American Exceptionalism

Paris, Île-de-France, France
September 02, 2016

CDG–I’m Here

Having just survived an embarrassing conversation…..and I use the term “conversation” liberally…..with a very nice woman at Air France, and having witnessed several acts of ugly Americanism even before leaving the airport, I’ve decided.

I don’t believe in “American Exceptionalism.”

Apart from the fact that I am the poster child for “anything but exceptionalism” in my command of French, I suppose I came to doubt the notion that America is better than everyone else long ago.

When, I’m not sure?

It was probably in those pivotal twelve months between Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets” in January of 1966 and Jim Morrisons’ “Light My Fire” in January of 1967. A lot changed that year.

Truth be told: I didn’t like the idea, as my mom would often remind me, that “America is the only country that doesn’t dip its flag” to the host country in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. That seemed a fitting “in your face” to Hitler in Munich in 1936; not so much to Jean Claude Killy in Grenoble in 1968.

I didn’t like the idea, oft repeated as an argument against withdrawing from Viet Nam, that “America has <b><i>never </i></b>lost a war.” That seemed a thin excuse to stay where it seemed, even to an 11 year old boy, we were doing just that.

I don’t like to hear crowds cheer: “USA………….USA………….USA” It makes me uneasy. I don’t know why, but it does. Didn’t like it when the US beat the Russians at Lake Placid; sure as hell didn’t like it at the political conventions, Republican or Democrat, this past summer.

I don’t like the “medal count” during the Olympics. I admire the athletes individually and, yes, I will root for the home team, but it seems . . . I dunno . . . .”unolympic” . . . to post a graphic comparing countries.

I agree with every bit of Will MacAvoy’s opening rant in <i>Newsroom</i> when, asked “why is America the greatest country in the world?”, he responded “ It’s <b><i>not</i></b> the greatest country in the world” and went on to say “We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies.”

No, I don’t believe in American Exceptionalism.

I believe in American Humility.

I believe in the “no-thanks-necessary” genius of the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, and the Peace Corps. I believe in sports héros who are soft spoken, tip the cap when victorieux, and gracions in defeat. Guys like John Wooden, Arthur Ashe and Jack Nicklaus. I believe in an America where we were all, every one of us, taught it was rude to talk about yourself.

I believe in the unspoken stillness of Normandy.

France is generally regarded by Americans as an arrogant country. The conventional wisdom seems to be that Parisians in particular are rude and dismissive. I have not found that to be true ..

One of the many things I learned from my French instructor and good friend Evelyne is to introduce myself by a simple French phrase: “Bonjour monsieur. Excusez-moi, pour mon mauvais francais, mais je veux essayer.” Loosely translated: “Hello. I know I’m butchering your language, but I wanna give it a try.” This usually generates four reactions: (1) a smile, (2) a rapid response I cannot comprehend, (3) gradually escalating annoyance as I do in fact try . . .and fail . . . and finally (4) a very sympathetic invitation to speak English.

I try to decline this invitation. Two reasons:

First, it’s a trap. It’s a clever French trick to assert bilingual dominance and win the bragging rights that come with that. No. No, sir-ree Bob. I mean, Baub. I mean “Raub.”  “Merci beaucoup mon ami, mais je suis un Americain.”

Second, it seems only right to at least try to speak the language of your host. It’s like removing your hat inside, opening a door for a woman, standing when meeting someone, sitting in a courtroom only when invited to by the judge, speaking softly in a public place, or listening politely as another boasts about his children, but never boasting about your own.

We Americans are as parents, and as a people, at our best when we say the least about our own virtues, which are not as many as we would like to think, and are mindful of our own faults, which are more than we would care to admit . There is much to be said for silence.

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