Over the weekend I took my family to one of the city swimming pools. Saturday was the last day of a four-day heat wave and the city was charging half price admission to give people a way to cool off. As you might imagine, the pool was packed with people. The pool I had picked out was not our usual one that is more suburban, but one that is deeper into town and the diversity of the people playing in the water reflected the different neighborhood. As I was enjoying spending time with my kids and extended family, I also enjoyed seeing the cross-section of people interacting in the space.
At one point I was struck by the interaction of a mom with two small children with another family. She was wearing a hijab and full-body swimming clothes. When she first entered the water with her kids she seemed a little standoffish and apologetic to the people around her, but a little while later I noticed her again. She was talking to a father who appeared to be Hispanic and covered with tattoos on the upper half of his body. He was laughing with her kids and reassuring her. Her whole demeanor relaxed and she continued having fun with her family.
It was a touching experience to observe in a time when there is so much more talk about building walls than bridges. It was to me a snapshot of when we get it right – inclusion, diversity, representation of many different experiences and cultures. Unfortunately, we don’t always get it right.
There’s much to be proud about being an American. The Norman Rockwell-like picture of the American values – hard work, helpfulness, love of family and country – is a beautiful even heroic portrait. But just like any family portrait, the carefully presented picture of our Sunday best and shiny smiles only tells a slim portion of the story. Unfortunately, the ugly flip side of the American portrait shows prosperity and opportunity bought with the sweat, tears and blood of people who never tasted freedom.
The United States, like any country, family or person, has a multi-dimensional legacy of good and bad, heroic actions and tangled deceit, bravery and cruelty. The greatest deception of our culture is the lie of exceptionalism. It’s a myth that says the United States is uniquely separate from other nations and divinely appointed to serve a distinct purpose. This lie tells us that we can act outside of the bounds of normal morality because we are unique, separate, different and not constrained by the rules that bind others.
The idea of American exceptionalism has existed for several centuries now. Its first reference was the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1835/1840 work, Democracy in America.
The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.
As recently as 2015 former Vice President Dick Cheney continued to argue the case for American Exceptionalism in his book, Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America.
“we are, as Lincoln said, ‘the last, best hope of earth.’ We are not just one more nation, one more same entity on the world stage. We have been essential to the preservation and progress of freedom, and those who lead us in the years ahead must remind us, as Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan did, of the unique role we play. Neither they nor we should ever forget that we are, in fact, exceptional.”
The problem with the deception of American exceptionalism is that it requires us to ignore huge sections of histories and entire populations of people. Exceptionalism doesn’t leave us any room to acknowledge the genocide of Native Americans, the vast sin of slavery, the ugliness of misogyny and the ongoing devaluing of those who don’t fit into our pre-conceived categories. Instead of acknowledging faults and poor decisions, we sweep them under the rug of exceptionalism and divine destiny. The problem with the deception of American exceptionalism is that it keeps us from truly being the best version of ourselves.We aren’t free to embrace the genuinely unique and valuable traits of being Americans when we are putting all our effort into protecting and propping up our exceptionalism.
A few weeks ago I went out with my daughter to watch the Fourth of July parade in the small town where I grew up. I’ve been attending this parade for many years. They bring out all the county fire trucks, a whole line of John Deere tractors, some horses, the Boy Scout troop, a few local politicians and lots of candy to throw to the children in the crowd. This parade never fails to make me feel proud of my hometown and proud to be an American. It’s the best version of America – a local community gathering, families spending time together, and together everyone celebrating the ideals of freedom, democracy and opportunity. But it’s not the whole picture. It’s the Sunday best, but not the Monday work.
Since last November I have engaged as an American citizen more deeply and meaningfully than I ever have before. While I’ve carried the distinction of being American since I was born, in this last year I have embraced not just the benefits, but the responsibilities of being a citizen. The portrait of being an American is just as multi-dimensional as our legacy. I could choose to reject or diminish what it means to be an American based on the frustration, sadness and anger I feel. I could buy into the lie of exceptionalism and deny the truth of the past and present wrongs that exist in my society. I could elevate my own opinions, perspectives and views above others and hide from the real pain that surrounds me. But all of those are wrong choices for me.
I choose to embrace who I am and the reality of the very tangled legacy that is part of my very being. I choose to acknowledge the good and the bad and even more importantly I choose to accept my responsibility in mending what’s broken, strengthening what’s right and resisting those who make use of their power for selfish profit.
I am proud to be an American and I do love our flag. But I recognize the faults, limitations and failures that exist. I applaud the ideals of America and appreciate the sacrifices of so many who have worked, fought and died for freedom. But I recognize that we are still not truly free because we aren’t yet all free.
While America has been exceptional for some, it has not been for all. As Langston Hughes wrote 1949 in his poem, Democracy,
Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Through compromise and fear.
I have as much right
As the other fellow has
On my two feet
And own the land.
I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.
Is a strong seed
In a great need.
I live here, too.
I want freedom
Just as you.
This country is young still and we have only begun to truly test the boundaries of real freedom. I encourage all of us to dive into the deep end of the swimming pool, accepting our own roles as Americans in pursuing real freedom, true democracy and genuine pursuit of happiness while recognizing that we are bound together. We won’t achieve the American dream one at a time, but only as a whole when we can, at last, say we are truly free because ALL are free regardless of race, gender, ability, religion or class. Because in the end, it’s not about being Americans or creating a country that is better than others, it is about respecting and valuing one another, creating opportunities for each other and enabling all people to live in peace and security.