Wednesday, November 30, 2011

American "exceptionalism" - not always laudable

American exceptionalism refers to the theory that the United States of America is qualitatively different from other countries (according to Wikipedia). It was discussed today on NPR's Talk of the Nation, per a Pew headline that says the concept of American exceptionalism is declining -
although the summary of the report completely affirms American exceptionalism. The NPR discussion equated exceptionalism with being remarkable or meritorious or superior to other countries. I don't make that mistake: the USA is most definitely exceptional, but not always remarkable or meritorious or superior.

I lived in Europe for eight years and moved back to the USA with my German husband in 2009. I've traveled to more than 35 countries. Seeing the USA through my international eyes - and through my husband's eyes - has affirmed for the both of us that the USA is very different from Europe and elsewhere, sometimes superior, but often, not.

My husband is stunned at the poverty here in the USA as opposed to Western Europe, and at just how much religion dominates political discussions. I was stunned - and pleasantly surprised - at how much religion was kept out of politics in Western Europe, and at the health and well-being of the majority of people.

We both agree that the USA is quick to use military force, while Western Europe is much more thoughtful and careful about such, and that Western Europeans know much more about the world beyond their own city borders than USA citizens do. And we both think Western Europe is superior in all those regards.

We both also don' t know of a culture anywhere that doesn't think its somehow superior to everyone else - the USA is hardly exceptional in this regard. Western Europe is not nearly as unified culturally as people in the USA think, with a diversity of languages and customs within each one country's border, let alone all of Europe! And each individual village or city thinks they're food, their neighborhoods and their way of life is, ultimately, best. That's how all humans think, not just Americans.

Most Europeans I know identify first with their village, city or region, then their country or nationality. The people I know who say they are Spanish are from in around Madrid; other people from Spain tell me they are Catalan, Galacian, Basque, etc. I was stunned at how divided the tiny country of Belgium is between its languages and cultures. In contrast, most USA citizens I know are first and foremost "Americans." However, both my husband and I see a divide between new immigrants to the USA and those whose families came in the early part of the 20th century and before; someone in the latter group is willing, even happy, to say they are of German descent, or Danish descent, or Russian descent, but they are, ultimately, Americans, period. By contrast, we've both observed that people who have come to the USA from Mexico in the last 50 years want to still be called Mexican. We find this is very similar to Turkish immigrants in Germany, who don't call themselves German, or African and Arab immigrants to France, who don't call themselves French - but whereas I really do think most third-or-more generation USA citizens want immigrants to integrate and become "Americans", I don't think most Europeans want immigrants from elsewhere to integrate and become German or French or Spanish or Swiss or Hungarian or Polish - they want them to go away.

Only one country in Europe - Germany - accepts and openly talks about its history, good and bad; the rest are just like the USA, framing their own moments of mass murder, ethnic and cultural oppression and injustice as not really that bad and certainly nothing to dwell on. Here we are in the USA at the 15oth anniversary of the start of the Civil War and there's barely a mention of such anywhere - we can't talk about slavery because slave holders still has numerous defenders! It's another area where we are not at all exceptional, let alone laudable.

My husband is fascinated at the rights USA citizens have, such as almost absolute freedom of speech (we can't yell fire in a theater, of course), the lack of libel laws (you can sue people in Europe for hurting your individual, personal reputation), the right to refuse a police officer to search your vehicle, or your right to remain silent when interviewed by the police (though he's fascinated by all the people on Cops that don't exercise this right). It's most definitely something I love about my country. I'm fierce in my support of freedom of speech, including the freedom to commit blasphemy - it's the most American thing about me. And it makes the USA both exceptional and laudable.

He's fascinated - and bothered - by how nationalistic USA citizens are, and how in-your-face they are about the Christian religion - and I couldn't agree more. Both aspects of life in the USA have made him uncomfortable on numerous occasions. We've talked about how similar the nationalistic fervor and influence of religion on politics in the USA is to some Muslim countries we've visited, in contrast to Europe. I find it interesting that most of Germany's holidays - as in week days you get off from work - are actually holy days (based in Roman Catholic traditions), whereas most holidays in the USA are were not created by a religion (Memorial Day, Labor Day, President's Day, etc.).

But then there's this: in many European countries, when you register your residency with a city (as all citizens are required to do), if you declare you are a member of a religion, even if you don't attend that religion's services, part of your wages are garnished and given to that religion. A lot of Europeans consider themselves non-Church-going-Christians, but won't declare themselves Christians in their residency, in order to avoid this "tax." We don't do that in the USA, and that's one of the rare things about religion in the USA I think is superior to Europe.

He does think the USA is exceptional regarding ethnic minorities in public office, leadership positions and most jobs - it is very different than in Europe, that's for sure. Something I'm quite proud of. For all our problems regarding race relations in the USA, we really don't appreciate just how much better things are here in contrast to elsewhere.

He's none-too-enamored at how the USA has abandoned its small town and neighborhood cultures and communities in favor of strip malls and Wal-Marts and ugly, soul-less suburbs. We find so many small towns in the USA depressing, with shuttered schools and shops and abandoned business and houses; in Europe, you can still go to school, go to a restaurant or a bar and shop for at least a few items in most any village, no matter how small.

He's stunned that millions of Americans have no affordable health care access, and that even if you have coverage, a corporation makes your health care decisions instead of a doctor. This is complete contrast to Europe. And he's stunned that so many Americans fear the varied ways of providing health care coverage in Europe, that so many people in the USA think there is just one model for such and every European follows that model - unaware that how Germany does it isn't how Sweden does it, for instance. Come to think of it, I'm rather stunned about it as well. How we do health care is, indeed, exceptional in the USA, but not at all laudable.

He doesn't think Americans are as free as they think they are; he sees the dominance of corporate thinking and pursuit of profits in so much of American's personal life, mostly regarding health care, but also regarding things like nutrition and housing. I'm not sure how much he's seen that because of me, as I harp on it frequently.

The USA is exceptional - but not at all laudable - when it comes to our weight. We are fat. We are obese. Go to Europe, and look at a group of tourists - you will know the Americans not by their clothes, but by their weight. It's embarassing.

He agrees with me that one of the best things about the USA - and one of the things most Americans do not appreciate - is our national and state parks, forests and monuments. We both find these sights unmatched elsewhere in the world - and, yet, when we go to a national park, we meet many more Europeans than Americans. Such a shame, because they are, to me, what's best about America, what I'm most proud of, except for just one thing: our music.

He doesn't agree with me about American music: I think music in the USA is both exceptional and laudable, he finds only some of it enjoyable. Of course, no music is created in a vacuum, and the European and African influences on American music is undeniable. That says, rock and roll, country and western, blues and gospel are as American as it gets, and I revel in them. Not a fan of hard rock/metal or rap, but I do respect them as exceptional, even laudable, American musical forms.

So, is the USA exceptional? Mostly, yes. Is it laudable or superior in all those ways its exceptional? Not always. Will someone comment that I'm not being very patriotic with this blog and if I don't love the USA I should leave it? Count on it.

No comments:

Post a Comment