Time for America to Join the World

America is an exceptional country.
— Sarah Palin

I do believe in American exceptionalism.
— John McCain

When I return from a trip abroad, my friends invariably want to know how people elsewhere view America. It’s different from how we view ourselves.

What’s called “American exceptionalism” claims there is something inherently unique and different about America because we were a younger nation 200 years ago. We are more religious than others, separated from the world due to two oceans, are richer and practice an unusual form of democracy.

“American exceptionalism” believes that our behavior isn’t determined by ordinary rules, morals or judgments that determine the behavior of other counties and people.

Often this notion of exceptionalism manifests itself in a nationalistic love of country, expressed in bumper stickers that read, “God Bless America,” “Proud to be an American,” “Support Our Troops,” and “These Colors Never Fade,” which display an American flag invariably bleached white by the sun. The true nature of these themes go a step farther to reveal an uglier underlying sentiment: “And Just Why in the Hell Do I Have to Press 1 for English,” “Support our Troops: Shoot the Media,” and “America: Bailing out our critics since WWI.”

First used by Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who visited the U.S. in the early 1830s, American “exceptionalism” now has a long history that derives from the United States’ “special role” in the world. Basic concepts developed through historic claims such as Manifest Destiny, the U.S. destiny to rule the continent; “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” Theodore Roosevelt’s policy of threatening European powers who might intervene in South America; and the “American Dream,” the entitlement of every American to own a house and become wealthy or at least well off.

Neocons reverently trumpet the notion that the U.S. can “go it alone.” We have both the right and the duty to operate unilaterally, taking any action in the world that we want with no regard for other countries or the consequences. It sounds nutty in today’s inter-connected world, but after eight years of rule by a fanatical right-wing ideologue, the government swarms with people who share these views.

The U.S. overturned international treaties, denounced the U.N. and international cooperation, except when it’s to our advantage, and our courts now declare noncompliance with legal views routinely accepted around the world. Neocons claim for the U.S. it’s own set of rules and judgments, and special treatment based on national advantage in every field.

Pointing out differences in the historic development of the U.S. is one thing, but using it as a foreign policy doesn’t work. Today the concept of “exceptionalism” is being used to justify a hyper-nationalism that denies a common humanity with the rest of the world, undercuts cooperation and reveals an arrogant disregard for international opinion.

I bring up the concept of American exceptionalism to emphasize one of the main lessons gained from travel-learning about myself, including my culture, politics, values and practices. Once we reach maturity and become responsible for ourselves, it’s time to explore the world and determine fact from fiction. I find that one of the most difficult things about traveling is learning that the way I do things isn’t necessarily the best and it doesn’t work for everyone. This includes politics.

Is it any wonder that two major Republican figures had not traveled outside the U.S. until they ran for office? George Bush and Sarah Palin believe in American exceptionalism, partly because they never traveled and never engaged other cultures on an equal basis. No wonder they espouse culturally myopic views.

There is much to learn from other cultures, including how they care for their citizens. My wife received free or low-cost medical care in other countries where health care is a right, not a profitable business. We discovered that Europeans live to eat, while Americans eat to live, gobbling food in a rush to accomplish more. Europeans work to live and enjoy life, family and friendship, while we live to work and buy things. Europeans judge people by their attitudes and outlooks, while we judge people by their accumulated wealth.

Europeans realize they depend upon each other and must act in a concerted effort.
Are our attitudes a result of a poverty of imagination or a lack of travel? One of our foremost myths is that we lack a class system. How can we ignore our system that’s set up to favor the wealthy and powerful? Or believe in myths that pacify us and perpetuate the status quo? Why do we nominate people like Bush and Palin to govern us?

Obviously, I cannot answer these questions. But traveling allows me to see how others live and govern themselves. While they may have just as many problems, they are often far more advanced and humane in their solutions. One thing is for sure-human values, morality, and characteristics are similar everywhere.

The U.S. is an exceptionally arrogant bully on the world stage today. Voting for McCain and Palin will only perpetuate this kind of exceptionalism; with Obama, it might begin to change.

Don Monkerud is an California-based writer who follows cultural, social and political issues. He is the author of America Unhinged: Politics and Pandemic in the 2020 Election (2021). He can be reached at: monkerud@cruzio.com. Read other articles by Don.

17 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozhidar bob balkas said on October 17th, 2008 at 9:01am #

    but, my dears, there r at least ten americas. and it is the america number uno which is separatist.
    america No. ten is not exceptional. i’m talking ab. prisoners.
    and then there is america No. 8, the indigenes; strange tho they r separatist but w. much less politico-econo-military powers than blacks.
    US like all(?) the other lands can be seen as stratified society.
    at the top strata, we may have only ab 2-10mn people.
    illegal imigrants r not even americans; they appear to be slavo-serfs.
    more cld be said.

  2. Wallace said on October 17th, 2008 at 9:47am #

    This article expresses a common sense view of America in our eyes and the eyes of the world that could be reached even without foreign travel. Any perceptive honest person who is fairly well read could easily reach these conclusions,but we prefer not to.

  3. manitor said on October 17th, 2008 at 12:13pm #

    Obama espouses the same viewpoint as Palin/McCain/Bush with regards American exceptionalism. He wants a new American century. You are deluding yourself into more of the same, Don.

