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It was difficult and took much of the rest of the ICE ride to try to explain the completely foreign concept of American Exceptionalism to my new acquaintances.  It was foreign to them, and is probably foreign to most Americans.  At least the people I know.  So I went on.

"Perhaps de Tocqueville started it in the 1830s in his Democracy In America when he wrote that Americans were 'quite exceptional' and that perhaps no people would ever be in the same position again.  According to de Tocqueville, it was the Puritan ethic of the American settlers, the lack of a history of feudalism, and the 'virgin' land itself that made America 'exceptional.'  Americans differed from Europeans even though they came from Europe.  This was the support Americans used for 'Manifest Destiny' or the right to expand throughout the continent without questioning the destruction of the existing Native American civilizations that millions of indigenous people had established for thousands of years. America became the Land Of Opportunity.

"The phrase 'American Exceptionalism' became common in the 1920s when it was used--are you ready for this--by the American Communist Party to explain that America was not subject to the Marxist Laws because it was a classless society.  However, to the Soviet Communists, the Depression showed the flaw in that argument.  The most common concern should be directed toward the present interpretation of the phrase by the neo-conservatives in America, which use the term to mean America is superior to all other countries, and is not subject to the rules of law which the international community has established.  The neo-cons argue for an American Empire, which has a mission to forcibly impose American values of government and culture on any other country it sees fit through military and economic power.  The neo-cons argue that President Obama does not believe in 'American Exceptionalism' because he believes that while America has a major role in leading the nations of the world toward democracy, morality, and peace, it cannot do it alone but must join in partnerships with other nations.

"But what is exceptional about a country founded on accepting the principle of slavery, genocide of the indigenous peoples, and voting rights only for male property owners?  What is exceptional about a country that has less social mobility than many European countries, and greater income inequality than most European countries?  What is exceptional about a country that tries to limit the voting rights of minorities, that has more weapons in private hands than the next 20 countries combined, and that attempts to erase 60 years of gains in civil rights, woman's rights, and gay rights in one election?  America cannot be the "shining city on a hill" when it has a very high murder rate, a huge prison population, pockets of extreme poverty, and a terribly inequitable health care system.  America is no more exceptional than many other countries, and in many way less exceptional

"No one can get elected to any official national or state office in the U.S without stating support for American Exceptionalism by repeatedly referring to America as The Land Of Opportunity, to The American Dream, and any of many other trite pseudo-patriotic expressions.  Why is this important?  Mainly due to the fact that since the Reagan era, America has no longer been The Land Of Opportunity, and The American Dream has turned into a myth.

"Since Reagan, the percentage of national wealth held by the richest 1% of Americans has doubled, the percentage of wealth of the richest 0.1% has tripled, and the average income for the 99% has barely moved.  This is one of the points that the Occupy Movement was trying to emphasize.  Compared to the other first world countries, the U.S. has the lowest equality of opportunity, and this includes 'Old Europe'.  We have low social mobility.  The status you were born into largely determines the status you will obtain in your adult life.  Much of this has to do with differences in nutrition, education, peers, social pressures--things that are mainly a result of the opportunities that wealth can provide.  And the rate of difference in equality has been increasing, especially through the eight Bush years, and not slowed much through the first four Obama years.  We are heading toward an America that has two classes--the rich and the poor--and very few in the middle class, if we cannot stop and reverse this trend toward income inequality.

"As Americans, we have to acknowledge that Obamacare is important for the future of our people.  We have to acknowledge that true improvement in education is important for the future of our people.  We have to acknowledge that those richest Americans who create wealth for themselves but not economic growth for the 99% have to pay their fair share and stop filling their pockets with corporate welfare.

"This failure of American Exceptionalism is hurting the 99% by restricting economic growth for the middle class, keeping the poor from having a fair shot at obtaining their potential, and will eventually negatively affect those at the top, who have for the past few decades benefited from tax cuts for themselves and spending cuts for programs that can help improve income equality.  This is what the New Deal and the Great Society programs were trying to accomplish, and Reagan, the Bushes, and, yes, even Clinton have created the means to destroy.  There is a line from a Paul Simon song:  'We went so well so long...when I think of the road we're travelling on, I wonder what's gone wrong'.

"We have seen the enemy in the morror.  Yes, he is us.  We must change, or the loss of The American Dream will be permanent."

