American exceptionalism in need of better direction
Not long ago, President Barack Obama stated in a speech to the nation that we Americans are different from the rest of the world, that in some way we are exceptional.
Rather than defending American exceptionalism or going on a rant about how America’s record on human rights since its founding is not all that exceptional, I want to rise above these debates and offer an important yet often forgotten method of thinking about American exceptionalism. If the formula proposed in this essay is ever permanently embraced by the psyche of the majority of the American people, the United States will be able to thrive and prosper for hundreds of years to come.
Abraham Lincoln stated, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” We can deduce from this and numerous other quotes from great thinkers that if the problem lies within, so does the solution. It lies with the people.
Because we live in a country that is the leading economic, military, scientific and technological power in the world, we as citizens of this nation hold a special responsibility that the citizens of no other nation have the privilege to possess. This responsibility, though it may seem simple, has the potential to greatly influence the decisions that the U.S. government makes. This is extremely important because it gives us, the people, the power to prevent or at least force our government to think twice about any mistake it might later regret. We cannot ignore this responsibility. We owe it not only to our progeny, but also to the rest of the world to make sure that our nation makes the best decisions possible. Whatever decisions the United States makes will have major global political, economic and/or military consequences.
So what exactly is this method of thinking? The method is nothing new, but from time to time it has to be renewed within the consciousness of a people who begin to rely on and trust the intentions of a government too much. This is dangerous. Just because the government of a nation has been successful, as in the case of the U.S., does not mean it will necessarily continue to be. Today, we see multiple signs of where the government is overstepping its bounds because the people have become complacent and have refused to be critical of what happens behind closed doors in Washington. Government spying on everyday Americans, the continued unconstitutional surveillance of American Muslims and the preference of certain demographic groups over others all in the name of security are only a few examples of what happens if the people don’t engage the government. As Benjamin Franklin wrote, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
One of our founding fathers James Madison once said: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Today, we must realize that no government is perfect, and therefore we, the people, must keep them in check.
How do we keep government in check? The solution has its roots in Western philosophy and lies with what the enlightenment thinkers advocated — reason and critical thinking. Our duty is to analyze the information that is given to us and make a logical decision based on the evidence. This means we should not always believe everything the government or the media tells us. We cannot afford to assume we are always being told the truth. Instead, we must take the facts and use our own intelligence to come to our own conclusions.
An example of this method working effectively is the recent debate about whether we should intervene in Syria. I don’t know whether or not an American attack on the Syrian regime would be a good idea, but what I do know is the government was ready to attack. It was only because the American people refused to support a strike on Syria that we reached a possibly peaceful deal. Otherwise, the Obama administration was ready to make a hasty decision, which might have had negative consequences. So, my message to all of you is to take an active role and not allow others to do the thinking for you — this is what true American exceptionalism is all about.
Zagham Chaudry is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science.