If we can learn anything from Vladimir Putin’s otherwise historically revisionist diatribe in the NY Times the other day, it is that we are not the only county who considers itself to be exceptional, all evidence to the contrary.
In the closing to “Lake Wobegone Days”, Garrison Keillor describes his pastoral, mythical town by saying, “Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average. (If the humor in the italicized part escapes you, please do not continue reading. You are not my target demographic, but thanks for playing. Alternatively, click HERE and come back when you’re done). Lake Wobegone is an idyllic metaphor for how the US sees itself.
Virtually every country can point to something in their past or present that makes them ostensibly smarter than the average bear (for those old enough to remember Yogi and Booboo). Greece invented democracy! Central America’s Incas invented math! Russia defeated the Nazis and were (for those who study history objectively) the true victors in the European theatre in WWII. The Chinese are the world’s oldest culture. India once ruled the world. Portugal ruled the seas, until Spain ruled the seas, until England ruled the seas, etc. Everyone has a reason to exclaim that they are the skinniest kid at fat camp, including the USA.
Now, to be clear, I really like the USA. I like living here. It’s a good place to raise a family, start a business and enjoy free speech. But there are lots of other places that are equally as good. I live here because it’s where I was born and where my family lives. Plus, I speak the language kinda OK.
That having been said, nationalist deltoid flexing is the most childish way of categorizing a country. If our self-worth is tied up in how “exceptional” we are, then we will forever be chasing whatever definition is tied to that ridiculous word. The problem is that the word is really not very well defined. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s try some, shall we?
If exceptional means that we’re good at winning wars, let’s hope no one brings up Vietnam or Korea.
If exceptional means that we have the best health-care, let’s ignore infant mortality, old age longevity and per capita health care expense.
If exceptional means that we can overrun any country on earth without breaking a sweat, let’s not discuss Iraq and Afghanistan.
If exceptional means being richer per-capita than any other country, let’s hope no one brings up Norway, Switzerland, Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Canada and four or five others.
If exceptional means we spend more money on the military and have more nukes than the next ten countries combined-OK, you got me there. But that just means that we’re special because we own stuff that kills people.
I’ve got lots more, but I’m hoping I’ve made my point.That point is, when your mom tells you that you’re the cutest, smartest and best-behaved kid in your school, it’s OK to go to bed content in the knowledge that you are. But if you think that you are the only one who has ever been told those things by a doting mother, if you think that all your playmates got the memo from your mom and believe that only you, not they, are supremely gifted, smart and cute, a.k.a. exceptional, then you are exceptional
Telling ourselves how exceptional we are is like an actor awarding himself an Oscar. You can’t be less objective than to judge yourself better than others. Everyone thinks themselves smart, good looking, good in bed, objective, fair, reasonable, etc. Everyone thinks that all their children are above average.
It is that very assumption, however, that ignorance of anything which happens outside of our little family, our little neighborhood, our little nationality, which often reveals exactly the inverse.