As we pulled into the Frankfurt bahnhof, I thanked my fellow riders for letting me rant on.  We walked down to platform, and as I looked for my connecting ICE, I wished them well.  We will never meet again.  I don't know if I had an effect on them, but it mattered more to me that I said it all.  Eventually I will return to the U.S. and get involved again.  Perhaps I will never run for political office again, but I had served as an elected official for over 12 years, and now I knew more about myself than I had before the train ride.  Funny how a stranger's question of What Is Wrong With America, and one's response can, in a few hours, make you realize that in order to make the world better, you have to commit to improving it yourself.  You have to get a backbone again.

Originally posted to danisat on Tue Feb 05, 2013 at 08:37 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  American Exceptionalism is a myth, (11+ / 0-)

    believed only by the ignorant. Our problems are global now. Do western Europeans enjoy a better standard of living ? Yes, but that standard of living is under attack. The 1% know no national boundaries.

    The free market is not the solution, the free market is the problem.

    by Azazello on Tue Feb 05, 2013 at 09:12:45 PM PST

  •  In my heart I'm a citizen of the world (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    akze29, DuzT, commonmass

    but I keep my passport as an American for many reasons.

    This attitude really surprises me.  It is like how the "World Series" in baseball only invites teams from one other country.

    by chloris creator on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 01:14:29 AM PST

    •  Is it even possible for you to give up your (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      passport without becoming stateless?  Are you a citizen of another country?

      I plan to give up my US citizenship after I become an Icelandic citizen (3-6 years from now, depending), but if it's even possible before then, I don't want to become stateless - it would just complicate the process.

      The only thing that even gives me pause on giving up US citizenship is losing the social security that I paid into for a dozen years.  But then again, I understand that the base payment would be so low and then hit by so many penalties for living and working overseas for so long that I'd hardly get anything anyway.

      I still pay my taxes, though.  They have to be current to give up US citizenship.  Having to file taxes while living overseas, another reason why I look forward to giving it up...

      •  No interest in being a dual citizen? (0+ / 0-)
        •  Nope, none. (0+ / 0-)

          As mentioned, the only thing that gives me pause is giving up the SS payments when I retire, but by the numbers they should be pretty tiny anyways, so it's not a big loss.

          I don't really identify as American.  So even the argument of "you can vote", which I once considered as a reason, doesn't really fly anymore, as it just feels weird to get to vote in the elections of a country I neither identify with nor live in.

          •  One of my closest friends (0+ / 0-)

            married his wife int he states, but she is British and of Pakistani descent so they always get hassled coming back into the country so they live in London. Plus he discovered that the US wants to require his wife to disclose all their financials as well, which is apparently against British law. If she doesn't though he is considered in violation of US tax law. Once he nationalizes to being a British subject I would expect him to do much the same, even though he likes being an American. Plus, becoming British also comes with EU citizenship.

            If we as a country didn't make it a burden on ex-pats it might be more reasonable to maintain dual citizenship.

      •  From what I've read, the answer is "no", (0+ / 0-)

        you can't give up your citizenship. There are court rulings in which Americans who renounced their citizenship were hauled in on domestic charges as Americans, because the court ruled that you just can't say "I don't want it anymore". It's an interesting notion.

        Also, I don't know why you would have to give up SocSec. Any resident alien has a SocSec card and can work and that entitles them to something (if they worked long enough to qualify), regardless of where they live. You may want to take a closer look at this one.

        •  Yes, you can give up your citizenship. (0+ / 0-)

          There's a formal process, you have to be current on your taxes, and it costs a couple hundred dollars.  A few thousand people do it per year, most commonly for tax reasons.  In fact, the US is unusual in allowing people to become stateless - you can renounce without having another citizenship (although that can put you in a bad situation wherever you live).

          I would not be a resident alien.  I am not a US resident.  I will not have a green card or any legal connection with the US.

  •  I often find that in explaining something (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    akze29, DuzT, commonmass, achronon

    I gain more for myself in insight then the person who asked

    American Exceptionalism, the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny were all early forms of patriotism that we cling to like a dream so perfect we refuse to fully wake from

    I gotta say I'm utterly jealous and looking forward to one day traveling Europe and maybe even working for a couple years in Europe

    Thank you for the series

  •  Having asked the same question, (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    akze29, DuzT, commonmass, YucatanMan, achronon

    though from a European viewpoint:

    What is American Exceptionalism?

    I must say that you give a real good answer. Thank you.

    'We're all flying backwards into the Future'

    by Upie on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 01:26:38 AM PST

    •  This is what I replied to you when you posted (5+ / 0-)

      that question.

