June 14, 2016 | Posted in ASH Online
Many people today can no longer stand the United States. Asides from the traveling businesspeople who I envy, Europeans still predominantly deal with the Americans diplomatically and internationally. And for a country that’s so focused on freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Americans sure have made a mess of countries like Iraq and entire continents like Latin America. Domestically, too, the land of the brave is filled with injustice and prejudice. Just last weekend, the worst mass shooting of modern US history occurred in Orlando, Florida, where 50 people were killed and another 53 injured during a heinous hate crime. Because of these domestic and international headlines, the United States have lost their appeal to many. So whenever I tell someone that I study American Studies and actually do love the USA, I’m suddenly the strange one, and they can’t believe me. Well, I can still believe me, and I wanted to devote my last ASH online article to respectfully explain why.
Pride or Arrogance: American Exceptionalism
In large part, I think the notion of American exceptionalism has become the reason many Europeans cannot take the US seriously anymore, and find the
country distasteful for its arrogance instead. All American Studies students will have encountered this concept: the idea that somehow, the US is unique. Unique in its origins, its people. its way of life, its values, and its place in and role for the world.
The US has used the idea of American exceptionalism both internationally and domestically. Internationally, the Americans have fought wars because they felt their role was to lead the world to democracy. According to many, this American leadership has not worked out so well, and countries and people are left impoverished and under the reign of terrorists still. Domestically, American colonists created their way of living around the idea of becoming a city upon a hill for others to look up to, and still today some cling to the idea of American exceptionalism to explain their pride in being an American.
More than Europeans alone, however, increasingly more Americans have taken issue with this idea of
exceptionalism as well.
The Train Girl: I’m Not Proud to be an American
Two weeks ago, I encountered an American girl in the train while I was enjoying a holiday (not in the land of the free, unfortunately). She was talking to a couple Canadians, who had proudly displayed their maple leaf flag all over their numerous luggage bags. She, on the other hand, showed zero reference points to her American home.
At some point in their conversation, our beloved Donald Trump came up. The Canadians didn’t feel too troubled by the presidential candidate, but were nevertheless amused by the many Americans who wish to migrate to their northern neighbor the moment Trump becomes President. The American girl, however, was not amused at all. She looked as if Trump had personally joined their conversation, right there and then, and she was ready to give him a piece of her mind. At that point, precisely because I found her to be so right, I couldn’t contain a small laugh, and she noticed and took offense to my chuckle instead.
Within mere seconds, she was on a complete rampage. Donald Trump is ruining the country, but even worse than that is the fact that he has so many supporters, she said. His ideas are complete bullshit, practically impossible and conceptually sexist and racist and xenophobic, she said. That so many people choose to vouch for this millionaire, is nothing less than terrifying for someone who will be subjected to the system he may impose, she said as well. But, the girl argued, there’s also a reason so many people support the guy. The United States is a complete trainwreck, she explained. People will come nowhere without great education, but education as an institution is solely based on wealth and prestigious names and only the richest people benefit from it. For those who don’t, life is miserable. Employers exploit their employees and no matter how well they perform, jobs for someone not in the upper class are underpaid. With such a small income, healthy food and drink is too expensive, and crime hazards are around the corner. Even if one doesn’t get shot in a gang-dominated neighborhood, the chances to develop health problems increase with every processed KFC chicken nugget and cup of sugar-loaded soda. At that point, it’s no use anymore to try to become healthy: a healthy lifestyle is simply too costly. But continuing until one ends up in an ambulance, being transported to the hospital because of a heart attack is not a great alternative either: the medical bills will put you in debt for the remainder of your life. Without a head start from birth on, she argued, you’re screwed in America.
America: a Place of Wonders, a Concept to Love
The picture of the United States that the train girl painted was gravely bleak. But I didn’t argue, for I knew that for many Americans, her numbers and figures were in fact reality. But that reality, as much as I do feel for the latest round of victims to this reality in Orlando, has nothing to do with my love for the country, which is based on something else entirely.
I love the United States for its devotion to hope. Its dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. Its dream of mobility, of having that opportunity to build a wonderful life for yourself even if you started out in the slums. For its wonderful people, who build their norms and values around the concepts the country holds so dearly. Those who live for freedom, for a chance to do better, and who build their life and work ethic around the idea that they have control over their own lives. Jean Baudrillard explained that Americans are different from Europeans in that they are not held back by history and by failed revolutions, and that they dreamed an Utopian America before they even crossed the seas. And while the theorist failed to explain a myriad of his ideas and concepts, I do believe, judging from the Americans that I know and love, that he explained this juxtaposition well: instead of thinking what didn’t work before, Americans act, and continue to act in accordance with the idea that they can achieve more, even if the practical world around them makes this fight harder and harder. This fascinates me forever, and perhaps that is where American exceptionalism can truly be found: the total juxtaposition between between the outer world and the inner mind, and how instead of finding this forever crippling, Americans have turned this into a commitment and a type of faith. So, as my sincere thoughts go out to the victims of the reality in that nation overseas, I too want to keep on believing in those concepts of freedom, of mobility, of happiness. I too want to keep hope.
Lobke van Meijel