NY Times writer Scott Shane takes a look at American Exceptionalism through the prism of our politicians. Its an interesting, if rather stilted piece painting American Exceptionalism as some kind of opiate of the masses.
Shane writes the following:
The roots of this American trait are often traced to the famous shipboard sermon the Puritan lawyer John Winthrop preached on his way to help found the Massachusetts Bay Colony nearly five centuries ago.“We must consider,” he said, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill — the eyes of all people are upon us.” Winthrop’s metaphor has had a long life in American speechifying, prominently quoted by both President John F. Kennedy and Reagan. But if, for Winthrop, the image was something the colony should aspire to, for modern politicians it is often a boast of supposed accomplishment, a way of combating pessimists and asserting American greatness, whatever the facts.
The reality is that the idea of American Exceptionalism was created in Europe (its how people were convinced to come here!). Winthrop had the above idea in his head before he arrived and he was not alone. Europe was not democratic or free at that time and people needed something to believe.
The article offers some insights into the idea, but seems to take the tone that the US is not exceptional and that areas of weaknesses should be talked about as much as areas of strength.
Another really interested tidbit at the end is about a Professor who has started a blog/website dedicated to providing data to counter his students beliefs in American Exceptionalism. I will have to check it out. Again, from Scott Shane of the NY Times:
Of course, the reason talking directly about serious American problems is risky is that most voters don’t like it. Mark Rice, who teaches American studies at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., said students often arrived at his classes steeped in the notion that the United States excelled at everything. He started a blog, Ranking America, to challenge their assumptions with a wild assortment of country comparisons, some sober (the United States is No. 1 in small arms ownership) and others less so (the United States is tied for 24th with Nigeria in frequency of sex).
“Sure, we’re No. 1 in gross domestic product and military expenditures,” Mr. Rice says. “But on a lot of measures of quality of life, the U.S. ranking is far lower. I try to be as accurate as I can and I avoid editorializing. I try to complicate their thinking.”
All that said, not everything that matters can be measured and not everything that can be measured matters.