January 20, 2009: On American Exceptionalism

J Philip Faranda January 20, 2009

Full disclosure: I did not vote for Barack Obama. However, he won the election, he is my president, and I wish him well; the better he does, the better it is for us all. Even though Mr. Obama did not get my vote last November, he has my respect.

I am 41. I never thought I would see an African American elected president in my lifetime. I am very proud of our country, and I have never heard those words uttered with more frequency than these current days. Some people may say that because their guy won. My guy didn’t, and I am still proud. Barack Obama received more votes in the 2008 election than any president in our nation’s history. In spite of political polarization of recent years, the so-called “Bradley effect” and other stereotypes, we as a nation voted based on the content of the candidate’s character and not the color of his skin.

This to me speaks to the best of American Exceptionalism, and why our best days are ahead of us, even though we are in a crisis. Mr Obama’s election tells us that more than a color barrier has been broken. Consider the following:

  • With Obama’s presidency, 2 of the last 3 presidents come from single parent households of very modest means. Since Truman, only 3 of 11 presidents have come from wealth.
  • One generation removed from Jim Crow, the descendants of slaves will live in the White House. That is, in a historical context, rather fast progress. Who knows what we can accomplish in the next 40 years? 20? 5?
  • When I was 6, Nixon was president and we were in the midst of Vietnam and Watergate. I grew up in a integrated town in suburban New York, but my view of black folks at that time came as much from Sanford and Son as anything else. My 6 year old son’s view of African Americans is beginning with the President of the United States.
  • We can argue about the USA’s standing in the international community until we are blue in the face, but we can all agree on this: the USA is the first country to make one of it’s most oppressed minority the leader of the nation. Don’t hold your breath about an ethinic Morrocan Arab being elected president of France, an Aborigine becoming Prime Minister of Australia, or a woman becoming head of state in Saudi Arabia.
  • No one seems to even notice that the last time we had a white male confirmed as Secretary of State it was 1993.

Alexis de Tocqueville was fascinated by our culture and he invented the phrase American Exceptionalism. 200 years ago he predicted some of the great debates we have in our society this very day. We are far from perfect, indeed. But in many, many metrics, we still lead the world, and for that we should be proud. We are the iconoclast nation. We are more the beacon of progress and liberty to a watching world than ever.

Sometimes we forget that the light bulb was born here in New Jersey, or that aviation became a reality in North Carolina. I could go on, like the telephone, polio vaccine, Mad Magazine, blue jeans, and the Peace Corps  (I believe the Brits perfected radar, but that only barely exonerates them for Fish & Chips), but I think you get the point. We rock, still. And just as an aside, let me know what other country I can go to, take a 75 hour course, get a license, work my tail off, and no matter what I look like or sound like, in 2 or 3 years enter the top 1% in income.

I will watch the inauguration later today both for the history I’ll witness and out of respect for those who made the day possible; the millions who suffered, the tens of thousands who gave their lives, and also the billions who will watch, wondering just what wall we’ll knock down next.

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