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American Exceptionalism Revised

15 Mar 12
Michelle Cubas
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Months ago, Fareed Zacharia hosted an informative evening program, How to Restore the American Dream, and Regain U.S. #1 Footing in the World.  
One of the discussion points was American Exceptionalism. Without an ape like chest-beating display, Mr. Zacharia and guests commented on two points that are rarely attributed to this characteristic, especially by zealots who think the U.S. can do no wrong; or, that somehow we are stepping on “Superman’s cape” (Thank you, Jim Croce) if we criticize ourselves. 

These conditions are unique to American culture and the world:
  1. We never had a monarchy to overcome. (Revolutionary years are aside because the king was across the ocean and not present.)
  2. A flourishing entrepreneurial spirit fueled by necessity being the mother of invention, rags-to-riches stories, shared knowledge and “permission” to fail. The two-year old FourScore company co-founders made this point about finding ways that do not work and dusting oneself of and onto the next idea. It is o.k. to fail here where in other cultures, heavy shame and guilt constrain people not to buck existing morés. Since most Americans come from somewhere else, we don’t have embedded tribal or shame on the family repercussions like other cultures. Naturally want your people to be proud of you. Based on accomplishments not how many times it didn’t work.
  3. I’ve added a third impact—The Wild West and expansion across the North American continent gave people great vision and anonymity. Sometimes no boundaries allows for possibilities and “facelessness,” when we don’t see an impact like of a nuclear bomb.

Exceptionalism may draw upon America’s adolescent stage of development.
We know how teenagers act. A mix of bravado and naivete can be a powerful “cocktail” and unstoppable. They do not dwell on the errors too long; they are independent because they have had to fend for themselves, and get on with it. Try managing a Gen X or Y member today, and you’ll see what I mean.

Consider the innocence with which we entered World War II, and the boom that followed. Not bad for a primarily agrarian country before entering the War. We were bold enough to believe we were unstoppable fueled by patriotism and the principle of “right” being on our side.

What was this recipe for success?
Horatio Alger stories were told continuously to youngsters, of a common hero overcoming huge deficits and social conditions (think Charles Dickens). The books provided role models even if real ones weren’t present. With starvation a heart-beat away, people had no time ponder their depressive circumstances. 

We became the Land of Affirmations. From Benjamin Franklin’s  Poor Richard’s Almanack [Illustrated] to Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich, we were like the cartoon character that walks off the cliff and doesn’t fall until he realizes there is no ground beneath!
Stalwart values between business contracts were had on a hand shake. The banks could take a lesson in this American value founded on pride and a person’s word was the bond.

The Economy

Huge and diverse, the U.S. was known for more than one thing. We had the room to grow. The entire expansion was like an experiment. In fact, Alexis de Tocqueville’s book, Democracy in America (1830s), coined the “American experiment.” Available Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

What I concluded:
  • Our leaders must renew the Social Contract based on abundance, not scarcity.
  • We can ward off fear by defining what we fear:
    • Competition or will become repetition and
    • Insecure because living on laurels of past accomplishments.
  • Aging and graying of America makes people more fearful, less future orientated because they know they won’t be there. We can borrow reverence for experience and our elders from other cultures. We can learn patience and sacrifice by seeing our projects steep and develop.
  • Refocus on possibilities rather than what the others are doing. Enough of the “Me, too,” society. (How many brands of baked beans do we need?) 
  • My biggest take away was rather than competing to win, Zacharia’s point was that other countries were catching up to the U.S. beyond our obvious lapses like in education, life expectancy and infant mortality.
Bring back U.S. civics classes especially with our expanded diversity. We no longer can assume everyone knows about U.S. history and policy.
1.  We can do a better job to distinguish between rights and privileges.
2.  Adopt an investment mentality to secure a healthy future. Spending is an immediate act.
3.  Shift ridiculous arguments like “entitlements.” That’s more like royalty’s attitude built on the backs of their subjects. People pay into the system for a lifetime. Yes, longevity has elders living past the contributions. So, let’s build a better system before we destroy the old one! It is pay it forward so the next generation can have theirs. Unfortunately, there are fewer young people who will be working. No one talks about this.
4.    Pull back the curtain on those wanting to destroy the middle class. It is transparent today. The middle class has “over stepped its bounds,” says shadow powers that be. Let’s shut ’em down!”
5.  There is too much focus on negativity with 24-hour cycled news. What we focus on becomes our reality. Shut off the medium and rest.
6. Focus on our American vision and legacy rather than just today.
7. Attitude is driven by perspective—Is there unlimited abundance like ideas or is there only one pie from which everyone cuts? This is a strategic point, why wars are fought, E.g. energy—We must innovate our way out of dependence on oil. Shine light on oil companies and their cronies and get on with it already. Take greed out of the equation. It affects how one goes about creating energy.
     8. Lower the volume of frantic discourse. Celebrate perspectives because from the mix comes a stronger outcome.
Points to Ponder:
Prof. Nye, one of Zacharia’s guests, made a terrific point about America’s continental size vs. Britain ruling from a small island off the coast of Europe.
Other countries catching up is different than us being in decline. Prof. Rosling made that point. Enough chest beating. These are the same swashbucklers wanting to police the world (for power and control) while complaining about the deficit. 

Consider the wisdom of the Old Testament having Moses lead the Israelites around for 40 years. One sage suggests this was to have the people who were born into slavery die off as not to pass on that mentality to the young. 

We have a similar situation in the U.S. We’re not going back to the 1950’s, Guys! The Grays (not E.T.) want to go back to what is familiar to them, the “good old days,” because it is familiar and they knew how to navigate. Their confidence is shaken with the new technology, slippery footing for those stuck in the way they were. They even want to reinvent the past and rewrite it like they wished it was.

I would enjoy a dynamic forum around this topic. Any takers? MC


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