Chan Lowe: Yes, we are exceptional

PITTSFIELD — One of the curiosities of the American psyche that both vexes and amuses foreigners is our tenacity in believing that our country is exceptional among all other nations, as well as in the eyes of history. We Americans are all safe-keepers of the American myth — that we are a nation founded on principle rather than common language or ethnicity, that we enjoy a political system that enshrines the rights and liberties of individuals above the authority of the state, and all the other stuff that we used to learn in civics class back when schools still had enough money to hold civics classes.

Pride vs. chauvinism

Ordinarily, that kind of national pride is harmless when expressed as symbols on clothing, standing during the anthem or cheering one's athletes on at the Olympics. It becomes dangerous in its more chauvinistic form, when used to justify acts that we would condemn if committed by other countries.

Foreigners like to remind us that some of those same enlightened scholar/statesmen who wrote our sacred Constitution were also slaveholders. Even Adolf Hitler, when scolded by America for his invasion and assimilation of Western Europe, alluded to the taking of lands that had belonged to Native Americans for millennia as an example of our self-righteous hypocrisy. As for us, we sanitize our rape of the American West euphemistically: terms like "westward expansion" and "manifest destiny" were invented to fit into the narrative we so carefully crafted to elevate ourselves to the pinnacle of human compassion and decency.

On the flip side, let's look at the Marshall Plan, which Winston Churchill famously dubbed "the most unsordid act in history." Learning from our mistakes after WWI, when overly punitive measures against Germany created the conditions for peace to fail a mere 21 years later, we opted after the second war to fund an economic round-robin that resulted in the reconstruction of a devastated Europe. America fully included its former enemies among recipients of its generosity, and a stable Europe owes its prosperity today to its brash cousin from across the seas.

Lately, our great nation has stumbled. For complex reasons (most of them negative) we have chosen to be led by a president who either ignores or openly defiles the ideals we hold dear. His "America First" nativism has resulted in our isolation on the world stage. Disgruntled Americans who feel alienated, ignored and disrespected by a government that is supposed to be of, for and by them have become susceptible to demagoguery and simplistic solutions to complex, intractable problems.

For such disillusioned members of our populace, there is a disconnect between the myth and reality: If America is so great, why isn't my life, or my family's life, great as well? In order not to rip the precious myth of our exceptionalism wide open, we must blame a malefactor — preferably somebody from another tribe. Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, Jews, Asians, immigrants, gays — you name it.

Pandora's box

Of course, this doesn't just happen by itself. Americans, much as they would like to deny it, harbor indelible strains of racism and xenophobia. In good times, social convention keeps them dormant, or at least out of sight. When the country becomes stressed, all it needs is a demagogue to give it permission to open that Pandora's box.

Conversely, a great leader can inspire us to once again gaze upon the promise that was our Founding Fathers' legacy to future generations. What really makes America great is that, collectively, we do retain the concepts embodied by our Constitution as goals — never to be reached, maybe, but always to be striven for. Like all nations, we have feet of clay. Like all proud nation-states, we suffer from excessive hubris that blinds us to our faults.

In instances when that leader emerges, however, we have proved throughout our history that we can respond to that inspiration with an enthusiasm and industriousness that are the envy of the world.

Chan Lowe is the deputy editorial page editor of The Eagle and a syndicated editorial cartoonist.


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