Will Americentrism Be Our Undoing?

Perhaps the title was a bit melodramatic, as most headlines tend to be, but my point is a sincere one: is our sense of importance and superiority – what is known as American exceptionalism – contributing to the many woes afflicting this country? To take it a step further, could our relative isolationism from the rest of the world eventually lead us into the decline that some see as inevitable, if not already ongoing?

I began dwelling on this after reading an article in Foreign Policy that touched on the fact that most Americans failed to scrutinize the flaws in their own economic system, or to question the established notion of the superiority of free markets – all except for mostly foreign-born American citizens, such as George Soros, Nouriel Roubini, Raghuram Rajan, and Mohamed El-Erian. The author goes on to suggest that the “outside” experiences and values of these thinkers is what allowed them a more clear-eyed perspective on what was really going on in this country.

To be sure, there were non-foreign Americans who also called out the flaws in finance, mortgage lending, and the notion of laissez-faire capitalism as well. And United States continues to be an incubator for many innovative ideas and concepts, attracting the best and brightest from across the world.

However, I am beginning to detect a sense of complacency in this country, a sense that despite all that has gone wrong – and is continuing to go wrong – the American way of doing things remains unquestioningly the best way.

Worse still, anyone who questions this – who raises doubts about our economic or political system, society and it’s values – is not only dead wrong but “un-American.” We’ve developed an informal social policy of shunning and demonizing those who criticize this country, stifling the sort of critical thinking and public debate that could better allow us to adapt to these changing and challenging times.

Look at how those who opposed the Iraq War were framed as traitors, or how those who questioned the abuse of civil liberties or the treatment of terrorist suspects were seen as “soft” on national security. Heaven forbid that one makes any critique of American-style capitalism, which earns you the viscerally applied label of an immoral socialist or communist.

Hell, why should being those things even be so intrinsically evil? Can’t good and well-meaning people, however misguided you may think them to be, think socialism and communism are okay, without having their morality and ethics automatically doubted? Can’t we at least debate these things on their own terms, rather than essentially censoring people from even bringing it up in anyway? I don’t doubt that even writing this is enough for some readers to think I’m some sort of communist pinko.

In any case, I’m somewhat digressing. Going back to my original point, I think we’ve become too entrenched in this chauvinistic notion that the “American way” is the be all, end all, the rest of the world be damned. We’re so convinced that other cultures, countries, political practices, and economic systems are inferior to our own, that we scarcely bother with trying to understand them, let alone attempt to find any merits to them. The average American seems to think that the world outside our borders is decadent, violent, backward, and otherwise inferior to our own.

Granted, in a lot of ways, we Americans do have a lot of wonderful ideas and practices. After all, we wouldn’t be one of the richest, most powerful, most innovative countries in the world for all these decades if we didn’t get something right. And as I’ve argued many times before, the doom-saying about this country’s history  is often quite exaggerated or misplaced. But with all that said, the events of the last decades have shown that this inflated sense of exceptionalism is starting to unwind.

We’re still on top by quite a margin, but we’re teetering. Our economy is sclerotic, with a hollowed out manufacturing base, a relative slowdown in innovation, and a job market mostly resting on relatively low-paying “service sector” occupations. Our healthcare system is not only uniquely “un-universal,” but it still somehow manages to be among the most inefficient and expensive in the world. Our income inequality puts us on par with Russia and Turkey, and is still worsening, while our society continues to become fatter, more indebted, and more educationally stagnant.

In other words, even though things aren’t as bad as a lot of cynics would have it, this country’s accomplishments still remain fragile. Yet despite this, we refuse to question conventional wisdom, or dare to look abroad and study the success of other nations. Ironically, a lot the countries cited as rising powers – China, Brazil, India, Turkey, and so on – credit a lot of their success, in part, to American ideas or to leaders with educated in American universities. These countries saw their domestic problems, and simply looked around for solutions to fix them.

I’m not saying we need to emulate the entire world without question, or give up everything we have and start from scratch. But we need to follow their example of open-minded pragmatism, borrowing or adopting the ideas floating around the larger world beyond our borders; at the very least, we should do more to study them, instead of treating any such “internationalist” outlook as being in conflict with American values.

In a globalized world such as ours, ideas – and even the thinkers and institutions that produce them – transcend nationality or culture. We must make the most of what’s out there, and stop staking our collective egos on believing that doing so is somehow weak or even damaging. After all, what is America today but a historical melting pot of values, inventions, ideas, and people from all across the world?  Why abandon the formula for success that has, in part, made us what we are?

Perhaps the title was a bit melodramatic, as most headlines tend to be, but my point is a sincere one: is our sense of importance and superiority – what is known as American exceptionalism – contributing to the many woes afflicting this country? To take it a step further, could our relative isolationism from the rest of the world eventually lead us into the decline that some see as inevitable, if not already ongoing?