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Chester County Press

Editorial: Our American exceptionalism

02/01/2022 02:27PM ● By Richard Gaw

The early education of this editorial’s author began in the dining room of his childhood home, where the same lesson was taught repeatedly until the power of its message became not only sacred, but immovable and totally beyond doubt.

Nearly every weekend, he sat as a child beside his grandparents and aunts and uncles as they layered every discussion about national and world events with an underlying truth that seemed to warm the room the way a blanket does a body:

The United States of America was the greatest nation on earth.

They were the words given to a fortunate son.

The variations used to describe the United States as the greatest nation in the world are a familiar trope; President Harry Truman first coined the phrase to describe the U.S.’s mission to settle the Cold War as the responsibility of “the greatest nation in the history of the world.”

Indeed, every president since has unpacked the phrase, as has everyone from the economist on Wall Street to the shop owner on Main Street, but over the last several years – in his role as journalist, citizen and witness -- the author has begun to measure the strength of this declaration against the rigid reality of a country divided against itself by the poison of its own invented and sinister toxicity; by a racism that lingers like a permanent and accepted wound; by a national politic whose convictions are to their party and not their constituency or their nation; by a media whose words are no longer steeped in facts but monetized by the cash cow of opinion; and by a tsunami of theorists, deniers and fringe dwellers who by the freedom of platforms have self-anointed themselves as the ultimate purveyors of truth and gotten others to believe them.

While the United States is still irrefutably the world’s leader both militarily and economically, the facts begin to draw another picture:

·    According to a Best Countries Report issued by U.S. News and World Report in 2021, the U.S. was ranked as the sixth best country in the world, behind Canada, Japan, Germany, Switzerland and Australia.

·    The U.S. is the world leader in incarceration, accounting for 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Further, its murder rate per 100,000 people ranks it 89th out of 230 countries.

·     In a ranking of healthcare systems among 11 of the wealthiest countries in the world, the U.S. stands at the bottom, despite spending the highest percentage of its GDP (17 percent) on healthcare. In addition, its healthcare costs are the highest out of 48 countries analyzed in a recent study.

·      The U.S. ranked 26 out of 190 countries in the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) assessment of environmental issues in two areas: protection of human health and protection of ecosystems. The U.S. is the second worst of 20 countries when it comes to the share of CO2 emissions.

·        The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international assessment that measures 15-year-old students’ reading, mathematics, and science literacy, placed the U.S. 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science.

·         The U.S. ranks 14th in the world in the percentage of 25-34 year-olds with higher education (42 percent).

·          In terms of infant mortality per 100,000 live births, the U.S. ranks 34th out of 44 countries.

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As defined, American Exceptionalism is the idea that the United States is inherently different from other nations, in that its values, political system, and historical development are unique in human history, often with the implication that the country is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage.

Under the principles of this concept, we have long been held up as the gold standard and the moral center of the universe, but that center is no longer holding.  

Our American Exceptionalism has become our American Fantasia, and those whose foresight is held in high regard are predicting that the nation is headed for an inevitable and complete collapse of its democratic political structures, its economy, its traditions and its global standing. 

A country laying claim to be the greatest in the world cannot be one who functions under the aggregate of conflict and division. Indeed, if the United States is to truly regain its standing, it cannot do so by clinging to its past, but by courageously calling all of its poisonous forces into a room and marginalizing each one that threatens to tear it down.

The author of this editorial stares into a memory photograph of the Sunday meals he enjoyed as a child. He sees the faces of those who endured a Great Depression, who fought in a world war and in the Korean Conflict, who joined the workforce at companies that became giants of business and who also raised families.

They are all gone now, and the blanket that they had made – one that had once cloaked the child with truth and assurances and made the United States the greatest nation on Earth -- has disappeared.

We are in winter.