There are few people who will disagree when I say there is a large faction of Americans that has become frustrated with what is generally seen as a declining position among the nations of the world. Of course it doesn’t help that the concept of American Exceptionalism, the concept that the birthright of Americans is to be the best people on the planet is firmly indoctrinated from the first days we enter school. I still remember those heady days – elementary school in the height of the Reagan ’80s. The basic teaching of world geography was that people in other countries loved the United States (I refuse to call it America, there are other countries on the continent who take offense to the diminutive, as though we lay claim to the entire continent by using the continental term to describe the nationality of but one country) because of our cultural and economic superiority, and that even children in other developed, first-world nations still looked up to the United States because they weren’t quite as free as we were, and believed that the streets were paved with gold. And of course, for some counterpoint, there was a Cold War on. Let the people think the streets are paved with gold, because it clearly demonstrates our superiority to Communism.
It’s that kind of thinking that United could get away with hokey commercials like this, run in international markets:
Pretty patronizing, right? They’d be burned in effigy for trying something like that today.
I’d even venture to say that it’s a frustration peculiar to this particular moment in history, as well. For the first 150 or so years of our existence, right up until Pearl Harbor, there was little argument that we were a backward, racist, xenophobic, isolationist nation. Postwar, we rode the crest of a wave of goodwill as the restorer of democracy, bringer of peace, victor over fascism and oppression. Following that, we were the flag bearer for capitalism and the free market, not to mention one of the few, if not the only, developed industrial economy that survived the war unscathed.
I find it odd, and remarkably insensitive, that there are some who speak of the “good old days” of those postwar years when the United States was the undisputed economic and cultural champion of the globe. Of course that’s an easy ring to snatch when most of your prewar socioeconomic peers are now saddled with a massive war debt, virtually no industry, and once rich farmlands rendered useless by saturation with human blood. We gained all that, not because Americans are inherently better, but simply because we’d managed to fight the largest armed conflict the world has ever seen as a series of away games.
The pomposity is getting old. If it’s not shrugging off certain industry as beneath us (commercial shipping, unskilled manufacturing) it’s pointless dick-measuring contests over the sexier, more glamorous accomplishments (men on the moon, commercial airplanes, digital/information economy) that seem to consume our brightest minds (assuming they were born here and weren’t sent back to their homeland once their educational visas expired). To better understand it’s place in the world, it’s time to recognize we’re merely among the many nations that call it home, rather than clinging to the assumption that we’re some sort of superlative. That’s so last century.