Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010 | 2:01 a.m.
The age of American exceptionalism.
When Alexis de Tocqueville referred to the United States as an exceptional nation, he struck a chord not only in the hearts of America but also in the yearnings of millions of people who lived in other countries.
In short, we have always been a nation of exceptional people who committed exceptional acts of patriotism, creativity and determination. That is why we have been the envy of others around the globe. We are exceptionally free to worship, succeed and live — more than any other country on the planet.
That is the positive spin on the word.
In the recent election, the word took on a different meaning, an uglier version that does not — factually or figuratively — speak well of America.
One of the basic tenets of the Tea Party movement, besides the desire of frustrated people for limited government, limited tax burdens and unlimited success in governance, was the almost religious adherence to the belief in American exceptionalism. That word, however, did not translate in the manner of Tocqueville. Instead it came across as the basis for a superiority complex we did not deserve and, certainly, no longer earned — if, indeed, we would ever want to earn such a complex.
And we all should know the dangers of superiority complexes because they never add up to anything good. Two recent examples come to mind.
I just finished a whirlwind fact-finding trip to Asia for the Sun by tagging along with former President Bill Clinton. I visited something like six capitals in seven days. And what I learned was both simple and profound. The 21st century, unlike the 20th, does not and will not belong to the United States of America. Nor will it belong to Europe.
A few billion people, teeming with energy, creativity and a pent-up desire to grab a piece of the “American” dream, are doing all they can to advance their quality and quantity of life. And they are succeeding.
The choice of whether we want to be part of that effort — be part of this century’s great awakening — is ours alone. There is no reason, of course, why the United States cannot and should not be a major player in the coming decades. We have the technology, the brainpower and the determination to continue to be a great, if not the greatest, country on Earth.
But the simple truth is that Asia is not waiting for us to climb aboard its high-speed train to the future. That doesn’t mean we aren’t welcome, however. Nowhere was that more evident than in Vietnam, one of the least likely places, I would have thought, for such an attitude to exist.
When we drove up to a business and technology college in Hanoi, we were welcomed by hundreds of students waving American flags. As my wife pointed out in amazement, “They like us!”
It was the 15th anniversary of the normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam. It was abundantly clear that the young people we met in Vietnam were thinking about the future — their future — and not about the recent past. It is also abundantly clear that we in the United States still get bogged down by that war and often can’t get past the divide that still separates us.
Just a decade ago, there were about 30 million bicycles in Vietnam. That was the main mode of transportation. Today, bikes have given way to motorcycles. And soon, no doubt, cars or the next mode of transportation will be advanced. The point is simple. Whatever we thought was holding poor and undeveloped countries back is no longer having that effect. Whether in transportation, technology or even in political thought, Asia is on the move.
We can either partner with them or, frankly, be left behind. For if we think that our belief that we are exceptional is going to carry the day, we are wrong. As much as Asia would love to be our friend and partner, it will get there with or without us.
I have talked only about Vietnam. Consider China, South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines and Taiwan. Those countries not only hold our dollars, but they also hold the hopes and aspirations of people who are talented and, more and more, highly educated. And with knowledge comes success.
We used to know that in our country. We have obviously forgotten the importance of education because we have frittered away our position as the most highly educated people on the planet to a position of mediocrity. And we have done so because we can’t get out of our own way when it comes to fixing our education system and, yes, paying for it!
We have chosen ignorance over enlightenment the past few decades. That is what having a superiority complex will do, you know. It also allows other countries to surpass us in all areas where it counts because we are content to rest on the success of our yesterdays.
How long we let that be the case will determine our place in the 21st century. And if anyone doubts the truth of these words, take a quick trip to Asia. Or just take my word for it.
There is another, far more frivolous, example of American “exceptionalism” gone awry.
For those of you who aren’t addicted to “Dancing With the Stars,” let me explain. The ABC show pairs professional dancers with celebrities in an effort to teach the celebs to dance over the course of a season. Judges vote each week and, then, the public gets to weigh in. The combination of judges’ scores and audience votes determines who advances and who goes home.
This season one of the celebrities is the daughter of Sarah Palin. Bristol Palin seems like a nice young woman but, to put it bluntly, she really can’t dance. Not when she is compared with other contestants whose skill and talent shine through like the bright lights that illuminate the sets upon which they perform.
This past week, a most talented and beautiful dancing celebrity, Brandy Norwood, was voted off the show in favor of Bristol. To be clear, the show’s producers stress that the audience votes were part of the deal, so there is no complaint that Brandy was outvoted. The issue is one of fairness and appropriateness.
Tea Party supporters were encouraged to vote for Palin’s daughter. They did. And they overwhelmed the voting process. So much so that Brandy went home, and Bristol is in the finals.
If popularity is the deciding value, Bristol and her mother’s supporters win the day. If, however, we are supposed to reward exceptionalism, I would argue that we, instead, rewarded mediocrity.
If I were a Tea Party adherent who believes in the American values espoused by so many voters this past election, I would feel used in this instance. For if I believe in real exceptionalism, then I should not have voted for Bristol. If I believe, however, that I am superior just because, then I would be content to advance mediocrity.
That is what happened on “Dancing With the Stars.” And that, I fear, is the same attitude that will prevent us from proving to the world that we can really be an exceptional country — and that we can play a major role in this new century.
Exceptional for our ideas, our creativity, our determination and our desire to learn and be all that we can. That is American exceptionalism. And that is what can make the 21st century part of the American dream. The choice is ours.