"The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely." ....Lorraine Hansberry.

Commentary of the Day - July 11, 2012: Twenty-first Century Exceptionalism.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Commencement season has concluded, and my friend Poor Elijah has stopped waiting by the phone for an invitation to speak.  After all these years, he's pretty well accepted the fact that given a choice between the President of the United States and a middle school teacher, the Air Force Academy is likely to go with the Commander-in-Chief.  Still, every May, just in case, he prepares what he calls his "remarks," and every June he delivers them at my house.

Help yourself to some iced coffee, and make yourself comfortable.

* * *

"American exceptionalism" is a notion that floats around at political rallies, especially in an election year when candidates are striving to outdo each other patriotically.   Some electoral hopefuls may think they’re harking back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s nineteenth century praise of our democracy as "exceptional."  Ironically, especially for conservative Republicans fond of the phrase, they're actually quoting Joseph Stalin, whose point back in 1929 was that the United States wasn't unique and would inevitably fall to Marxism.

I'm enough a child of my country that I'm inclined to agree with Mr. de Tocqueville that the United States has proven itself exceptional in putting the Enlightenment into practice.  Our founders turned abstract principles like liberty, equality, and unalienable rights into a functioning nation.  The evidence of our exceptionalism can be seen in our meteoric rise from a rude, eighteen century joke of a country to twentieth century world preeminence.  It can be seen in the huddled masses yearning to breathe free who still flock to our shores.  It can be seen in the hope the nations have placed in us in days when the world was in peril.

Of course, along the way Americans also owned slaves, subjugated native peoples, threw our weight around, and more than once overestimated our international powers to add or detract.  The caution to take from all that is that even people who think they're exceptional can be wrong.

These days we're in thrall to a more dubious brand of hubris -- twenty-first century exceptionalism.  Its basic tenet is that no time has ever been like ours.  And by ours, I mean mine.  Because in our time, it's all about me.  Everything is parsed in the first person, singular.  The extremist religion we most need to fear is narcissism.

Narcissism isn't thriving just within our shores.  It's how Greeks can indignantly complain that Germany isn't giving them money to pay for benefits Germans don't provide for themselves.  It's how an appallingly uninformed young German man, interviewed on the BBC, can liken Angela Merkel's reluctance to bail out Greece to Hitler's 1938 conquest of Austria and Czechoslovakia, even as he also says he wouldn't want his own taxes to go up to pay for it.

Here at home we constantly bombard ourselves with self-congratulation.  We intone that the "global economy" is a new thing under the sun, when the fact is its ancestor mercantilism helped precipitate our Revolution, and its more recent forebear imperialism thrived before World War I.  We chant that technology is changing human existence more rapidly and radically than ever before, when a quick sampler of developments around the turn of the previous century -- telephones, radios, refrigeration, recorded sound, motion pictures, airplanes, automobiles, antitoxins, antibiotics, and zippers -- clearly reveals how myopic we are.  We regard September 11 and our fallen towers as a day that changed the world forever, while the rest of the world remembers that vast tracts of it, including entire cities, were only recently piles of rubble and horizons of ash.

We excuse our students' misconduct on the grounds that they live under unprecedented stress owing to the threat of terrorism, even though there are children today in Syria whose schools are being shelled.  Before September 11, in the 1980s and 1990s, the excuse was the shadow of nuclear war, even though it was my generation in the 1950s and 1960s that spent its childhood diving under desks to hide from imminent mushroom clouds.  And even though it was the worldwide generation before mine that had to take cover from bombs that were actually exploding.

Education experts preach that "the world is changing every minute, bringing challenges and pressure students didn't feel just a few years ago."  They contend that even a problem as perennial as bullying is qualitatively different today.  Tell that to my 1960s classmate who cried all the way home after our high school fullback publicly mocked him.  In fact, try telling that to me.  I opted that afternoon not to be what today's anti-bullying advocates call a passive "bystander" and wound up on the sidewalk with a fullback sitting on my chest.

Here's what I'm trying to tell you.  There are doubtless exceptions among us, individuals with extraordinary talents, extraordinary insights, and extraordinary intentions, for both good and evil.  But despite what you may have been led to believe, neither we nor our times are exceptional.

Now it's understandable, especially given what you've likely been led to believe, that you may not like being told you're unexceptional.  But that's the fact.  It's also the good news and the lesson.

We are all heir to life's heartaches and its thousand natural shocks.  We are all also heir to its joys.  There is nothing that befalls us that hasn't befallen countless other souls and nothing by way of virtue that's expected of us that countless other men and women haven't striven after and at least in moments attained.  Those virtues -- honor, fidelity, courage, self-sacrifice, perseverance, endeavor, and loving-kindness -- are as self-evident as they have been and will be in all those other unexceptional times before and after us.

Being unexceptional doesn't mean you can't be special.  But in a time where self-absorbed celebrities and commoners tweet their bodily functions and random thoughts to the whole world, try instead to be special to the few who gather around your table, who share your trust and your conversation, family and friends who truly know you.

Be content to be special to those who are special to you.


© 2012, Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages addressed to him in care of the editor.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP generally agrees with Poor Elijah.  Though we live in difficult times today, they are no more difficult than countless other epochs in the history of the world.  Our teachers are no wiser, and our children no smarter than those of previous generations.  And, our politicians certainly are no wiser than those of previous generations, though some may seem a bit more ignorant at times than those of yesteryear.  We are making advances on several fronts, but we still stand on the shoulders of giants who went before us, just as Newton did.

Irascible Professor invites your  .

© 2012 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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