Words are important. Even though ‘sticks and stones may break my bones…’ still, words can harm me also. Nothing is simple.
The word I am thinking about is exceptionalism. Or to be more exact, I am thinking about the phrase ‘American exceptionalism.’ What an awful harmful statement. But a statement, we think if we repeat often enough, will become true.
Here’s the definition of Exceptionalism:
Exceptionalism is “the perception that a country, society, institution, movement, or time period is “exceptional” (i.e., unusual or extraordinary) in some way and thus does not need to conform to normal rules or general principles.” (from Wikipedia’s free encyclopedia)
Let’s consider the first part of that definition in relation to America. Yes, we have been unusual or extraordinary in some ways but so has almost every other country. If we just think about political exceptionalism in terms of who did what toward good government first, the prizes go to Iceland for the Althing and the English for the Magna Carta.
If I were to research a list of who invented the most things or invented something first, my guess is that China would get the prize.
So we will just stick to the present since Barack Obama used the term “American Exceptionalism” not so long ago—to my great dismay. Really Mr. President, did you not check. We are actually so very ordinary.
We are 22nd in the honest, open government category (Transparency International); tied with Germany for 16th place in the Where-to-be-born/Quality of Life Index (Economist Intelligence Unit) and between 14th and 17th in educational achievement (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).
Still waiting for the answer? Where is American deserving of the claim to ‘American Exceptionalism’? Military/weapons/arms, yes undisputed #1. Economy, I think so, but isn’t China about to overtake us?
Oh wait. I googled around a little and I did find some other instances where America is FIRST. The Washington Post’s Wonkblog offers a few examples:
- Making Money, still the largest economy according to this list.
- Number of people per 100,000 population incarcerated.
- Making new parents work or lack of paid parental leave.
- Paying lots of money for health care—yay for us.
- Number One. Almost one gun per man, woman and child in the U.S. I am so proud.
- Killing people with flying robots/drones.
- Making cheese.
- Most bald eagles
- Military spending… already knew that.
Some more. These from AlterNet, a project of the non-profit Independent Media Institute.
- Most expensive place to have a baby.
- Anxiety disorders.
- Small arms ownership…would this be the same as ‘guns’?
- Most people behind bars. Seen this one before.
- Energy use per person.
- Health expenditures. Yup.
- Cocaine use. Probably part of the reason we’re fat, anxious and in jail.
So, about American Exceptionalism. Yes, indeed, there are some number ones there. And how does the selection make you feel?
The second part of the definition of exceptionalism is the most troubling though. It is also quite probably the reason we keep yammering on about American Exceptionalism—so we do “not need to conform to normal rules or general principles.”
I get it. We are special and can torture-pollute-spend-and-shoot as much as we damn well please. Please let us ban the term ‘American Exceptionalism’ from our vocabulary. You too, Mr. President. You know better.