Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why I'm Not An American

I was born in America and have lived here for 21 years. For the most part America has been good to me. However, I find myself growing increasingly frustrated with American self-righteousness.

Let me explain what I mean with a tweet from ex-presidential hopeful, Herman Cain: America is the greatest & most exceptional nation in the world. We got here not because of government but in spite of it. What he's basically saying is that America is better than everyone else. Ever since the end of the Cold War Americans seem to have to adopted this notion that we are the best, most perfect nation in the world, and if any country hopes to be successful they would do well to copy us. When Barack Obama stated that he believed that America was going soft the response was outrage: how dare the president suggest that America has gotten soft. Eric Cantor declared that "America is the greatest nation in the world". All around us there seems to be the myth that America is exceptional: we are the greatest nation in the world and how dare anyone criticize us.

This would be ok (to a certain degree), but the hilarious part is that we arrogantly criticize everyone else, but particularly our friends in Europe as old, creaky, and socialist while secretly engaging the very same activities Europe was pursuing two centuries ago. Europeans felt that by colonizing and conquering "barbaric" tribes in Africa and Asia they were bringing the light of democracy and civilization to these dark places. It is now America's turn. We went into Iraq thinking they would welcome change-we thought we were going to be cheered in the streets. Turns out that once we toppled Saddam Hussein from power the Iraqis just wanted us to leave. They didn't even necessarily want a democratic system like ours, just Hussein out of power. We went into Vietnam thinking they wanted American democracy. We should have known better. The French had just fought a very bloody war with the Vietnamese which ended French rule in the region. How did we honestly think they would welcome another Western power landing its troops and trying to tell them how to run their country? And there are quite a few other instances where we have set up certain rulers in power simply because they hate Communism (or at least say they are democratic) only to find out that they are violent dictators and/or involved with drug lords (Panama). To be clear, America has acted very much like the Europe of the past, and we are quickly discovering that our way of life is not always welcome around the world. America even has the same attitude as the Old Europe: Europeans, in general, went into places like Africa believing that they were making that place better. America has tried to do very much the same. The impression I get is that Americans feel like every country would do well to model itself on the American system of government, and generally become more like America as much as it is possible to be.

Funnily enough, many countries have tried (and failed) to adopt an American system based on the Constitution. Many of those countries have copied the Constitution word for word only to find that it doesn't work for them. America may not be exceptional, but it is unique. We have a unique history, and one thing that makes us unique is that we were heavily influenced by European Enlightenment thinkers and we had strong leaders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. They wrote a document that was flexible, and alterable to further unique situations. They were forward looking men who broke strict adherence to the Constitution when they saw an opportunity for America to advance. Thomas Jefferson once said, when deciding whether or not to purchase Louisianna from France, that "to lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written laws would be to lose the law itself". What all this adds up to is that America has far too many traditions that make it unique for any country to copy to the letter. No nation could possibly hope to succeed with our system without being able to understand it, and alter it where necessary to fit their unique situation. That does not mean that America is perfect or that other nations have no hope of becoming as great as we are.

The problem with convincing ourselves that we are exceptional is that we have a tendency to overlook our own faults and shortcomings, or to downplay them as not so bad afterall. As I stated earlier America has acted very assertively towards other nations even when they have not wanted us to, and we have made our fair share of disastrous mistakes. It also means that we blind ourselves to what the rest of the world has to offer. Sure, America does not need to copy anyone else's model or system, but we can still learn from them, tweak it to fit within our system, and apply it. Unfortunately we have convinced ourselves that we do not need to learn from the rest of the world; we're perfect, or we'll find the perfect system from within our own precedents. Let me end on a quote from Alexander Hamilton who said, "Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?" We are not perfect yet, and far from it. And America will have to learn from the rest of humanity if it wants to have any hope of survival. When we convince ourselves that we are better than they are we set ourselves up for failure, and the world will gloat over our decaying empire.

Another point of dissatisfaction I feel compelled to point out is that when I tell people I would like to move to the U.K. someday they ask why in the heck I would want to do that. They don't stop there either. When I point out some of the advantages to living in the U.K. and just my general interest in the place they tell me I can just get the heck out of here; I'm not wanted. It is often people like that who make me all the more anxious to leave. If that's the attitude of Americans towards other Americans wanting to move abroad-especially if they feel that they could have a better life-then I say good riddance!

Now, on balance I think America has done some great things; things worth praising. We've helped eradicate AIDS from some African villages, and this is under the same president who pre-emptively invaded Iraq for fear they had nuclear missiles. We have, under the Marshall Plan, prevented Greece and Turkey from falling to Communism. Under that same plan we helped rebuild France and Britain after World War 2. In the course of over 200 years we have created a society which is generally tolerant of all beliefs, races, and opinions. We don't have a government that attempts to censor criticisms of politicians, and certainly not on the scale that Syria and Libya have tried. We have wrestled with the issue of slavery, and ultimately declared that it is a calumny that we ever engaged in the practice. And ultimately we have provided a society that the world wants to emulate without being told they have to emulate it.

I also would like to say that I do not want America to fail. In fact, I want to see America succeed because when America succeeds it boosts everyone around the world. Not only that, but America is home to around 312 million people all of whom deserve a prosperous life. I would be ashamed if I hoped for America to fall into disrepair while the rest of the world surged ahead. I hope for prosperity for all peoples around the world. My frustration is with what I perceive as American arrogance and self-righteousness. My point here is to point out how negatively that has affected me, and why I feel that it is misplaced.


