Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Is Exceptionalism so Exceptional?

My Dear Reader,

I started reading Charles Dickens' novel Little Dorrit after I watched the fantastic adaptation that BBC produced earlier this year. The book, of course, is even better. As I was reading, I came across this quote in chapter 25 (page 322 in the Penguin edition):

"[T]hey had a notion that it was a sort of Divine visitation upon a foreigner that he was not an Englishman, and that all kinds of calamities happened to his country because it did things that England did not, and did not do things that England did."*

Oh, I thought, so these guys are ugly Americans.

You know the stereotype: a fat, pig-like man in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and a fanny pack. At the Acropolis. He has a loud, whiny voice in which he tells his hoggish wife and their piglet children how quaint Greece is, how nice of a picture it will make, and how disappointing it is that the Greeks neglected to make their ancient inscriptions in English. They should have known better. These people are noisy and rude, but the poor native executives put up with them because of their large tips. Meanwhile, farrows upon farrows of piglets in the Homeland are sitting in classes learning that America is the best, that the United States is inherently superior in all respects to all of the afflicted countries in the world. Sounds a lot like Dickens, doesn't it? So the piggish masses aren't strictly American! HA!

Of course, at the time Dickens wrote Little Dorrit, his Britain was a lot like our America, meaning that it was the most powerful country on Earth, and if Dickens' description is correct, they were very much aware of the fact. They thought themselves exceptional, just like those piglet American students. I mean, we definitely see ourselves as exceptional, don't we?
Our founders risked their lives for true principles, which were used to create a system of governance that unleashed true, everlasting freedom on its citizens. That's pretty exceptional, I think. Our way of life, our laws--they're different from everybody else, and we like it the way it is. And maybe, just maybe, other countries would be better off if they had our Constitution, wouldn't they? Well, if Dickens is right, then we're not alone, and though there are a lot of differences between 1800s Britain and our 2000s America, exceptionalism is one thing we definitely have in common. Maybe we didn't invent it, after all.

But exceptionalism is bad, isn't it? It's arrogant, right? Americans get called names because of our exceptionalism on a daily basis, from within as much as without. Those Dickensonian pigs are a prime example of how nasty American-style exceptionalism can be. How dare they think that they're better than everybody else! If they were Educated, and if they knew the Truth about the World and How It Really Is, they wouldn't dare act that way. Pigs.

When I started my first semester of college, I met with a lot of exceptionalism, but it wasn't necessarily the American kind. It was the Virginian kind, and the Nevadan kind, and the Washingtonian kind. I, of course, had brought with me the Californian flavor. Of the forty-four girls on my dorm floor, forty-four of them were quite certain that the states they came from was the best in the Union.** And I liked that. I think it's a good thing to think that your home is a good place, and perhaps, the best place. I mean, we all have our list of complaints, but at the end of the day, we like being where we are, because where we are is exceptional. Right?

Well, I'm tired of being looked down upon because I think that the United States of America is exceptional. Or because I like living here. Sure, I would appreciate it if my fellow Americans would try a little harder to represent the best of their nation when they go abroad, but we all know that we aren't really pig people, we just act like it on a few select occasions. And it's not like every other country in the world doesn't have something to be proud of, or doesn't have any people who occasionally act like pigs. My guess is that the main reason that most countries have a problem with American exceptionalism is that every country sees themselves as exceptional. Because if they didn't, they probably wouldn't mind us and our cultural invasion so much. It's like they're saying, "We take offense to you telling us that you like it your way because we like it our way." And they have the right to feel exceptional, because they are. I'm just sick of being considered part of the unwashed, barbaric, piggy masses because I like my home. Only an arrogant, piggish person would hate me for that, don't you think?

I, for one, think the pigs are just standing on two legs.

Regards, best wishes, and (respectful) home pride,

-Cecily Jane

*To be fair, the actual context of this quote makes the 1800s British sound a lot, lot worse, and I did cherry-pick the quote that best-suited my purpose. But I think it's also fair to say that the entire description that Dickens gives is a sarcastic exaggeration, and that the quote is chose was probably the least exaggerated of the lot.

**Yes, that bad grammar were was intended.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice post, Cec!

I think that national pride is something that varies from nation to nation. Also, I think that pride manifests itself in differnt ways.

For instance, the English tend to be more patriotic about their history than many other nations. They keep a monarchy as a point of national pride even though it's draining the nation's tax money. They pay attention to their national holidays and the goings-on in the government more than the average European does.

The French, on the other hand, tend to pay very little attention to their history or their government. Young French people don't care about Bastille Day. Many of them don't know who Napoleon Bonaparte was. And yet, the French are more than usually chauvenistic about their language, their manners, and often their food.

The practice of teaching children that their nation is the best nation on Earth, however, I think is uniquely American in many ways. Much of this has to do with the fact that the U.S. had a unique government when it was formed. That idea that WE were the one's who invented the "free country" resonates with us. It makes us feel good inside when we say that God blessed this nation to be the greatest nation on Earth. Other coutries who have had longer histories, experienced more wars, and have interacted more with foreigners, are less inclined to proclaim themselves the best.

The U.K. is a bit of an exception as well because of it's blatant attitude of, "We're Europe, but not really, because we're the U.K." I mean, doesn't it raise a few eyebrows that the U.K. agreed to join the E.U., but on the U.K's terms? It's like the U.K. feels like it's doing Europe a favor by joining their club.