American Exceptionalism is a very real thing. Let’s be crystal clear first what it isn’t: rich white guys and their money. That’s what rich white guys and their money want us to believe — that without them, America wouldn’t be America. That has always been top-of-the-line, the best-money-can-buy horse shit. Money has always played a part in what happened here in our slice of North America. Commercial interests drove almost every bit of European colonization. We credit the Pilgrims with seeking “religious freedom” for their coming here but that’s not what actually brought them. The Pilgrims’ first move after leaving England was to Holland where they settled in Leiden and found — to their own delight — a remarkable amount of religious freedom. Their problem was, in Holland, they couldn’t make a living. North America promised both “open-mindedness” and a chance to score financially. Even religious kooks could make it in America!
Opportunity. That’s why Europeans first started coming to North America. Reinvention and reward. The reward was essential to Europeans’ continued interest. The Vikings got to what is now Canada as early as 1021. Their settlement at L’Anse Aux Meadows survived for a few decades and then they abandoned it. Their inability to get along with the Native population had lots to do with it. But so did economics. Leif Erickson had daringly crossed the Labrador Sea from the Viking settlement in Greenland which was, itself, a colony; the Vikings’ home was Northern Europe. Sustaining the Greenland colony was hard all by itself. Sustaining a colony of a colony — with zero reward coming back — that likely impacted their reasoning. When the Vikings retreated from what is now Newfoundland, as far as we know, they never went back. It wasn’t “worth it” to them.
After European pathogens like smallpox, measles and flu did their work (wiping out around 90% of the Native population), conquering the survivors of that germ tsunami became relatively easy. Then it became all about money chasing money. The Virginia Colony was an entirely private venture. “The company’s plan was to reward investors by locating gold and silver deposits and by finding a river route to the Pacific Ocean for trade with the Orient.” The settlers were all employees of a kind, beholden to a dream in their heads (unless they were sent here as a punishment) but also to the Company that sent them and supplied them. Almost from the get-go, though political power (in the form of royalty) claimed dominion over North America, money claimed all the real power. The rise of capitalism, its spread across Europe, undermined any “divine authority” claimed by any king. For all their divine rights, kings couldn’t pay for themselves because the feudal system they relied on for legitimacy was hopelessly corrupt, inefficient and hostile toward labor.
Funny irony? The bubonic plague that swept through Europe during the 14th century did more than just wipe out half to three quarters of the population. It destroyed feudalism. A shortage of laborers turned the labor market on its head; for the first time ever, the guy plowing the lord’s fields got to name his price for doing that plowing. He could just as easily go plow someone else’s field if they were paying more. This is precisely what COVID-19 and the coronavirus that causes it have done to our world. It drove a stake through the corrupt heart of our current economics. It changed not only how we work but what we work at. It drove home how beneficial it is to our economy if we UBI people (provide them a Universal Basic Income) until they can truly fly instead of forcing them to take low paying jobs that don’t match their skill sets or financial needs.
UBI works because it levels the playing field. It’s government doing what we need government to do — giving as many people as possible the same opportunity, the same chance to succeed as everyone else. When a rising tide floats all boats, all boats rise. People get happier and healthier (for reference, see Northern Europe — those Vikings may have gone home to Northern Europe but clearly they learned a thing or two from their travels). They live longer and live more fulfilled lives. They work in order to live. They don’t, as we do in America, live to work.
That unhealthy compulsion is a leftover from America’s founding principle: profit incentive. And don’t forget — one of the American Revolution’s big talking points for why revolution was necessary was “taxation without representation”. Want our money? Hear our voice. But, also let’s not forget that our founders made a Devil’s bargain with slavery at the founding. Instead of rejecting it outright, they compromised with it, making “All men are created equal” embarrassingly ironic. The white, Christian, land-owning men who drew up America’s founding documents had a great idea — “All men are created equal” — that they failed to stick on the landing. They didn’t mean “ALL men” though they they did mean “ONLY men”.
America remains to this day a great idea as yet unrealized. Which brings us to what American Exceptionalism actually IS: Our remarkable, never-happened-before-in-human-history diversity. Or, as our Great Seal puts it: “E Pluribus Unum”.
The nations of Europe that colonized North America were all products of at least fifteen hundred years of local tribes coalescing into national identities, each distinct and distinctive. The Germans are how they are just as the French, the Swiss, the Italians and the English are all how they are et cetera et cetera. Minus the Native American tribes, there was no “culture” in North America. There was no “native tribe” whose origin stories and mythology was the larger culture’s. That’s not to say one didn’t evolve. We have Thanksgiving and Independence Day as American rituals that grew out of mythologies about ourselves that we told ourselves. The same goes for “The American Dream”.
Whereas hierarchy and caste made it nearly impossible for a poor person to become anything other than a poor person, America’s lack of castes made it a place where truly anything could happen and a person could reinvent themselves completely. Opportunity. Reinvention. Promise. All those things flash in neon when the rest of the world contemplates America. If you’re willing to put in the sweat equity, America offers anyone and everyone a shot at greatness — that’s the lure. When it works, it works brilliantly. When it doesn’t — the onus is on us.
Immigration has always been the engine that renewed America’s exceptionalism. Not only do immigrants do the hard physical labor American workers don’t seem to want to do, they bring innovation with them too. Their aspirations counter the last group’s success and temptations to settle. New ideas force old ideas to compete. New ways of doing things make old ways obsolete — ditto the people doing those obsolete things. That’s why the people doing obsolete things get nuts when new ideas drop onto the table.
White people, having tilted the playing field at the start, are now loathe to allow the playing field to be corrected. It’s understandable — power sharing is less predictable than having permanent power in your hands alone. Lose power and you lose money. That also motivates white people to tilt the playing field as much as possible whenever possible.
Imagine if we could actually level the American playing field? Imagine if we could give as many Americans as possible the greatest possible chance to achieve the greatness within them? Think that’d be bad for America? I get depressed thinking of all the greatness America left on the table when it turned its back on Reconstruction and gave racism a boost instead. Think of all the Black minds that, had we but educated them, would have “returned on our investment” in ways we can’t even imagine — because we didn’t nurture the minds that would have scored those returns.