A Shining City on the Hill

Alternate title: The Myth of American Exceptionalism

I’m a patriot.  I love my country.  But that doesn’t blind me to its flaws.  Our history is irrevocably stained by slavery, and our treatment of minorities and women in general.  Our food is meh.  Our politicians have been incompetent for years, and only recently have become funny.  Our standing in the world, by many measures, isn’t great.  Infant mortality, maternal mortality, lifespan, freedom of speech and the press, aren’t great.  There are a half a dozen countries that beat us.  Our armed forces are only so-so.  How many wars that we were involved in did we actually win?  Russia did the heavy lifting during World War 2.  England did during World War 1.  The War of 1812 was essentially a draw, as was the Korean War.  We outright lost the Vietnam War.  We did manage to beat Iraq, but then we had to go and do it again as we didn’t finish the first time, and the second time we won more solidly, and managed to destabilize most of the world as a result.  In other words, we’re not great.

So if that’s the case, why do so many people want to come here?  Why do American movies do so well in other countries, yet foreign films are entirely ignored here?  As Americans, we tell ourselves that we are just better than other countries.  The facts don’t bare that out, but something is appealing to the rest of the world.  So what could it be?

Part of it is a historical accident.  After World War 2 the US and the Soviet Union were the only two countries in the industrialized world not completely destroyed.  As such, we had funds to grow and expand our influence, as we didn’t have to spend all our money rebuilding ourselves.  The myths we spread about ourselves had value.  We kept telling people that we were the land of the free and the Soviet Union wasn’t.  I don’t know how true that was, but it doesn’t matter.  We kept repeating it, and people believed it.  But those aren’t the real reasons.  It’s simpler than that.

The real reason we’re admired by so much of the rest of the world is that we’re rich.  We can print the money that the rest of the world needs.  Things like freedom of speech and freedom of religion mean nothing if there’s no money there.  If I told you that you were severely limited in what you could choose to do with your life, but that you’d have a relatively easy time building a comfortable life with a happy family, would you take it?  I think that modern American society proves that you would.  There are places in the world with greater freedoms, but it’s harder to build lives there.  The myth of American greatness is a pervasive one, but it only has any grip at all because we have the money to back it up.  If something happens to reduce our financial standing in the world, and if some other group can take our place, we’ll be no better than the Soviet Union.  

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