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The Sleepy Eye Herald Dispatch - Sleepy Eye, MN
  • Michelle Teheux: Is there such a thing as American exceptionalism?

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  • Are we the greatest country in the world? Are we the greatest country that ever has existed? If we are, will we always be?
    It’s ironic that we Americans do hold ourselves in great regard, even as we complain about all the things we believe are wrong in our country. To hear us tell it, we’re the greatest ever, even though our government is corrupt and incompetent, our corporations are greedy, our workers are lazy and the rich are sucking up ill-gotten gains.
    We are the greatest country in the world, we say, even though we’re worried about the loss of our middle class and our freedoms. We’re worried about the state of our schools because we see other nations are doing a better job of educating their children.
    We’re worried about our health care, and have been long before the Affordable Care Act came on the scene. We know that our infant mortality rate, our age expectancy and other measures show our health care system as a whole is far worse than those of many other modern, industrialized countries. We rank below some counties we’d consider backward.
    Throughout world history, various nations have enjoyed a golden age. Certain advantages come together to enable an individual country, for a time, to shine. A time of peace and prosperity occurs in which the arts and scientific knowledge blossom — for a time. They never last forever.
    Being married to someone from another country has given me some insight into the idea of American exceptionalism. My husband, a citizen of the Netherlands, has plenty of Dutch pride, but he hasn’t seen his countrymen claim that their country is the best in the world.
    The Dutch, incidentally, had their golden age in the seventeenth century. They invented the multi-national corporation and the stock exchange. Known for their tolerance even then, they attracted many of Europe’s great minds, who couldn’t have published in their own countries. Philosophy flourished — think Spinoza and Descartes. Art also flowered — think of Rembrandt and Vermeer. Anton Van Leeuwenhoek invented microbiology.
    I’m sorry to say I believe the American golden age is fading away. Once a country in which parents believed their children could live better lives than they did, we today are a country where parents worry their children may never live economically secure lives. Many breadwinners will need a spouse’s help just to earn enough money to live less well than their parents or grandparents lived on one paycheck.
    We have outsourced most of our manufacturing jobs to other countries. Small shops that provided decent livings for their local owners have lost out to giant big-box stores full of poorly paid workers. The profits from these chain stores largely go elsewhere.
    Page 2 of 2 - Our young people are told to go to college to be successful, but we have many college-educated people serving coffee and struggling to pay back tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.
    I don’t know if ancient people living in one or another golden age saw theirs slipping away — I’m guessing they didn’t. Thanks to universal literacy and the Internet, we can see what is happening here as it happens, if we’re paying attention.
    Perhaps saying, “We’re No. 1!” isn’t too different than saying, “My baby is the cutest in the whole world!” or “My mom makes the best meatloaf ever!” Nothing wrong with personal pride, as long as we don’t let it keep us from seeing our problems and dealing with them. If we want to wave the flag and shout “U.S.A.!” whenever our very real problems are brought up — if we want to accuse those who point out our faults of being bad Americans — well, we might as well resign ourselves to the end of our golden age.
    But if we can admit that we need some big changes and we need them now, maybe we can keep that golden age going. If we can turn things around, we’ll deserve the credit for American exceptionalism.
    Michelle Teheux may be reached at mteheux@pekintimes.com. The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the newspaper.
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