There is not a best country in the world

Published 10:02 am Tuesday, March 11, 2014

My Point of View, by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

As I’ve been following the Russian/Ukranian crisis in the Crimean Peninsula and the CPAC 2014 gathering stateside, I keep wondering, why do so many conservatives endorse the idea of American exceptionalism?

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

There are three main parts to the concept of American exceptionalism: Americans have a unique role in the world, Americans have resisted secularization as they have modernized and Americans have upward mobility.

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The first aspect is troubling to me. Now, it doesn’t strike me as problematic if Americans think our country is different than others and profess love for our country. It’s part of having a distinct national identity. It makes me uncomfortable, though, when people assert our country is the best and we should never be self-critical of, nor apologize for, U.S. actions.

Why does that stance give me trepidation? Because when we think we are special, we take privileges and act as if laws don’t apply to us the same as to others. If we see our country as a meritocracy with liberty and justice for all and believe that people shouldn’t have greater authority over others as a birthright, then why would we proclaim unilateral intervention as our destiny in the global realm? Are not all people of the world “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”?

Perhaps it’s because I’m of half-German descent that the idea of American exceptionalism makes me cringe the most. One of my great-great-grandfathers served in Frederick William IV’s army in Prussia before immigrating to the United States as a young man in the early 1850s. The Prussian army was known for strict discipline, precision and loyalty. It unified Germany in 1871, and it was the predecessor of Germany’s war machines in the first and second world wars.

Germans loved and served Germany passionately, and it all went horribly wrong. The fervently-sung lines of “Deutschland uber alles” (“Germany over everything”) and the hypnotic power of a dictator’s frenzied nationalistic oratory led to cattle cars filled with human cargo arriving punctually at Auschwitz. The Third Reich killed two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish people with its callously efficient “Final Solution.” About 50 million to 60 million people around the world perished as a result of World War II, launched by German aggression.

Hitler’s Germany. A case study in how everything good about a people can be manipulated in a terrible way that nobody forgets. That is how one becomes conflicted about something one would like to be unreservedly proud of — the tradition, industry, creativity and innovation. For generations to come, Germany will carry the taint of the Nazis. Most of them were just ordinary people, and some of them looked a lot like me.

That is why I personally have deep misgivings about the idea of American exceptionalism, even though I think it is more of a mirage than a reality. The irony is that while conservatives cling to the idea of American exceptionalism, they have undermined it with their own policies and strategies. As Peter Beinart makes the case in last month’s National Journal, every part of the idea that used to be true has been fading, due in part to conservative leadership.

In regard to the idea that America has a special role, Beinart outlines how Americans are turning away from the notion that we are unique in the world or that our country is the best country. Older people are more likely to still hold these beliefs, but among younger people, these beliefs have declined and are about equal to how Europeans view their countries.

This drop coincided with George W. Bush’s use of America’s military might to invade Iraq without a so-called “permission slip” from other countries. As the mission failed to go as planned and the situation rapidly deteriorated, young people, who had been more likely than other age groups to shout “USA! USA! USA!” at rallies, became widely disillusioned with America’s misuse of power.

Young people today have a greater inclination to want the U.S. to work with its allies. Furthermore, noninterventionists like Ron and Rand Paul have gained strong support among young conservatives.

I am encouraged that the youngest generation of voters doesn’t have a predilection toward “America uber alles” beliefs. I still think we should take an active role in world affairs, but only as part of multilateral efforts.

Remember Robert Fulghum’s list “All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten”? Here are a few items:

• Play fair.

• Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

• Clean up your own mess.

These could apply to countries as well as people, and the people who don’t follow these rules are considered bullies. One of the biggest changes I’ve seen since I was a kid is that we no longer accept bullying behavior as part of life. The heyday of bullying is over, as is the ascendancy of American exceptionalism.

Albert Lea resident Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.