December 5, 2021

Questioning the Myth of American Exceptionalism

I grew up American.  I loudly applauded the vets on Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day.  I’d been well trained that if a different country did something differently, clearly America was doing it better.  I knew that around the world, countries tried to be like America, so we must have gotten things right.

Then I began traveling…

As a young teenager, I went to the impoverished cities surrounding Tijuana, Mexico.  I saw poverty, but I also saw joy and contentment, things that often seemed to be missing in America.  In college, I went to Africa.  Again, I saw poverty, but I saw gratitude and generosity that I’d never seen before.  15 years later, I still get emotional when I remember being given beautiful carved knives and leather sheathes by the churches to thank us for helping with the school computers.  I remember thinking, “I don’t need this. They have nothing, why are they giving me a gift?”  They knew something I didn’t understand though, a gift is given to honor and thank, not just to meet a need.  They also knew that they weren’t entitled to our help even though they were poorer than America.

Then at 32, in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I moved with my family to Palermo, Sicily, Italy.  I expected this to be a few months trip to obtain dual-citizenship jure sanguinis, a project I’d been working on for years.  However, as I began to settle in for a few months, I began to look around me and consider the pros and cons of the differences I was seeing:

  1. Drivers were pushy, roads were mostly in moderate condition, people stepped into traffic, children road on laps, and cars had poor crash test ratings.  However, accidents were rare, and deaths even rarer.  In fact, when I looked, Italy had less than half the per capita auto deaths as America, whether measured per 100,000 citizens or 100,000 vehicles.
  2. Food was brought in on carts, trucks, etc., and things that I’d normal expect to be refrigerated were outside in the market all day, exposed to the heat, cold, vehicles, animals, etc.  However, the food invariably tasted better and was less expensive.  We got sick less and both my wife and I lost weight without trying at all.
  3. The unemployment rate in Sicily is insanely high.  However, people were friendly, crime was low, and we never once felt unsafe.
  4. Going grocery shopping involved walking several blocks to market, talking to a few different vendors, and buying the food that was in season.  However, we got to know our vendors, most days they gave us “homage” (a little extra of whatever we were buying) and we became friends despite sharing minimal common language.
  5. Taxes are much higher, but we began to notice that the society was functioning so much better.  At one point, as I was looking into homeowners insurance, I asked how essential it was to have liability insurance for things like “trip and fall”.  My friend looked and me and said, “we have quality healthcare, we don’t need insurance for injuries”.  So, while in America we may pay less to the government directly, we pay instead in liability insurance, health insurance, and medical bills.
  6. People have no dryers, but this means you get to talk to your neighbors while hanging out the laundry to dry.
  7. People have small houses, but this means that they congregate in public spaces, creating community.
  8. One time I read an article of a grocery store that was robbed.  Instead of shots being fired, the robber was tackled by an off-duty officer and taken to jail.

Over the last thirteen months, I’ve taken the opportunity to fall in love with a new country and culture and then turn and look at America from the outside, instead of from a pre-conception of American exceptionalism.  It’s true, there are things America got right, and ways in which it’s been the example for democracies around the world.  However, in far too many ways, it’s taken capitalism and individualism to a disgusting and reprehensible extreme creating far too many “have nots” and far too few people who get to enjoy the plenty in the “land of plenty”.  It’s long past time America learn from other nations in the world and begin to live and govern in accordance with the radically loving values of Christ, instead of the American values that might makes right and individual rights trump all.

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