Letters To The Editor
November 11, 2009 - MidWeek
U.S. not so unique
Jerry Coffee’s column “The Things That Make America Special” is good in so far as it reminds us that patriotism is good. Unfortunately, there are numerous factual errors that need addressing, including his understanding of “American Exceptionalism.” It does not mean that America is unlike most countries in the world. “American Exceptionalism” instead is the belief that America is unlike the rest of the world - and it is a very powerful myth.
Here are a few ways in which Coffee’s points are either untrue or not unique to America:
1) Americans are not the only country to have fought for independence from an oppressive monarchy. Various Latin American wars of independence from Spain are one such example. Mr. Coffee also conveniently neglects such events as the War of Independence in the Philippines, in which the U.S. played the role of oppressor.
2) Contrary to what Mr. Coffee states, America is not the only country in the world founded upon an idea. France, for one, is founded upon three ideas: “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality.”
3) America is founded on Enlightenment ideals, the same ideals that underscore most Western European democracies. It is therefore not the only country founded upon Judeo-Christian values (and whether those ideals are Judeo-Christian is also debatable).
4) America was not founded of the people, for the people, by the people. Only rich, white men could vote at the time of founding. This was a promise that later came true. Switzerland, for example, is more democratic than the United States, however, so one could certainly argue that they fulfill this promise more than we do.
6) America is not the only country in the world that has a Bill of Rights. Canada, among many others, has one.
7) America is consistently rated as being in the top 20 for highest standard of living. It is almost never rated No. 1. The Economist (a very pro-American magazine), ranks us No. 13; the UN Human Development Index ranks us 15th.
8) “America is the most-free, most-open, most-tolerant country.” Depends who you ask. The Wall Street Journal and Heritage foundation place us at No. 6 for economic freedom; Reporters Without Borders ranks us No. 31 for journalistic freedom. Anyway, it’s debatable.
So we can see that each of these points is either untrue, unclear or not unique to America. This does not mean that America is not special; it just means that it is not somehow more special than every other country in the world!
Now, patriotism is good, up until the point it tells you that you are somehow different from everyone else in the world and that you therefore have special rights that others do not have. “American Exceptionalism” is what gave the U.S. the intellectual tools to conquer the Mainland, various Latin American countries, the Philippines, and so on, and it makes people in the U.S. think that they are somehow allowed to invade other countries. The Zionists believe in Jewish Exceptionalism, the Muslims in Muslim Exceptionalism, the Chinese in Chinese Exceptionalism, and the Japanese, Italians and Germans all thought they were uniquely destined to rule the world. Let’s get over it, folks: Everyone’s special.
Insult to Aussies
Jerry Coffee’s column “The Things That Make USA Special” struck me as rather odd for a couple of reasons.
First, as an Australian linguist living in Hawaii, I find it more than a little patronizing to have Australian English characterized as “quaint,” as if it were an amusing deviation from some imaginary and superior norm, of which he is a speaker. Common usage is the norm for any language community, whether it be a subculture, a corporate office or a country.
Second, characterizing Australians with a broad sweep of the brush as having a “unique laid-back attitude” as evidenced by a couple of phrases is stereotyping to an unforgivable degree in a newspaper column. That kind of attitude toward Australians might have been understandable when Crocodile Dundee first hit cinemas, but I think we’ve all grown up since then, haven’t we?
Third, despite living and traveling throughout Australia during my first 29 years of life, I have never heard of a man being a “Bruce.” And “Sheila” was dropped from common use a couple of decades ago because of pressure from feminists who felt it had derogatory connotations, which it did. Anybody using these phrases in Australia these days would be an anachronism at best, and offensive at worst.
Fourth, to suggest that most of us Australians are living in a state of regret as we lack patriotism? That point is so far beyond nonsense it’s almost unbelievable to read it in print, and does not deserve the dignity of a response.
The second part of Mr. Coffee’s column degenerates into the kind of chest-beating nationalism that has earned America a bad name internationally in recent years. His list of 12 positive features of America (however spurious some of them sound, and my American wife also found some of them extremely subjective, to be honest) as evidence of its inherent superiority is like asking students to grade their own papers. As a teacher of 10 years, I would be amused to see the results.
Why not be balanced and make a list of five great things about America and five areas that desperately need improvement if America is to shine once again as one great country among many great countries?
For example, let’s take an example from an issue everybody is concerned about: healthcare. America ranks No. 37 in the world in terms of healthcare; France ranks No. 1 and Australia 32nd. Despite what some conservatives say, the U.S. is not No. 1 in healthcare by any measure.
Admitting so doesn’t make one unpatriotic. It makes one rational. And the first step toward making America first in healthcare won’t come about until people like Mr. Coffee stop beating their chests, take off their blinders and “Proud to be American” T-shirts long enough to have an honest look around them. And I mean have an honest look around the international community and America’s standing in it. I could be wrong, but I suspect that’s what President Obama was doing. To call him “clueless” for doing so is a bit harsh, don’t you think?
Having lived in Asia, Oceania, the Middle East and currently Hawaii, I feel that a little less unflinching patriotism and a little more rational, considered reflection of American foreign policy would help us all get along on this planet we all share. It might just save some lives, too.
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