Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
When I hear someone utter the words, ‘American exceptionalism’, what typically comes to mind is the character of Maverick from the 1985 movie, Top Gun. Brash, self-important, charming, and loud. Also, whenever the phrase is used, it's usually in a highly negative context, but more so, applied to those with a conservative leaning in their politics who are associated with loudly touting their national pride.
I’ve come to the conclusion though, and maybe I was just slow on the upkeep on this, that American exceptionalism also applies to those with liberal and progressive leanings as well. Not only that, but it has also become a blind spot through which all Americans are manipulated.
Trevor Noah's response to French criticism of calling the 2018 French World Cup team "African"
Three Fingers Pointing Back at You
I wrote last year that Americans viewing themselves as having a special identity and place in the world was nothing new and applied to both sides of the national spectrum. Over the last few months however it seems to be more and more used to describe rightist ideas like ‘make America great again’ and ‘we are the greatest country in the world’.
Progressives don’t verbally say these slogans and may even deny them, but their ideals and behaviors still manage to convey the same spirit that world citizens are keenly pick up on. Take the recent Black Lives Matter Movement that over the course of a few short months has taken over the streets of several countries and forced them to confront their own pasts with racism. Or LGBTQ rights movement that has been ongoing for over a decade now and their anger at the violent treatment and in some cases, internment of gay people and transgenders. Or the OG of them all, the idea that democracy is not only better than all other forms of government, but should also be the de facto one the world over because it somehow ‘guarantees’ rights and prosperity.
Progressives maybe more ‘woke’ to the faults of America, but they are still just as much bound to them as much as their conservative counterparts. While in Morocco, I was told a story of a American Black man who went to Egypt and while there was told by a guard that,
“Remember you are not Egyptian”.
This sentiment is going to come into more prominence in the mainstream as the upcoming movie, Cleopatra gets going, with its lead, Gal Gadot. Already that movie is becoming a cultural, political, and historical landmine of global proportions, but I digress.
There was also the story of Obadele Kambon, an American academic who moved to Ghana in 2008 after being falsely arrested in the United States. In 2018, he pushed for his university to remove a statue of Ghandi, whom many believed was a racist during his time in South Africa. The BBC quoted his reasoning being,
“If we show that we have no respect for ourselves and look down on our own heroes and praise others who had no respect for us, then there is an issue.”
Yet it must be noted that no one at Ghana reportedly had an issue with the statue for years until Obadele mentioned something, because he found it offensive to his own sense of African pride-a pride heavily influenced by his experience with racism in America and the struggle for Black Americans to regain their racial identity.
Even Trevor Noah, a successful talk show host on America’s Daily Show, was criticized for his joke describing France’s World Cup victory as an “African victory” by French citizens-including its ambassador. The ambassador seemingly going a step further by saying,
“Unlike in the United States of America, France does not refer to its citizens based on their race, religion, or origin. To us there is no hyphenated identity. Roots are an individual reality. By calling them a ‘African’ team, it seems you are denying their French-ness”
I can personally confirm this mentality as genuine among many in France because while I was in Paris in 2010, I had one Frenchman literally say to me,
“In France, it’s France first. Everything else second.”
While Trevor defended his comments live saying that the joke was a celebration of the achievements of Africans becoming Frenchmen and winning the World Cup, that he equally saw no reason to deny the duality of their “African-ness” in exchange for their French identity.
Still, at the same time, I didn't see similar comments elsewhere. Moreover, the French ambassador attributed Trevor’s comment to being an American and not because he himself was African. So it seemed to me that his opinion came from both being African and the progressive, American influence of being loud about your identity.
But in France, they have always placed a high value on national identity, while also cherishing individual freedoms. It all fell under the umbrella of France. And the row seems to imply a French view of Americans as divisive and entitlement based on their divisiveness.
One Foot in the Door
However, American exceptionalism also exists with good reason. While our self-entitlement blinds us to the fact that we are not the only free country in the world and have many levels of hypocrisy, it also stands to reason that many of those other free countries borrow elements of that very exceptionalism into their own governments.
The idea of human rights, while not created by America, has been heavily pushed by Americans since 1945, albeit also subject to its own hypocrisy. France can claim their French-ness all they want, but I still see many of them wearing Levi's Jeans and listening to Michael Jackson and creating their own version of hip-hop that has its roots in New York City. And many of the global organizations, not least of them being the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, heavily rely on American support to run them, both financially and by location.
Many academics credit the end of the first Cold War between America and the Soviet Union to the illegal exportation of American 80's culture. As proven by the number of defections and attempted defections from then-East Germany and the USSR up until 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. Many Americans who are from Eastern Europe and Africa will still disagree with the negative view of our nation's past because they had experienced worse in their home countries.
So there is a nuance to American exceptionalism that even its critics miss. Just as progressives are as tied to American self-entitlement as conservatives, so too is much of the world tied to the influence America has had in their own countries and lifestyles.
The exceptionalism is also oftentimes born as a reaction to a long-time injustice that has been endemic in our society. The big three being racism, sexism, and the different forms of homophobia. While Americans can and do behave like self-entitled little princes and princesses, it initially was at least coming from a good and understandable place. Not trying to deliberately dominate others but just trying to hold on to their own place in the sun.
Sort That Shit Out
2020 has revealed America to be shit show: hyper-sensitive, hyper-divided, and once again two-faced about the very values it espouses to other countries. And this has left it open to easy manipulation by its rivals, who don’t need armies and nukes to beat out America because those are no longer the standard. They just need the internet and the right trigger point to touch off and the rest of the chaos will and has seen to itself. The 2016 elections is the perfect example of this, throwing the country into such a chaotic state, that it’s allies don’t know what to make of it and arguably are starting to see America as unstable and unreliable, despite their ties to it.
In the midst of that chaos too however has been the consciousness to strive for higher ideals rather than just accepting the status quo as inevitable or to let sleeping sins lie. That despite the initial mess that it causes, everyone is using their voice, and for a time at least, not having to worry about violent oppression from the government or our neighbors and civil war-causing coups.
American exceptionalism is not ignorant, conservative brainwashing or dualistic nationalism. It is far more nuanced and grey than anybody in the world gives it credit for. With many elements being ugly and distasteful, while other parts are something of what we all want the opportunity to aspire to be.
© 2020 Jamal Smith