Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Exceptional, but which definition?

    From conservative intellectuals to peo-ple who never even think about politics, Americans love the concept that this coun-try is somehow different than, and better than, other countries. It’s time to recognize, however, that American Exceptionalism might not always be what we want.
    Throughout its history, America has met the first definition of exceptional: rare. During the 18th century, the United States’ cultural and political character was unique. In the 19th century, America offered opportunities to own land and start new lives in ways available almost no-where else. By the end of the 20th century, America’s seemingly endless natural re-sources and creative drive made it the richest and most powerful nation on Earth.
    Americans love the second definition in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary: superior. Policy discussions and political campaigns often ask why American lead-ers should consult with or listen to any other leaders. Why should America pay attention to how other countries organize their economies or treat their citizens or collaborate with their neighbors? America doesn’t need to know because America is, by definition, superior.
    Not leaving well enough alone, how-ever, Merriam-Webster moves on to that third definition of exceptional: deviating from the norm: as having above or below intelligence.
    The idea that exceptional may mean worse rather than better is not so comfort-ing, but it’s more realistic. Compared to almost every other industrialized nation, America too often does deviate from the norm in ways that are not superior.
    The World Health Organization ranks the United States 29th in life expectancy, and 40th for infant mortality rates. Austra-lia, France, Japan and Italy treat diseases more effectively. America is superior in rates of obesity and inactivity, and in per-capita health-care spending. In other words, Americans spend more for less than other industrialized countries.
    We are exceptional in other areas, too. We have many fewer vacation days, more deaths from firearms and youth suicides, greater income inequity, and higher rela-tive poverty rates than other countries that look like us economically.
    America is exceptional in all the ways the word can be defined. Sometimes we are better and should be proud of that, but sometimes we are not.
    If we acknowledge that fact, and look for ways to change, we can build real American Exceptionalism rather than arrogantly assuming we are already there.

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