You're not special, but WE are -- an open letter to President Obama

Dear President Obama,

I know there has been a lot of discussion on your remarks that American exceptionalism is the same as Greek exceptionalism or any other nation's "exceptionalism."

I don't mean to pile on and I hate to be rude, and I know I'm more than a day late to this and far more than a dollar short, but all the same what you said was bullshit.

I know that, like me, you were raised abroad (at least for a significant part of your childhood.) Unlike me - at least as far as I can tell (please forgive me if I'm making an unwarranted assumption) - you have not been in love with the US since you were eight, so you didn't think much about what made America special. Also, having an American mother - who might not, herself, have understood how special America was - might have insulated you somewhat from the local culture of Indonesia. And, of course, you didn't spend much time in other countries. And you didn't speak their languages. You did not read books written for natives. You did not listen to children's tales designed for native children. You didn't sit in a restaurant and listen to native WWII veterans speak about their own country and others.

You will tell me that few people -- American or not, raised here or not -- have. And you are correct. Which is why many Americans believe the load of horse apples you sputtered about exceptionalism. Which is why many Americans cringe when someone waves the flag. Which is why many Americans think it marks them as troglodytes if they say their country is better than others.

They are wrong. And you are wrong.

I knew this when I first heard you say it, but I knew it at an instinctive gut level. I was not able to formulate why you were abysmally wrong until the other day when I was listening to - of all things - the sound track of Evita. When they talk of the Rainbow Tour there is a line so casually thrown in that it probably came from speeches or headlines of the time: "Argentine glory." And I realized how unAmerican that expression would be if we spoke of "American glory" in reference to a first lady's tour of other countries.

I know that when you hear of American exceptionalism, you hear the same note. But that is because you don't understand what we mean.

Everywhere from Argentina to Portugal to Norway to Sweden to... Indonesia, one hears the same words over and over again: "pride" "glory" and all of them are tied to... WHO they are - not what they are. Even other colony-started-nations, like Brazil, for instance, will talk of the mix of blood, the mix of races that makes them "special." German veterans gathered over lunch talk of the Deutsche Volke and by that they mean their genetic group: their people. (Most names of a nation or tribe also mean "human" - excluding those not of their blood from the definition of humanity.)

We are not like that. We are no special race. We are no special breed. My mother, while visiting, fourteen years ago was appalled at the "complete mix of peoples" the lack of a "unifying characteristic" of my neighborhood. I told her thank you and that I liked it that way, but I could as easily have said "it doesn't matter. They're all American."

Can you imagine any American carefully itemizing the genetic components that make us American? Can you imagine, when confronted with news of some great action performed by an American saying, "That's our blood?" No? Neither can I. I can imagine saying "That's one of us" but that has nothing to do with blood or heritage.

What binds us together instead are our Constitution and our magnificent Declaration of Independence. What binds us together is our understanding that all men are born free, endowed with rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I know you have read that. I know that you've applied various Marxist pseudo analysis to it and decided it wasn't affirmative enough because it doesn't guarantee equality of results. (I encourage you to study the French revolution, which did. The encapsulation of THAT revolution could be "no good will come of this".) But we Americans tend to think that guaranteeing any result at all takes away from our freedom, see? We prize our liberty more than a meager ration dispensed from above. THAT too makes us American.

In America, Mr. President, one free to succeed or fail as spectacularly as one wishes. One is free to be who one wants to be.

It is those beliefs that make us one people. When we get misty eyed at the flag, we're not doing so in defense of a race a blood, a type. There's nothing racist about American nationalism. (Probably why we're the world's worst "Imperialists" - we come, we conquer, we want to go home and get back to our everyday jobs. We don't think "our people" are any sort of master race that should rule others.)

We love the symbols of America because we believe so strongly in the principles that make us the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Most of us - if not all of us - are the rejects of other lands or the descendants of the rejects of other lands. We're the oddities, the misfits. We were either kicked out or we left, to come to this land where everyone had a chance. We left behind kith and kin, training, profession safety. We threw our lot with the US because we believed in it. "Your people shall be my people."

The odds of us making it at all were close to zero. The odds of us growing into the most powerful nation in the world were lower than that.

