America the Special(ful)
In honor of Thanksgiving, a look back at America’s own long history of coping with Specialness.
America went to private school. In high school, we ruled the roost. We got excellent grades and wowed our teachers, mostly because, with our small class size, they could spend all their time focused on their favorite student…U.S. Yes, there was that kid, Russia, whose parents moved into town and who joined us for a few grades. But look what happened to him! He had a seizure one day, collapsed and lay in pieces in a pool of his own spittle. We went on to make the basketball team and qualify for A.P. Physics, because there was no one else around. Instead of feeling lucky, though, or humble, we felt…well…special. America took Princeton Review and got into an elite private college where we continued to feel relatively good. But when we graduated, and found ourselves broke and and looking for work, Holy Moses! There’s India… and China…and Brazil! They’re huge and do all kinds of things well. They may have gone to state schools, but they’re smart, they’re confident, and damn do they work hard. Where were these guys when we were growing up? Is it any wonder that under these circumstances, America might have something of a crisis of confidence, move back into our parents’ house (an English Basement?), drink beer, play Galaga and tell stories about the days when we were exceptional? WE used to write all the best papers. WE used to be the good ones in math and technology. We took A.P. Physics, remember?! Hey look, Russia’s here too. He looks good!
I’m not the only one who’s noticed the difficulty America now faces. Niall Ferguson, in his new book, “Civilization,” proclaims that we are now living through “the end of 500 years of Western predominance” and that the only question remaining is whether it’s America or Europe that will “tip over” and completely collapse. America went from being the school standout to the one that everybody talks about quietly and is worried about. But how? Why? To understand the true nature of the problem, we have to go back further than high school, to the very origins of this Special place.
Therapist: America, are you comfortable? Tell me about your earliest memories.
Sandbox upon a Hill
We were on the playground, playing in the sandbox like a normal kid, only somehow we weren’t normal. That sandbox was constructed to be a City upon a Hill, way above where the other kids played, so that the eyes of all other people–even ones who had been out of the sandbox for centuries–would be upon us. We would be a beacon of light and hope to everyone seeking the purest sandbox experience. How were we supposed to know this would lead to deep-rooted psychological problems as adults? We just liked a good sandbox.
In grade school we had the idea that we were entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Nowhere in that phrase is the idea that we would actually have to work and make money while we pursued all of this happiness, for example grading an unending stream of terribly written papers by college freshmen who will be texting for the rest of their lives anyway. Or how about this line we proclaimed in first grade via Thomas Jefferson:
“Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other regions of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence.”
This made it hard to get other kids to come over for play dates. Couldn’t we have been happy just to play with Legos? Did we have to be the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom?
Awkward Teen Years
In middle school, perhaps like a lot of kids, we got a cold dose of reality. It’s that awkward time when kids experience pimples, voice change, bad B.O. and sometimes pure terror. Why should we be any different? In order to grow up, we had to get rid of a part of ourselves—the underbelly of Exceptionalism that said we were so Special that we could make other people do all of our work for us and call it a way of life. Guided by our better angels, we managed to cut off the giant blister of slavery, but not without leaving a huge scar. For a little while, we saw ourselves as the struggling nation we were, and we bonded over simply trying to get back to normal life. But not for long.
We started making things! Machines, railways, better guns, light bulbs, and we were special again. We had splendid little wars with Spain and the Philippines and barely got a paper cut! Though not yet adults ourselves, we took in children, first in Latin America, then all over. They didn’t really ask for this, but we knew what was best. We did a hell of a science project where we made an airplane and then not even gravity could stop us. We were having such a good time that we were completely unprepared when, while playing board games with Germany (a kid from a totally different school district who was getting into all kinds of fights), he sunk our Battleship.