      American Exceptionalism means different things to different people.  By some meanings, I would have to say that yes, I am an "American Exceptionalist."  By others, definitely not.

      Madeleine Albright called the USA "the indispensable country" in world affairs.  This is meant in the best way: when events in the world are spinning out of control, ours is the only nation with both the weight and the inclination to force action.  Obama's famous (or infamous) "lead from behind" strategy in Libya is a good example, though she was speaking more in the Bosnian context. While the European NATO countries were capable of taking independent action as Qadaffi's massacring forces approached Benghazi, no action would have happened without America deciding to be a part.  For a horrific parallel outcome, see Rwanda.

      But to the meaning:  For some, it means a God-appointed nation of destiny in the world.  This is often short-handed by reference to Winthrop's famous 1630 sermon aboard the the Puritan ship Arabella, that the New England experiment will be "as a city on a hill" for mankind to look up to; but that woe will become us if we deal falsely with our promise (famously restated as vision of new conservatism by Ronald Reagan). From a less overtly religious tone, we can go back 10 years earlier to the Mayflower Compact, to the pledge among the settlers to work together for a common purpose.

      Another way of looking at the concept of American Exceptionalism is through our roots as the great, lasting political experiment of the The Enlightenment.  Founded on virtuous values, many Americans believe that our values are in fact universal: self-government, a government purposed with protecting Natural Rights, religious tolerance, free speech, due process, etc. - ideals we hope are evinced in our land, and that we generally believe are the birthright of all people.

      Still another lens through which to appreciate the idea is the sheer good fortune of our nation.  Founded by a kingdom that already believed in some inherent rights (unlike the absolute monarchies of Spain, France, or Portugal), spanning a vast landscape of limitless wealth, and protected by two oceans, we are uniquely capable of making our own way in the world.  Add to this a population from all corners of the world, and whether you believe in literal "exceptionalism" or not, we are most certainly different.

      The fact that any one of these points can be used to highlight our historical evils (we hardly had the "good fortune" to "discover" an empty land, and our "universal values" obviously did not pertain to slaves, to women - or, even, to this day, to gay Americans) not only highlights our hypocrisy but the beauty of being in a country where acts of evil or displays of oppression ARE hypocritical.  That's an exceptionally powerful concept.  If this concept does not make sense to you, let's compare two very different, absolute evils:  the Nazi holocaust and American slavery.  While very different, each is certainly evil incarnate; and yet, only slavery in the USA was hypocritical.  In this sense, American Exceptionalism is the opposite of denying our challenges and misdeeds; rather, it is what propels us to overthrow oppression in the very name of our country's best ideals.

      When Martin Luther King expressed his "Dream," he was standing in communication with the great figure of Lincoln seated behind him and referenced the high ideals of the Gettysburg Address, which itself referenced the high ideals of the nation's founding.  In America, those of us who fight for the continuing dream of social justice don't feel we're fighting against our country: we very, very strongly feel we are fighting FOR it, and use the language of our founding to make the point.

      Think of it this way: there's a "Hard" and a "Soft" vision of American Exceptionalism.  The "Hard" version gives us the right to act wherever and however we please in the rest of the world in defense of our self-interest - and its proponents may believe that this right devolves to us from God.  Obviously, it's a troubling view.

      The "Soft" version holds that our extraordinarily privileged station on the planet and our Constitution may well come with a sense of righteousness, but more importantly with a sense of responsibility in the world.  Our democracy, our wealth, and our might create a unique ability to act for the betterment of the world.  Again, the obvious violations of this idea from the Mexican War to Vietnam to Iraq to torture to segregation and so on and on are, well, obvious; but we can also create a list that includes the creation of most of the great movements for social justice in the past 150 years, the defeat of fascism, the creation of the United Nations, and lots more.

      Those of us - I do put myself in this camp - who do hold some "soft" idea of "American Exceptionalism" aren't deterred by our history, but spurred on by it, and believe that we must help our nation to be that unique force for a better world that we are capable of.

      If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace. Thomas Paine

      by WestCider on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 07:49:19 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yes, your answer was very good (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        and informative. It made me think and reflect on that 'exceptionalism', wether the soft or hard version. Personally my vision on my country would go for a soft 'soft-approach', just between 'patriotic' and 'love for my country' ;-)

        Thank you again for your effort the enlighten me.

