Sunday, January 25, 2009

"Who writes America's script?"

It should be easy to wage a campaign to champion the idea of America, after all, American cultural products are voluntarily embraced all over the world and millions of people seek to immigrate to America and become Americans. And yet watching the Republican performance in the war of ideas over the past eight years has been like watching a no-talent American Idol contestant destroy a great song. But that era is now over and it is time to move on. Time to write a new script and put on a new show in the great cultural theatre that is America.

America and American life are the world's most reliable theater: America performs, and the world looks on.

The world, reliably, looks at America, for there is always something eye-catching in progress. The world, equally reliably, looks to America, for this country takes social and political steps that others are too timorous to take. And the world looks up to America, for there is more that is good and just here than in any other society.
The American culture of individualism (first tagged as such by Tocqueville) allows for countless private explorations of boundaries that other societies do not conduct in quite the same volume, or even allow at all. These boundaries are not merely physical; they are intellectual, judicial (although not always judicious), philanthropic, educational, spiritual or even comedic. And Americans are as adept at exploring the boundaries of antagonism as they are those of tolerance. Ultimately, as Simon Schama has written, "The big American story is the war of toleration against conformity; the war of a faith that commands obedience against a faith that promises liberty." I think we can tell which side has won those wars in America. The results are reversed in virtually every other society in the world.

The creed of American exceptionalism is distinctive because it is tied closely to the creed of American individualism. There are other societies or people that are adamant believers in their own exceptionalism: The Chinese have their conceit of the Middle Kingdom; the Jews hold that they are Chosen; Hindu Brahmins believe that they alone are born from the head of God; and the Britons have believed that they rule the waves, and that they never, never, never shall be slaves (and what is that if not exceptionalism?). But only the American brand of exceptionalism is not tribal; it allows Outsiders to become Insiders.

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