American Exceptionalism

It’s sometimes difficult living in such a narcissistic place. I’ve lived in and out of the US, but I seemed to have settled here for now. I’ve lived on each coast, the Southwest, and the Midwest. I’ve visited all but four states—notably, Wyoming, Montana, and North & South Dakota, so you might recognise the trend.

Currently, I reside in Delaware, but my office is in Manhatten. As a consultant, I am most often wherever my client is. Combined, I’ve lived in LA for well over a decade, my earliest youth was spent in and around Boston. In my 20s in the 1980s, I spent my formative years in Los Angeles, the centre of the music industry at the time, where I was a recording engineer and musician. I had left my roots in Boston with various pitstops along the way to settle in LA, but I returned to Boston in the late ’80s to attend university and grad school. In Boston, I was married and then divorced, an event that gave me leave to return to Los Angeles, where I got married again and relocated to Chicago, where I spent over a decade as well. Divorced again, I relocated near Philadelphia for work and settled into rural northern, Delaware.

To the uninitiated, the US have two cosmopolitan cities, NYC and LA. By population, the third largest city, Chicago, is an oversized farm town. It qualifies as a city on the basis of population, and it’s not a bad place to be, but it lacks the cultural diversity and buzz of a NY or LA. There is none of that in Philadelphia and even less in Delaware.

Donut

The United States are like Australia. It’s ostensibly like a doughnut—empty in the middle, except to say the top and bottom don’t offer much either. So this is not to say that there aren’t valuable things, lessons, and people in these other areas, but by and large, even with the Internet and social media, they are still a decade and more behind.

When I lived in Japan—and I realise that I am coming off as some sort of culture snob—, I was taken aback at how far they seemed behind my frame of reference, having come from an affluent, white, East Coast, family. On one hand, their technology was off the charts and, owing to the exchange rate, it was cheap. Besides the exchange rate, the mark-up was enormous. Americans have no sense of value, and so as much as they exploit other countries, the last laugh is on them.

Americans are not some monolithic entity. There are many dimensions and divisions. To say Americans [fill in the blank] would be disingenuous. To listen to the politicians—especially the ones on the Right, and not just the fringe—you might be left thinking that American are all narcissistic assholes. In fact, this is the same cohort that leaves you feeling that the US have never left the Dark Ages with their religious superstitions.

Much of the country is actually in the 21st Century, but when you try to assess some average sentiment, this vocal minority makes it seem we live in perhaps the fifteenth century.

Roman General Lucius (John Cusack) — Dragon Blade Film

Even behind these anachronisms, there is still a sense of American exceptionalism—or perhaps there was a time that they were exceptional in some bout of nostalgia. You can cherry-pick some dimensions and claim to rank high on the scale but any exceptionalism only happens by adopting a frame. Many who come to the conclusion that the US are or were exceptional tend to fetishise Ancient Greece and Rome as well. In my opinion, it’s indoctrination, but there has to be more than this. There needs to be a certain gullibility gene that creates the propensity to believe these narratives. Without going off the rails, it might be fair to say that this genetic predisposition might have been the reason humans have evolved this far. I’d like to think it’s merely vestigial, but I’ll presume that this is only wishful thinking.

Americans, like most people, have a sense of identity, whether personal or to groups. And like the personae we project as individuals, we have myriad group personae as well. Perhaps there is already a term for this. If not, I’m not going to coin a term now.

Like individual identity, people defend their notion of group identity, and they tend to over-estimate. More than half of people consider themselves to be average or better than average in looks or intelligence and so on. Clearly, this defies statistics, but it is not merely an attempt to assuage some cognitive dissonance; you can come to a defensible position by picking some attributes that might excel (on some subjective aesthetic scale) and then overvaluing these attributes relative to the entire domain. Perhaps a person is taller than average and has been told s/he has beautiful eyes. It would be easy to discount other factors and place oneself in a higher rank due to these two factors. It works like this for national identity.

In the US, they will focus on some economic indicator, argue that it is important and captures broader coverage than it does, and then reference it as proof of exceptionalism. Meantime, the population is being indoctrinated into accepting this narrative, and much effort is spent trying to convince the larger world that this attribute is important.

In this MAGA Age of Make America Great Again, it’s helpful to remember that it never was and never will be great. And that’s OK. It’s also helpful to remember that the ‘good ole days’ are rarely as we remember them in the rearview mirror.