What we offer the world more important than our place in it

American exceptionalism — the president has been criticized by Republicans as not believing in it.

Criticizing the president of the United States is a time-honored tradition and one of the luxuries of a democratic society that treasures freedom of speech.

Every president has done something worthy of criticism, but sometimes, they have been recipients of wholly unwarranted criticism.

Saying Obama is guilty of not believing in American exceptionalism is such an example. It is not as ridiculous, however, as the statement from Rudy Giuliani who claimed the president “hates America.” Now, I don’t for a minute think Giuliani actually believed it. I suspect he got caught up in the moment speaking to a group of wackos.

It was not one of his finer moments.

This reminds me of the words of John F. Kennedy who said, “Too often, we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

Reading of the American exceptionalism criticism got me to thinking deeply about the subject.

Are we truly exceptional? In what ways? How do the critics define American exceptionalism? Is there a consensus as to what the phrase means? Surely the mere fact of being born American doesn’t make us exceptional. For that matter, how do we know the president doesn’t believe in it, short of his stating so?

I have my definition of American exceptionalism, but first, let’s look at what we can agree does not make us exceptional. This, the land of the free, is the most imprisoned nation on the face of the earth.

Hard to believe but the U.S. has more people in jails and prisons per capita than any other country. That is due in large part to the war on drugs, which leads to another fact we cannot admire; we are perhaps the most drug-addled nation. Without American’s addiction to drugs, Afghan poppy-growers and South and Central American drug cartels would all but out of business.

We cannot be proud of our drug culture just as we cannot be proud of the fact we lead the world in the production of trash and waste.

Think of the harm we’ve done with the humongous piles of waste we have created in America. And while we are nowhere near as polarized as the Balkans or even the Muslim world with its internecine rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites, we cannot be proud of our own polarization in America. Not when a political leader makes such an imbecilic statement such as Giuliani did.

Is it our national prosperity that is exceptional in the world? Perhaps but how can we take credit for the God-given natural resources that made us so prosperous? Why should we be so proud of being the wealthiest nation? Calvin Coolidge reminded Americans that “prosperity is only an instrument to be used, not a deity to be worshiped.”

We too often fail to make that connection.

None of the above can be considered factors to argue that America is an exceptional nation. Nor is the fact that we are the most powerful nation in the world. The price of such power requires us to forgo things that many other nations afford.

Despite its faults, America is exceptional — just not in the manner so many think. For it is not our achievements that make us an exceptional nation but rather what we strive to be.

Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson were two American presidents who understood this perfectly well. Jackson said, “Americans are not a perfect people, but we are called to a perfect mission.”

Wilson observed that “America was established not to create wealth but to realize a vision, to realize an ideal — to discover and maintain liberty among men.”

It is that the great American experiment — that the people can rule themselves, through liberal representative democracy, without autocratic rulers, an ongoing trial we demonstrate to the world daily — is what makes this an exceptional nation?

It is not our proud and vitally important inventions; not the number of first-class athletes; not our wealth; not our being the greatest superpower in the history of the world, which makes us an exceptional nation.

Rather, it is our gift to the world, this ongoing experiment; this trial we endure, sometimes remarkably well, sometimes not so well, that makes the United States exceptional.

Let us always be mindful of that. Let us never forget that we must succeed in this experimental endeavor if we are to remain exceptional. I truly believe that our president is aware of this.

Claiming he does not believe in our nation’s exceptionalism is merely a self-serving statement and does not reflect truth.

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Noelle Steele is editor of the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3232 or nsteele@greenfieldreporter.com.