Never one to step away from a challenge, we strapped on our boxing gloves, said goodbye to our middle school days of glory and invention, and went out to fight. As fate would have it, we’d get into another fight with the SAME kid a little while later. What a bully! In between these two big fights we stopped drinking to try to do some self-improvement, but still slid into serious depression when it turned out we were broke. We had promised too many friends nickels from lemonade stands we started, and kept promising even when the lemonade didn’t sell. We even tried painting some money in art class, but when we tried to use it, surprise, no one thought it was worth anything.
In a lot of ways, it was a terrible Sophomore year, but at the same time, we landed on our feet. We had giant parties at the ends of both great Fights, almost forgetting what we had been through. We continued letting our friends in on lemonade stands (actually, it being high school, they sold a lot more than lemonade) without really checking up on them. Just like we had done when we made trains and steel back in middle school, we started once again letting a very small part of us (say 1% of the brain) control everything. In sum, we had had two bad fights (three really), major depression, dirty cities–we didn’t always wash there, and thrown in some malaria and polio for good measure, but we had come out on top. We could wrap our struggles up with bows and say: no matter the challenge, no matter the bully, no matter what we face, America can win. Then we picked a fight with Vietnam.
Vietnam seemed much smaller than Germany, really just a stick-think kid who was causing trouble in his school. We thought we’d rough him up a bit and the whole school would love us. But all the sudden, we looked up and we had been there forever. None of our friends were there. Vietnam didn’t fight fair and there were no teachers to make sure rules were followed. There was no party after this fight—we’re not even sure when it ended. We sort of slinked back home and, for the first time since middle school, started to doubt that we could always have a happy ending. Then in Junior and Senior year, we got our mojo back. Our lemonade stands were heading out all over the world. Our airplanes were going higher and higher. America was once again king of the school! We were so good in math, and science that we took all of those A.P.s. This was the time Russia moved in and promptly imploded. No one could touch us! Everyone wanted to be us. We went to our great college. We did well. We graduated. And then…yikes.
End of Session: Breakthrough?
(America shifts on the couch, a little uncomfortably)
Therapist: Tell me America, if you were me, and you had just heard this story, what would you tell yourself?
America: (pause) First of all, I hate it how you guys always turn questions around, and then charge for it! What do you want me to say? I still think I’m pretty special.
Therapist: I didn’t say you weren’t.
America: I mean, just the other day, Mitt Romney, a very strong-willed leader no less, said, “God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or–
Therapist: America…America…can I cut you off for a moment. I want to hear what YOU think.
America: I told you…I’m Special! I mean were you listening to anything I said while you sat there? I’m a leader! I was a beacon of hope for the world, and I got a great score on the S.A.T.’s , and now people like India, and China…and Norway are getting all the jobs. Norway! I ate that kid for breakfast! I…
Therapist: Let it out, America… let it out!
(gently hands Kleenex)
America: I went to the moon! I invented the Internet! I built the tallest buildings. I used to have all the tallest buildings—not Dubai or wherever that big…
Therapist: Dubai, yes.
America: And everyone wanted to be me! They wore my clothes…they drank what I drank. They loved my music!
Therapist: Yes! And they still do to some degree, but is that what makes you great? Do you have to always be the best, America, or can you sometimes just… be? Can you sometimes just accept being one of many—
America: I am the best!
Therapist: But what if you can’t always the best? Can’t that be freeing!
(Kleenex is flying)
America: I am the best! I don’t care what you say! I don’t care….I’m a winner! I’m a winner! I beat Germany! I beat Russia! I sold all those cars–Used to sell all those cars! I win!
America: I’m special!
(They leap to their feet)
America: I’m!! Dammit I’m…I’m (eyes well with tears…mucus drips down off chin, onto floor). I’m…
Therapist: Say it! If you ever loved yourself, if you ever loved your children!
America: I’m Special…I’m. I’m!
Therapist: Say it!!!
America: I’m…I’m! (pause) I’m…not…that…special.
(Music swells. A giant bear hug between therapist and America. Some pats on America’s blue-ridged back. The two sit back down into their chairs slowly. Awkward post-breakthrough silence)
Therapist: Now, there is one other thing I want to talk to you about. Do you have health insurance?