I just stumbled on a Michael Kinsley column from election day, and he talks about something that has mystified me for quite some time:
The notion that America and Americans are special, among all the peoples of the earth, is sometimes called “American exceptionalism.” Because of our long history of democracy and freedom, or because we have a special mission to spread these values (or at least to remain a shining example of them), or because of our wealth, or because of our military strength, our nuclear arsenal, our wide-open spaces, our pragmatism, our idealism, or just because, the rules don’t apply to us. There are man-made rules like, “You can’t start a war without the permission of the United Nations Security Council.” We’ve gotten away with quite a bit of bending or breaking of that kind of rule. This may have given us the impression that we could ignore the other kind of rules —the ones that are imposed by reality and therefore are self-enforcing. These are rules such as, “You can’t have good ice cream without fat” or “You can’t borrow increasing amounts of money indefinitely and never pay it back, because people will eventually stop lending it to you.” No country is special enough to escape these rules.
This conceit that we’re the greatest country ever may be self-immolating. If people believe it’s true, they won’t do what’s necessary to make it true.
That’s it in a nutshell. The notion that sure, we have a few little snags here and there, but we’re America dammit, and we’ll rise to the top again just because of our sheer awesomeness. The basic structure is sound, because, well, it’s America and we’re the best country in the world.
But if we’re the best country in the world, why is the rest of the developed world leaving us behind on education? Why do they get so much more value for their health care dollars than we do?
Why is our infrastructure crumbling while millions of Americans are desperate for jobs? Why are our mortgage and derivatives markets almost completely lawless? Why was the response to the Katrina and Deepwater Horizon disasters so pathetic? Why haven’t we been able to bring order and self-sustaining democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan after seven-plus years?
Why is our government so helpless and gridlocked and compromised that it’s no longer able to effect real change, but can only nibble around the edges of problems in corporate-friendly ways? Why are our elections almost always decided by monetary superiority instead of policies and ideas? Why does our media present fluff, talking points, horse-race coverage and he-said/she-said false balance instead of investigative reporting and in-depth analysis?
If we’re the best country in the world, why are we such a dysfunctional basketcase? And why are we not only okay with that, but proud of it?
(Note: The list of whys could be a lot longer, but I tried to avoid bugs that get mistaken for features, i.e., income inequality, torture, marriage inequality, restrictions on reproductive choice, etc, etc.)