America is not exceptional. Or at least the positive expected consequences of the qualities one might point out as exceptional are not a given. Yes, our founding fathers demonstrated a remarkable capacity to learn from the mistakes of others. They looked at the upheavals that brought the western world to that point and decided that this country needn’t go through the French Revolution to learn the lesson of the French Revolution, that we could just take the principals of the Magna Carta without having to reinvent it all from scratch. And in the broad strokes of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they did pretty good for white men. Of course they made their own mistakes: slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, exclusion of women from the list of people with rights, but working with what they had and the history they had to work with, they came up with a pretty flexible, flawed system that has both allowed and stymied improvement in our understanding of freedom, liberty, and the right to pursue happiness.
What is not exceptional about America is that we’re still people, still subject to the same elements that have flattened other empires. Hubris. Infighting. Focusing on small enemies when large enemies threaten. Inequality. Imbalance.
(A wise dictator would take note of the prevalence of hubris in the downfall of dictators everywhere, and would adjust accordingly. No other single quality can account for more fuck ups and epic downfalls than hubris.)
The moral high provided by the winning of World War II has lasted a long damn time. The self-perception of being the good guys, Captain America always on the side of the just and the moral and the good, hasn’t stayed tied to the hard work and sacrifice associated with the side of the just and the moral and the good. Yes, we could acknowledge that we had made our mistakes, but we could also point the the part where we were remedying those mistakes, if in a slow, meandering fashion. We ended Jim Crow. We took care of our elderly. We made sure the kids could eat. We elected a black president. For some of us, the trajectory towards inclusion and fairness and decisions that considered second- and third-order effects wasn’t nearly dramatic enough, but we were on the optimistic trajectory.
Or we thought we were.
And that was a delusion borne of arrogance. This idea that we would be the ones to see it through, a re-defined city on the hill giving the world a concrete example of what democracy and free speech and the melting pot could do… We are not exceptional. None of us, not even the assholes in charge of the world, are immune to hubris. Empires rise and fall. There is no reason to believe that we alone would carry on in eternal, linear progress. Everything is always changing. Some things are caught in a fast-moving current, others move like tectonic plates, but nothing stays the same. Not permanently. We want the pinnacle in human history: a safe place to live, enough to eat, a long life, stable family, low infant mortality, not too much difficulty, but enough challenge to keep us engaged, no discrimination, meaning in our lives, diversion, shiny things. And we’ve had all of the above. But our blessings came because we were lucky, not special. These things are not guaranteed.
Perhaps it is time we remembered that.