  4. Deadbeat said on October 17th, 2008 at 7:22pm #

    I agree with manitor about Obama and American exceptionalism. What Obama represents is that he is not as ossified as John McCain who is absolutely insane and would be worse than GWB.

    Obama has some symbolism regarding a degree of progress against white supremacy but that is all. What Obama does represent is how the Left allow a vacuum to develop that is now being filled by Obama. The election of Obama is a stop gap whereby the Left needed to do some self assessment and figure out how it is going to organize and influence the working masses.

  5. Hue Longer said on October 17th, 2008 at 8:51pm #

    Exceptionalism is not only limited to, “claims there is something inherently unique and different about America because we were a younger nation 200 years ago. We are more religious than others, separated from the world due to two oceans, are richer and practice an unusual form of democracy”.

    There’s plenty secularist US Americans who believe in a brand of American Exceptionalism which has nothing to do with being 200 years old. There’s also plenty of Europeans and Canadians who feel exceptional even as they point at US exceptionalism while their’s plays out in similar ways .

    JFK believed in American exceptionalism, and Obama too…The compartmentalization of better read, more worldly US Americans is harder to notice because the masses of brainwashed Nationalists look comparatively worse, much less do not understand or are proud of their exceptionalism and would not point out any hypocrisy leveled against them

  6. DavidG. said on October 17th, 2008 at 10:59pm #

    The only thing that is exceptional about America is that is it peopled by sheeple!

    Any nation that could elect Bush ‘TWICE’ obviously has rocks in its head. And the fact that their Constitution didn’t enable them to get rid of him exposes the nonsense that their hallowed Constitution is.

    And any group of people that claim their nation (with all it major problems and its warmongering and imperialism) is the greatest in the history of the world has shit for brains.

    My blog in Australia has more revelations about America!

  7. John Hatch said on October 18th, 2008 at 1:27pm #

    America is exceptionally greedy, arrogant, violent, ignorant, and self-delusional. I hope that its latest antic, trashing the world economy, will finally lead to the worldwide boycott which will reveal whether America can ‘go it alone’. Put that on your bumper sticker.

  8. Max Shields said on October 18th, 2008 at 2:30pm #

    Don Monkerud

    This post is meaningless. Have you not read American History or the speeches of the Dem candidates as well as the Repub?

    Exceptionalism is part of the DNA of the “two party system”.

    The difference? It’s just a matter of who pounds their chest the hardest. The game is the Repubs do a lot of pounding, but in the end, the policies remain in tact – American Empire, first, last. always!!!! Viva the Imperialist Empire!!! Long live the American Corporate Capitalist oligarchy!! Here’s some mud in your eye….

    If, Don, you want to be part of real change than you have to begin by looking elsewhere. Both parties and candidates are pure, through and through exceptionalists.

    (Jezus – for starts read some Zinn will ya!!)

  9. Lloyd Rowsey said on October 18th, 2008 at 10:29pm #

    Re-join the world, actually. There was a long, long time during which the rest of the world, and European countries especially, bought into the American Dream and tried to emulate us. That time is now shattered forever.

    It’s past time America re-joined the world.

  10. bozhidar bob balkas said on October 19th, 2008 at 6:14am #

    well, one cld say that it is a myth that US (or even world) plutocrats have ever left the planet; ie, stopped coveting it or stopped the destruction of socialism, unions, etc.
    now they r (perhaps mostly because of global warming and siberia now looking mighty good and the fact that ‘our’ planet is getting daily poorer) uniting like never before.
    but this class of life had thru ages enslaved/enserfed people. this is no great detection; it was obvious then as it is obvious now.
    the mighty rich r scared like never before.
    ‘our’ planetary goodies r vanishing. and plutocrats hate sharing ‘their’ wealth with- what they think- lazy, uneducated, unmotivated lower classes. thnx

  11. Lloyd Rowsey said on October 19th, 2008 at 6:48am #

    Yeah, bbb, it’s all according to which time-sequence you work with. What’s your opinion on where the dinosaurs fit?

    Has humanity’s inability to deal with geological time – during the 19th century – had a greaer impact than its inability to deal with spatial time during the 20th century – or it’s inability to deal with man’s inhumanity to man during the 20th and 21st centuries?

    We gotta deal with the big shit, right?

  12. bozhidar bob balkas said on October 19th, 2008 at 8:04am #

    wish u were clearer. i don’t mean to bring u up, but i just don’t understand any of ur statements.

  13. Donald Hawkins said on October 19th, 2008 at 9:06am #

    So these plutocrats don’t like sharing the wealth with lazy, uneducated, unmotivated lower classes. Well without us many of them would be sleeping under a bridge.

  14. bozhidar bob balkas said on October 19th, 2008 at 9:41am #

    remeber i said they think of us as lazy,etc.
    i did not say that anyone is lazy, uneducated, etc. thnx

  15. Donald Hawkins said on October 19th, 2008 at 9:52am #

    I reread that and you are right.

  16. Lloyd Rowsey said on October 19th, 2008 at 9:54am #

    bbb, I mean, it’s time for the US to RE-join the world. It was a part of at least the European world since around 1800. Which W. has decided…

    jesus man, do you need ALL the words?

  17. Lloyd Rowsey said on October 19th, 2008 at 10:20am #

    And if you read my first comment, it is directed to the article’s author. Not to you, bbb.

    It’s past time the US re-joined the world.