  1. (1/2)

    Paragraph by paragraph response (not counting intro):

    1st Paragraph: Personally, I dont see a problem with Herman Cain's tweet, or the notion that we should consider ourselves to be the best nation in the world. I believe that in any country, anyone who loves their country should feel they live in the greatest nation in the world (be it in a democracy, socialist state, monarchy, etc). And, if someone truly feels pride in their country I dont see a problem with them thinking others should "do as we do, think as we think." The problem that we run into is when we FORCE our ideologies on other nations (as you reference later).

    2nd Paragraph: I guess the biggest difference I see between what we have done and what Europeans did is that we allowed Iraq to establish their own government, and we have now left at the request of the government we established (In general I have mixed feelings about Iraq, but that is a different story). I has been a while since I had a class in which we discussed Vietnam, but if I remember correctly, a large part of why we stepped in was to try to stop the spread of communism. The idea of why we went their I personally find no problem with, but when it came to the action taken, that is where our leaders made a mistake. We never should have used our military to try to impose our will, we should have worked with the North Vietnamese in an attempt to, at the very least, have a bigger influence on them than the USSR or China. I do agree with you completely about the US putting up leaders who would support us, regardless of their own humanity. Also, I think a lot of people think nations should emulate our system of government because we seem to have this rich history of being THE modern example of a democracy, and, knowing nothing else, I can see how people would not understand how others would not want a the same government as we have.

    3rd Paragraph: I completely agree with pretty much everything said here. Any successful government is only going to be so because of how the country responds and adapts to it. Thus every government in the world should, theoretically, be different even if they are "the same".

    4th Paragraph: I agree with with the first line completely. I dont tend to agree with the idea that we have shut ourselves off from the world around us. I think we often take from other cultures more often then not and instantly change it into something that we call "american". Basically, our lack apparent lack of merging with other cultures is due to us never realizing that what we take is actually from other cultures. I do concede that there are many instances where we overlook things from other cultures because we are so set in certain ways (this may seem to contradict what I said earlier, but I think if we looked at the grand scheme of things, both are in fact true depending on the issue).

  2. (2/2)

    5th Paragraph:Sorry if people have actually told you to "get the heck out of here"... I personally was perplexed as to why (at first) because its a big move in terms of distance from "home" and I never really thought about the idea of moving an ocean away. But, it is wrong that anyone question another person's desire to move solely on personal ideas of perfection of a certain government.

    6th Paragraph: I think that the world wants to "emulate" us in large part do to our success at giving power to people that had never been there before. I dont think its much what we have done as it is the fact that we were able to do it, and survive for 200+ years in a modern world.

    All around, very well written. While I dont agree with you on all points, you do highlight an issue that is currently present in our country. We have strayed too far from what made us a "great" nation, and, while I do believe we should always feel we are the best, we have lost a lot of our reason for believing such. I think that at this point we need to take a step back and re-asses what we feel our place in the world is. If we see ourselves as being the "model" we once were, we might have to accept that at times other nations will not like us because of our desire for the spread of democracy. If, however, we want to allow the world to take to itself, we also have to be ready to face the reality that the world may revert back to what it has been in the past. Either way, where we are currently is probably not the place we wish to be, and should probably work on getting out of it...

    Once again, good job Zach.

  3. I agree that American’s view of Europe changes with the wind (and the issues). For instance, when it came to ousting Saddam, we praised Britain's support, calling them a true friend and partner. Yet, when our "friend" and "partner" is compelled to disagree with us, we discount their views as too liberal or out of touch with reality. Additionally, we rail against socialism and anything that smacks of socialism, as a recipe for sloth and economic catastrophe. Yet we fail to acknowledge the strength, success, and stability of the German, Danish, and Swedish economies. The opinions of those with whom we share this planet should matter, and matter deeply.

    With that said, escaping what you do not like in the belief that the grass will be greener on the other side of the fence is the wrong reason to move. Grass is rarely any greener when you view it up close every day. This is not to say that climbing over the fence cannot be instructive- just not any better.

    You have a good head on your shoulders and the ability to write with thoughtfulness and passion. If you are unhappy with the status quo, go explore, but come back and harness your talents and energies to facilitate change on this side of the fence.

  4. Dwayne, I agree with your first paragraph entirely. However, I am not looking to move to the U.K. simply to escape "what I do not like". As a friend pointed out to me in church today the Brits may not exactly welcome me with open arms and they may remind me constantly that I am an outsider. I am willing to tolerate that because I want to live there.

    Bryce, I am not going to comment on your response point by point, but suffice to say that if I do not comment on one point or another I either agree with it or have nothing to add. In your first paragraph I would agree that Americans should consider themselves great (and currently they will still find much to brag about), but the notion that you, or I, or they are great shouldn't come with a condescending attitude toward everyone else. That is what I see in Herman Cain's tweet.

    I would say that indeed our intent in Vietnam was to stop Communism. However, under the Marshall Plan we propped up a ravaged Europe with American dollars. At first we did this in Vietnam, but eventually stepped in with our military. The biggest problem I have with this is that America was never threatened by the fall of Vietnam to Communism, they are just a tiny country that most Americans at the time had never heard of. I suppose the other thing we never considered was whether or not the Vietnamese wanted Communism.

    In your analysis of my 4th paragraph you say that Americans have not entirely shut themselves off from the rest of the world, and I agree. Where I disagree is that it seems like we adapted other cultures into an American style in the past, but now we are not so open. I think that we have a tendency to disregard many possibilities for us to get back to success because the rest of the world is trying them and to us they look too "un-American".

    You also make a fair point about why others want to emulate us. I too think that America has created one of the freest systems in the world. I just think that in many ways we are losing our place in the world by not helping where help is needed, and "helping" in places where help is not wanted.