For a long time, I didn’t like the term “American Exceptionalism.” I would wince when I heard someone use the phrase. To me, it sounded jingoistic and arrogant. I felt, in many ways, that it was an empty boast. I don’t think that one group of humans is genetically superior to another, so I didn’t buy into the idea that Americans had some sort of pre-programmed inside track to greatness.
I have come to realize that I was wrong. No, Americans aren’t genetically superior, but there is something unique, special, even exceptional about America and what it allows its citizens to become. As I rekindled a dormant interest in human history, I was reminded that the United States has been one of the few places on Earth that has codified freedom. Whereas most humans who’ve walked this planet have suffered under the rule of tyrants, for almost 250 years, Americans have been free to make their lives as they want, and, in so doing, they’ve made a great country. Great leaps in technology, knowledge, and industry have allowed the highest standard of living in human history. All are products of individuals made free to pursue their own dreams and permitted to reap the rewards of dreams realized.
No, America hasn’t been perfect. Not every American has been as free as he or she should have been. Wrongs have been done, even grievous injustices at times. Still, Americans have wrestled with those injustices and their own participation in them. Our nation has, for the most part, moved toward more freedom for more people, not less. That in itself is one of the things that has made the nation exceptional.
Additionally, I believe that American Exceptionalism has been not just because of the freedom provided to its citizens, but also because of its culture. Some of the virtues that helped make America strong –an enduring work ethic, a willingness to be part of self-government, the impulse to do right by others – did not arise from our civil government. Rather it was the underlying culture that made our form of government possible. Sadly, we have witnessed the failure of democracy to thrive in cultures that are not so constituted.
I am concerned about the loss of patriotism in our country, the thought that American isn’t something special, that being an American isn’t something in which we should take great pride. I place much of the blame on the erosion of our culture. Postmodernism has taught us that all cultures are equal, and that has caused us to doubt ourselves. For several decades we’ve tended to focus on our failures rather than our triumphs. Corruption and abuse of power by officials in government have produced a deadening cynicism and despair that weighs down the hopes of freedom. I fear if we continue on this path for another decade, we will have completely lost sight of what America is.
My challenge to Americans and to myself is to refocus on the idea and ideals of our great country. We must rekindle the flames of passion for freedom and for the potential of every citizen. We won’t get it perfect, but we will do it better than every other country. We must rescue our culture. We must champion the virtues of self-reliance, personal responsibility, and common decency. If not for ourselves, let’s do it for our children and the generations to come. History will judge our generation by whether we succeed or fail.