The American Exception
From the Goucher Quarterly, Fall 2004
It is hard to imagine there are any Americans left who are not exhausted from, and at least a bit uncomfortable with, this year’s presidential campaign. Beginning with the primaries and the caucuses, through the conventions, and on into the bruising, bloody autumn, it has been rather difficult to claim that this was the world’s greatest democracy in action – a model to be bragged about and emulated throughout the world. Vicious television ads, forged documents, legislative trickery, and manipulation of the fear of terrorism: Is this really what we had in mind?
Almost a century ago, Woodrow Wilson—university president, governor, public statesman poised to become a national and international leader—enunciated the widely held view that “every nation of the world needs to be drawn into the tutelage of America.” This was perfectly consistent with the long-held belief that our country enjoyed a certain “exceptionalism.” It was different from everywhere else, this theory maintained, a magnificent experiment that combined the best features of other societies with a rugged determination that grew only from our soil. It was not that way for every American, mind you—not hardly—but enough so that waves of people were willing to come take their chances. My own father did so, as a boy of fifteen, venturing forth from his village in rural Hungary in 1910, right around the time that Wilson was fine-tuning his message.
To be sure, there is still much that is exceptional, admirable, and uniquely inspiring about American life. The USA Patriot Act and other such panic-inspired limitations on our civil liberties notwithstanding, we are probably able to express ourselves more freely today than the citizens of any other nation in the world. For most of us, there are no knocks on the door in the middle of the night, no threats to take us away to answer for our thoughts or inclinations. Where we start out in life does not, for the most part, determine where we may end up. Access to education and enlightenment is generally broad and unimpaired.
But our capacity to carry out Wilsonian “tutelage” around the world is severely compromised. After the fiasco of the 2000 presidential election—when, in the manner of a banana republic, the results were not really known for weeks—there is little confidence, at home or abroad, that we will necessarily get it right this time. A patchwork quilt of election laws, procedures, and regulations leaves open endless possibilities for fraud and manipulation, not to mention the potential exclusion of legitimate voters. The voting methods and machines themselves are now suspect. We face the startling (some might say humiliating) prospect of having international observers, from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and from a group called Global Exchange, come to the United States to monitor the freeness and fairness of our national election. Team members from South Africa, Wales, and other places, fresh from supervising elections in, for example, Cambodia, will be here to watch what we do, instead of just listening to what we say we do.
People all over the world now have many sources other than the American government and media from which they may learn about what is happening in the United States (some admittedly far more reliable than others). There are countless cable and satellite television channels, community-based radio stations, and Internet sites and services describing events in this country for international consumption. English-language news can be heard around the clock on stations supported by the governments of, among others, Japan, Australia, Germany, and Britain. Ironically, while the number of news outlets outside the United States has grown rapidly in recent years, American outlets abroad have been greatly diminished. The American government-financed or -subsidized libraries that used to exist in capitals around the world—as places where a great diversity of sources could be consulted—have, for the most part, disappeared in post-Cold War cuts in the foreign policy budget. The Voice of America (an institution I led for two years before coming to Goucher) has recently been forced by its board of governors to cut back worldwide standard-English broadcasts from 24 to 14 hours a day.
It should come as no surprise, then, that what listeners, viewers, and readers around the world learn about us these days does not always coincide with our national myths. Our politicians’ boasts about the perfections of the American system have fallen on increasingly deaf international ears. When President George W. Bush lectured university students in Beijing in February 2002 about the values of American democracy, it was easy to imagine a CNN-style crawl underneath him, providing the latest details of the scandals inside Enron and MCI and other renegade U.S. corporations.
Meanwhile, our own media are outraged when they are found to be lacking in insight, or just plain wrong. A particularly glaring example occurred recently when the voters in a poor section of Washington, DC, defied the pundits’ confident predictions and overwhelmingly selected their widely discredited former mayor, Marion Barry, for the Democratic nomination to a seat on the capital’s city council. That a great deal of political activity and passion flies under the radar of the mainstream media and other institutions should be cause, it seems to me, for some worry and, at the very least, a bit of humility.