The Republican Delusion: American Exceptionalism
Last week I wrote about how the GOP continues to embarrass America. The main focus of the piece was a letter to Iran written by 47 U.S. senators and the fact that the rest of the world, including Iran, mocked them, and by association us, for the contents of that letter. Even the Iranian foreign minister responded by correcting the senators on their understanding of international law and the Constitution -- our Constitution.
In one paragraph I referred to the current conversation around American exceptionalism that was recently brought to the forefront by Rudy Giuliani when he accused President Obama of not loving America. I wrote:
Simply stating that we as a country are exceptional, defined by Merriam-Webster as "much better than average," doesn't mean that it's true. We are behind most developed countries in education, infrastructure, standard of living, workers' rights, freedom of the press, health care, and public transportation, to name just a few areas where we fall behind. It's worth mentioning that Merriam-Webster also defines "exceptional" as mentally or physically disabled.
Most of the comments left on the post itself or sent via Twitter or email, from people who tracked me down online and found my personal email address, focused mainly on this single paragraph -- the second of nearly 30 paragraphs making up the post. Toward the end of the post, I referred to five scientific studies that claim that Republicans are not very bright. Oddly, the paragraph further into the post, blatantly insulting the intelligence of people who might be reading that particular post, was not addressed in any of the comments. I'm not sure what conclusions can be drawn about reading comprehension or attention span, but I'll venture a guess that most of the people who commented didn't make it past the second paragraph.
The consensus from the comments and tweets seems to be that one must have unquestioning and blind belief that the United States of America is exceptional in all regards, and that to deviate from that belief or question our superior standing in the world is unpatriotic.
Last month Matt Taibbi, writing in Rolling Stone, compared the current conversation around American exceptionalism to something you'd expect from Soviet Russia:
Not to go too far down memory lane, but in 1990, I went to Leningrad to study. The Soviet empire was in its death throes and most people there, particularly the younger ones, knew it. But some hadn't gotten the memo yet, and those folks, usually nice enough, often older -- university administrators, check-room attendants, security guards, parents of some of my classmates, others -- were constantly challenging me and other exchange students to East-versus-West debates, usually with the aim of proving that "their" way of life was better.
The article, mostly about Giuliani's short-lived wirlwind tour of any network that would have him, draws parallels between the post-Soviet pining for the old days and what we're seeing now among many in the right wing of this country. Taibbi writes:
If you've spent the last 30 years sitting on splintered park benches with your buddies after work, drinking rancid keg beer out of a jam jar along with some salted vobla fish and some mushy "Doctor's" kielbasa, well, you'll be damned if you're going to worship at the more expensive altar of a warm Coca-Cola and a Snickers. You liked your disgusting salt-fish and your unhygienic beverage choices and your absurd "kassa" multi-cashier store payment system that could make shopping for groceries an agonizing three-hour ritual. And it rankled you to no end when people told you that these things, and by implication you yourself, were vestiges of a dead-and-gone world.
On Twitter "@MikeSchomburg" remarked, "Didn't take long for you defend your point in the traditional liberal manner," and immediately follow it up with, "by the way forgotten that elections have consequences," and, "hey look, the ayatollah agrees with you. That should make you feel really good and patriotic. Oh right, your against patriotism."
In the Facebook comments on the post itself, Mick Truitt commented, "I use the word 'reporter' in the most loose of terms in that I believe a reporter should verify and show where his 'facts' are coming from. To say the US is behind in all of these areas is just an outright lie," referring to the list of areas in which we fall behind. A similar comment came from David Tonyan, who wrote, "Hyperbolic claims like what you have in that paragraph need data to support them and you've provided none."
I also received several emails from people who managed to track me down and find my personal email address. One in particular, from someone named "Ilya," stands out:
I always want to understand people like you -- who hate America and don't get that without it the world would be infinitely worse than it is now -- because I believe in logic and reason. But you can't even stand for what you believe in so now the conversation is truly over. On my side, I can tell you why I think America is exceptional: it is wealthy, powerful, and still free.
That might be true, but we're not the only ones who are wealthy, powerful, and free. It's also probably a small consolation to the 45 million people in poverty or the 1.6 million inmates in prison -- the United States has had the highest incarceration rate in the world, by the way. I'll concede that we're the most powerful, but only for now. According to the National Power Index, that's slipping too.
Despite there being ample studies to corroborate my "claims," not to mention links within the post attributing those "claims" to sourced material, arguments of fabrication persist.
That said, America ranks 37th in health care, according to the World Health Organization. We are close behind Costa Rica and Chile; well behind Morocco, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates; and far behind Italy, San Marino, and Singapore. France ranks number one. Looking at the areas of math, science and reading education, the comprehension and performance of American students, which was already unimpressive as of 2009, has become progressively worse. As the Wall Street Journal's Stephanie Banchero writes, teenage students "in the U.S. slipped from 25th to 31st in math since 2009; from 20th to 24th in science; and from 11th to 21st in reading, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which gathers and analyzes the data in the U.S." According to the World Press Freedom Index, our freedom-of-the-press ranking is 46, behind Poland, Slovakia, El Salvador, and South Africa but ahead of Cuba, Kuwait, and Nicaragua -- though not by much. We're number six in quality of life. According to Business Insider's Lucas Kawa, "In terms of overall infrastructure, the U.S. ranks 25th, behind nations such as Oman and Barbados, and only one spot ahead of Qatar." The U.S. ranks alongside Indonesia and Thailand on workers' rights. On public transportation we fall behind Dubai, Finland, Austria, Germany, France, and Denmark.
The claims that I hate America are particularly interesting since I made clear in my last paragraph that I do, in fact, love this country, though not blindly or unconditionally. I ended the piece by saying:
Since there seems to be a trend these days for people to prove how much they love this country unconditionally and without question, let me be clear: I love this country. I love this country the way someone loves an alcoholic spouse or family member. You see the potential and the person they could be if they would just sober up and get help, but in the meantime they're a constant source of angst and embarrassment.
Of course, that was the last paragraph, and who would expect anyone to read an entire post to get the full picture?
In the first episode of The Newsroom, news anchor Will McAvoy goes on a spectacular rant after being asked why America is the greatest country in the world. "It's not the greatest country in the world," he says and proceeds to rattle off a list of reasons why:
[T]here's absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we're the greatest country in the world. We're 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in labor force and number 4 in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies. Now, none of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are, without a doubt, a member of the worst, period, generation, period, ever, period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don't know what the fuck you're talking about! Yosemite?!
But the most salient and relevant part of that rant comes at the end, when he says:
It sure used to be [the greatest country in the world]. We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reason. We passed laws, struck down laws, for moral reason. We waged wars on poverty, not on poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were and we never beat our chest. We built great, big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases and we cultivated the world's greatest artists and the world's greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence, we didn't belittle it. It didn't make us feel inferior. We didn't identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election and we didn't scare so easy. We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed ... by great men, men who were revered. First step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.
Since there's not much to add to that, let me reiterate, once again in the last paragraph, that I do, in fact, love this country: what it stands for, what it used to be and what it could be again, but it's not going to get there just because we say it will.