        'We're all flying backwards into the Future'

        by Upie on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 08:44:18 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Wow, taking enough credit? :Þ (5+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Upie, Major Kong, achronon, VTCC73, mythatsme

        " but we can also create a list that includes the creation of most of the great movements for social justice in the past 150 years, the defeat of fascism, the creation of the United Nations, and lots more."

        Really?  That was all America's doing?  

        Defeating the Nazis: No, by the numbers, the European Theater battle was "Germany vs. the Soviet Union, plus miscellaneous other participants".  Overwhelmingly the European Theater was those two combattants.  The Soviets alone lost as many soldiers just in the Battle of Kursk than the US lost in the entire European Theatre during all of World War II combined.  The hardware numbers are as staggeringly "Germany vs. the USSR" as the casualty numbers, too.

        Creating most of the great movements for social justice: Is that a joke or are you serious?  Really, of all the world's countries, America can take credit for their movements for social justice?  Just, wow.

        Creation of the United Nations: Well, Roosevelt came up with the name, but the intent of its creation was multilateral.  The concept was discussed in the Moscow and Tehran conferences by the Allies during WWII.  The primary structure was laid out by negotiators from China, the UK, the USSR, and the US in the Dumbarton Oaks conference.  They were refined at the Yalta conference.  50 nations then met to organize the details, with all of the security council countries having to sign off on it (of which the US was just one of five) and at least half of the other nations.

      •  There is every reason for Americans to be afraid (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Upie, gffish, lotlizard

        and for other countries to be afraid of America too.  We were once a friendly and generous land which welcomed immigrants (except Irish Catholics, Asians, and whomever else we were blaming for our self-induced ills at the time).  We have become narrow-minded, often cruel, and extremely violent against immigrants and often innocent children.  We are armed to the teeth as a government and as individuals, and we seem to be willing to use weapons against our next-door neighbor as well as countries who get in the way of corporate free-market fanatics anywhere in the world.

        We have no inherent privileged station in the world except for that which we give ourselves.  Our sense of righteousness is just self-righteousness.  We may say we act for the betterment of the world, when we really act for the bankers and corporations.  Monied interests have dominated American foreign military policy since the end of World War II.  The danger is the every growing move toward becoming a fascist country in which the corporate and political sectors merge under the guise of a fanatic nationalism.

  •  Whenever I hear that Americans are "exceptional" (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    akze29, DuzT, kat68, commonmass, achronon

    I think of something completely different, as Dana Carvey used to say, aren't we "Special".  

  •  As I use to say, (6+ / 0-)

    the only thing exceptional about the USA is it's and it's inhabitants exceptional need to tell itself/themselves how exceptional it is/they are.

    Dissolve Israel; stop distinguishing between jew and non-jew in Palestine.

    by high5 on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 02:49:43 AM PST

  •  I would say we are exceptionally deluded... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    commonmass, YucatanMan

    about so many things.  Particularly ourselves.

    I can see Canada from my house. No, really, I can.

    by DuzT on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 03:53:08 AM PST

  •  Interesting choice of diaries. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Was it just coincidence that you posted this diary not long after I posted the diary Icelandic Exceptionalism, as a contrast to American Exceptionalism?  If so, neat coincidence!

  •  There is some truth to the strange situation (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ybruti, achronon, LamontCranston

    America found itself in at the time of the War of Independence. However, I would beg to differ that the country knew no Feudalism. The plantation system was essentially feudal. Sharecropping certainly is feudal. While they were not, in the main, ennobled people (though what about Lord Baltimore?) the masters of plantations were essentially feudal Lords.

    To suggest that we are a "classless" society is also in error, of course. It is very much in evidence that we are. But it is true that America is a little different, but it's also not THAT different. Like Europeans, we have a history of armed conquest of territory, genocide and apartheid. The "heirs of Cromwell" as I like to call the Puritans were so extreme in their religious and social views that they were no longer tolerated in their home country. I think it is worth noting that the history of New England is essentially based on radical religion, intolerance, and social conservatism. Of course, New England no longer looks that way for the most part, but it IS its history at least in part.

    I recommend to everyone who is engaged in this conversation to read David Hackett Fischer's "Albion's Seed". It will explain a lot about who we are today in looking at where we come from.

    What is truth? -- Pontius Pilate

    by commonmass on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 05:21:17 AM PST

  •  Nicely put (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    achronon, marsanges, gffish

    We never seem to tire of patting ourselves on the back.

    A little humility might go a long way.

    If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

    by Major Kong on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 09:55:37 AM PST

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