Monday, September 10, 2012

Is American Exceptionalism a Generational Thing?

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Not too long ago, I tweeted out a blog post from Gary Shapiro, President and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, in which he argues in favor of something that's come to be known as "American Exceptionalism." Despite a number of recent shortcomings, Shapiro seems to be saying, America is still the greatest country in the world. In my tweet, I offered up the following observation:

By which I meant to say, if America is truly exceptional, why does it have so many problems that need fixing?

Now, I've been thinking a lot more about American Exceptionalism since that tweet--and the rhetoric offered at the two recent major party political conventions has given me plenty of grist for that mill. And what I want to do now is not argue for or against the concept, but simply ask, is American Exceptionalism a generational thing?

Shapiro's post links to a much-watched YouTube clip from the HBO series The Newsroom, in which a 57-year-old Jeff Daniels tears apart an actress playing a 20-year-old college student who has the temerity to ask what makes America the greatest country in the world. Now, that's theater, I know. It's designed to call attention to itself and make someone money. But what strikes me as odd about it is that far more often in the reality I live in, it is the 57 and older crowd who seem to be the most vocal defenders of the idea of American Exceptionalism. Indeed, even Daniels's character pivots at about the two-minute mark and begins waxing poetic about how great America used to be, about how it used to stand and fight for things that mattered, about how exceptional it used to be. It's enough to make a Baby Boomer cry.

It seems to me that it is members of the younger generations who have more often than not gotten over this thing called American Exceptionalism, especially its most rabid form, in which a believer must agree that not only is America exceptional, but that it is the most exceptional country in the history of the world. And it's not just us increasingly crotchedy Xers. It's Millennials, too. Both of us, I would say, are more concerned with how we're going to solve the problems our nation faces, and less with whether or not we can continue to think of ourselves as a beacon to the rest of the world.

And that's ultimately the point I want to make. I'm not arguing that America isn't exceptional. There are many aspects of it that I think clearly are. But given the challenges we face, what utility does the idea of American Exceptionalism have? Why does it matter? How will it help us fix what ails us?

The older generation will likely claim that it will inspire us and help us achieve more than we may have thought possible. But I don't think the younger generation believes that. American Exceptionalism inspires Boomers because it reminds them of a time when they seemed to own the world, when the world seemed to revolve around their hopes and dreams. And its decay scares them because it hearkens to a time when they will no longer be in control and when they will no longer matter. But to Xers and Millennials, the idea of American Exceptionalism too often clouds what they see as an essential reality. That the mental frames with which the members of the older generation confront the world no longer serve the interests of those who will be here after they are gone.

Is America the greatest country in the world? Maybe. But I'd rather ask why it is so important for us to think that it is.

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