And yet here we are: a people by choice, a nation by belief.

Just before I left Portugal for the States, twenty five years ago, my aunt who had lived most of her life in France pulled me aside and told me not to do it. "You'll never be one of them," she said. "You'll always be an outsider." No doubt you experienced this yourself, in Indonesia. You were the kid who stuck out, the one who didn't sound right. You could live there your entire life, but you'd never be one of them. For that, you had to be born of them.

But even twenty five years ago I knew that my aunt was wrong about the United States, and now I can tell you, she was VERY wrong. Oh, I have an accent. My teaching degree is not accepted by the US. And I had to learn ways of doing things that seemed odd. But all of those were minor points of acculturation. From almost the moment I set foot on American soil I have been an American. (Formal citizenship had to wait a few more years.) My poor Aunt shouldn't be blamed for being wrong. Her only experience was as a Portuguese in France, and of course one can't become a part of another blood, another tribe.

One can become a member of a group that's bound by beliefs and laws, though. One can come in, fit in, and be one of us, no matter how odd one sounds, no matter what one looks like.

In that, America is more like a religion - a thoroughly secular religion which, thank heavens, doesn't promise utopia or paradise to anyone: just a chance to try to (to quote the Army commercial) be all that each of us can be with minimum impairment from the government and other authorities.

If you don't realize how truly exceptional that is, Mr. President, I encourage you to meditate on why the British band is said to have played The World Turned Upside Down when Lord Cornwallis surrendered at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781.

Cornwallis understood the - I'm sure he thought it galling - miracle that occurred there. He was beaten by scruff and ruff, by commoners, who never should have had a chance against him. His nation with its roots dug deep in genetics and shared binds of blood was defeated by those who banded together and became brothers (and sisters) not in blood but in beliefs.

And that, Mr. Obama, is why we are exceptional. We turned the world upside down. And we're keeping it that way.

posted by Sarah on 11.18.10 at 12:24 AM



Superb! Thank You!

You echo the thoughts of Ronald Reagan who said that one must be born a Frenchman but one can become an American.

T   ·  November 18, 2010 12:49 AM

I also am American by choice. It is not perfect, but it is still unequaled.

Michael Z. Williamson   ·  November 18, 2010 1:01 AM

Wow. I'd stand on my chair an cheer, but my eyes are so full of tears I can't see.

This is just... extraordinary. Sarah, you say exactly what I have always felt, but much more eloquently!

Well done!


Lin W   ·  November 18, 2010 1:26 AM

I read this and knew it was you before I saw your name or Kitty-Dragons post. Maybe that's why I like your writing so well. I lie the way you think!

sanford   ·  November 18, 2010 8:17 AM

I take no exception to that!

M. Simon   ·  November 18, 2010 8:52 AM

Absolutely brilliant. Thank you.

Eric Scheie   ·  November 18, 2010 9:39 AM

Just wonderful and spot on.

RickC   ·  November 18, 2010 9:41 AM

Perfect. Just perfect.

Kizmet   ·  November 18, 2010 2:03 PM

That was (umm - I think those posting the previous comments have used all the good adjectives.) I mass-quote: "Superb, extraordinary, eloquent, brilliant, wonderful and spot on...Perfect." And, I might add, beautifully well-written.

Thank you.

Kathy Kinsley   ·  November 18, 2010 7:12 PM

I'm sure you're familiar with this, Sarah:

Everyone who deigns to call themselves American should encounter it sometime in their lives, the earlier the better I believe.


JJ Brannon   ·  November 19, 2010 11:10 AM

This is somewhat off topic but I keep reading the statement

"Most names of a nation or tribe also mean "human" "

on the net

So can anyone name even one nation or tribe whose name also means "human"

All the nations I can think of have names derived from history or geography that have nothing to do with "human" or "people" or anything like that

konshtok   ·  November 19, 2010 12:25 PM

Here's some from American tribes.

Kathy Kinsley   ·  November 19, 2010 7:06 PM

As an historian, and an "Americanist" at that, I have to agree with you Sarah. you hit it right on the head.

Jim McCoy   ·  November 19, 2010 7:26 PM

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