizarre. Everyone seems to feel some obligation to suspect offense (white guilt or black outrage), but no one seems to be able to pinpoint the offense. A few seem to feel "Negro dialect" is an offensive term, but many people (and scholars) say it's a valid and inoffensive term, but technically different from Ebonics ("Negro dialect" being the dialect of slaves and former slaves). Others seem to feel you just shouldn't speak about how much "hue" can matter in public acceptance, regardless of that horrible truth.
The Republicans are thoroughly disgusting me with their attempts to make this issue into something. It's clear they are trying to use this to derail Harry Reid and delay, distract, or derail health care. I find it hard to believe men or women of intelligence could find anything worth outrage here. Their only arguable point is that this in some way is reminiscent of Trent Lott's statement back in 2002and as such we should all stop being so "touchy". And if that's their real point (which I doubt it is), then I'd agree with that. Strom Thurmond's politics in the 1940s were horrendous. But, I don't believe Trent Lott was in any way thinking about those aspects of Thurmond's politics when he opined that America would have been better off if Thurmond had won the presidency; Lott was surely thinking about the many racist-free contributions Thurmond had made to the US in the 50 years which followed. It may have been a short-sighted, stupid, and recklessly effusive thing to say, sure. And an apology was warranted, as it was now, but only because apologies cost nothing, and give us a moment to explain what we meant, and what we didn't mean, and give those who feel slighted an opportunity to feel heard, to be magnanimous, and to be forgiving (and to be loud and rally the masses when it's truly not enough).