Taking exception: U.S. should rein in the arrogance

Like an overgrown teenager, America has a tendency toward recklessness

August 15, 2011|By Mike McGrew

America is a little like my eldest son. In ninth grade, at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds., Brendan was big man on campus, physically dominating senior ballplayers. Due to his savvy, size and confidence, he was given charge of older restaurant employees where he worked. "I'm kind of a big deal," he used to say. Unfortunately, at 16, Brendan's brashness and sense of invulnerability led to several serious auto accidents.

Thankfully, Brendan escaped major injuries. However, his insurance premiums skyrocketed, while our trust in his forays outside home turf plummeted. Brendan regarded many parental rules as unfair or inapplicable. He often refused to accept adult perspectives, which led to another accident.

Like America, Brendan possessed a dominant, independent spirit and was exceptional in size and work ethic. But, like many adolescents and our relatively young country, it was difficult for him to tone down his self-important, injudicious style.

Is the comparison a stretch? The U.S. is also a bright, physically imposing, relative "whippersnapper" on the global campus compared with "elder" countries. As with Brendan, America's arrogance has also resulted in costly mistakes.

The United States formed in rebellion against the repressive policies and unfair traditions of "grown up" England. Our founders boldly asserted independence and developed our special American identity. We soon flourished as the land of opportunity, innovation and individualism.

However, while America eventually super-sized its military, industrial and technological strength, our country remains comparatively young and displays several ongoing adolescent traits. Some have contributed to prosperity. However, our sense of superiority is usually destructive, especially within our increasingly interconnected world.

Please don't get me wrong. I love America's democracy, diversity, innovation and opportunity. While living overseas, I sorely missed its friendliness, convenience, and refreshing informality. Nevertheless, I'm concerned by our ongoing adolescent arrogance — especially as exhibited by recent trumpeters of American exceptionalism.

American "exceptionalism," a term attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, is the belief that the U.S. is qualitatively distinct from other nations due to our unique history, character and ideology. However, some commentators and presidential hopefuls misuse the word to imply American superiority across the board.

U.S. exceptionality is clearly evident in our founding principles, egalitarianism, individualism, industrial might and innovative spirit. It is demonstrated in the pre-eminence of U.S. military forces, universities, hospitals, scientific research and technological achievements.

However, America's global muscle flexing, failure to seriously consider other perspectives before encroaching on foreign soil, impulsive lack of post-invasion planning, and feeling of exemption from international law illustrate our adolescent tendencies at work.

In addition, our political parties act like egotistic, oppositional-defiant teenage cliques as they posture in support of their interests over America's. Our dismissal of experiences of "elder" countries that successfully addressed issues such as integrating gays in the military, reforming health care, reducing unemployment and deficits, as well as conserving energy and recycling waste, is particularly un-exceptional.

Like those of some parents', elder countries' viewpoints can be narrow-minded, old-fashioned or prejudiced. But America need not reflexively close its ears to their perspectives. Our geographic isolation, relative youth, and cultural ignorance inhibit our openness to other countries' expertise.

When I lived abroad recently, many Europeans viewed America as a big-headed teenage cowboy, resisting others' input and ignoring long-term ramifications of our actions. Fortunately, most also considered us an exceptional beacon of opportunity, youthfulness, ingenuity and democracy.

Like America, my 30-year-old son is now out of shape and less imposing than he used to be. However, Brendan used his intelligence and drive to become a mature adult, a good insurance risk and a successful restaurateur. He seeks advice, collaborates, and is well respected by employees and fellow businessmen.

What if, like Brendan, America swaggered less and matured more? What if, domestically and globally, we listened, reflected, respected and cooperated more? What if more of our leaders acted less like whippersnapper know-it-alls and more like wise, humble men?

To avoid future deficit showdowns, let's demand that our political representatives grow up and truly seek timely compromise on painful spending cuts, necessary tax increases, and ongoing health care, environmental, energy and social security reforms. Let's also un-flex our muscles and go less rogue within the global arena.

Maybe then we can mature more fully into the truly exceptional, innovative, and collaborative world leader we know we can be. For, as de Tocqueville reminds us, "The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults."

Mike McGrew is a school psychologist from Carroll County. His email is mcgrewclark@hotmail.com.

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