Americans have a disturbing tendency to refer to themselves as "exceptional". For the rest of us, or even for the odd critical thinker within the United States, this can certainly be irritating - exceptionally irritating, even-often resulting in a state of affairs where we're tempted to conclude that the only genuinely exceptional thing about the United States is how it can manage to be the home of unconscionably large numbers of people who can unhesitatingly aver their global superiority while simultaneously being unable to name any other country on a map of the world.
Because it is not just a case of arrogance, of course. The French are notoriously arrogant. The Germans can certainly veer precipitously in that direction as well, as anyone who has had the misfortune of having the likes of Kant and Hegel disdainfully quoted at him can attest to. And it is not just isolationism or patriotism either. Don't get me started about the English and their constant desire to lapse into pseudo-Churchillian rhetoric when talking about those evil "Eurocrats", or even my fellow Canadians who spend inordinate amounts of time convincing each other about how alarmingly unpatriotic they are, constantly urging themselves to become flag-waving patriots like their neighbours to the south.
No, Americans hardly have a market on either arrogance or patriotism, but there is, unquestionably, a distinctively unique American combination of triumphalist nationalism and wholesale ignorance of the world around them that makes them somehow remarkably impervious to seriously questioning their assumed sense of superiority, leaving them obdurately unaware of how many ways in which their country is, in fact, deeply and unsettlingly inferior to other developed places in the world-countries where universal access to quality health care is as taken for granted as safe drinking water, where prisons are not run as business, and where the "right" to possess an assault rifle is regarded as perplexingly incoherent as the "right" to fellate a rhinoceros.
Given all of that, it is hardly surprising that many non-Americans are looking at the United States today with a wry combination of detached irony and head-shaking bemusement-along with, it must be admitted, a good dollop of Schadenfreude thrown in for good measure. It is hard not to conclude that the particularly vitriolic and mind-numbing culture war that is so methodically ripping America apart does not, in some very real sense, represent the inevitable flock of headless chickens coming home to roost. "Well," many outsiders will naturally be tempted to say with a dismissive wave of their hand, "good luck with all that."
But however emotionally understandable such a reaction might be, it is profoundly wrong for a couple of highly significant reasons.
First, for all of its faults, I strongly believe that the United States is an exceptional country in one particularly important way. True, the vast majority of its citizens are completely misguided about what its genuine, and deeply meaningful, exceptionalism is actually all about. They think that what makes America special is its deep structural relationship to democracy, or its unique attitudes towards human freedom, or its particularly insightful understanding of capitalism-all of which, they will unthinkingly inform you, was somehow the natural consequence of the wisdom of their much-venerated role models, such as the Founding Fathers-or, when it comes to capitalism, the likes of Adam Smith.
Well, you might not be surprised to learn that all of that is complete and utter nonsense. In fact, quite amusingly, you can easily show that it's sheer nonsense by quickly examining what people like the Founding Fathers and Adam Smith actually said-which turns out to be a particularly easy thing to do these days when so much of their thoughts and writings are so easily accessible.
Explicitly pointing that out can be great fun, as I learned when writing my recent book, Exceptionally Upsetting: How Americans are increasingly confusing knowledge with opinion & what can be done about it.
But as enjoyable as it to poke holes in a puffed-up people's self-image using the words of their very own historical heroes, an unavoidable fact for anyone who has bothered to examine the situation with any degree of seriousness is that the United States of America is home to the greatest amount of research, scholarship and innovation on planet Earth. By the proverbial country mile. In pretty well everything. I defy you to come up with one area-from astronomy to zoology, ancient history to science fiction, Renaissance art to interpretations of Aztec religious rites, modern dance to classical ballet-any subject you care to pick-where you will not only find large numbers of world-renowned experts based at American institutions, but-inevitably-nothing less than the dominant share of the world's experts.
So that's point number 1: American institutions of research and scholarship, by any meaningful measure you'd care to consider, blow away those of every other country in the world combined.
That is a tremendous-indeed, simply stupendous-accomplishment, that is in no way diminished simply because hundreds of millions of their confusingly proud, bumper-sticker-toting citizens are wholly unaware of it as they pop another Krispy Kreme donut into their mouths.
Which brings us to point number 2: America matters. Now, usually when people say things like that, the natural tendency is to assume that something is being said about fractional share of global GDP, or military might, or control of the media, or Hollywood films, or political posturing.