I jetted into New York last week just in time for Independence Day. Presidential elections are four months away and the press has been filled with handwringing articles about America’s place in the world. With China catching up to the world’s biggest economy and critical indicators like exports, education and health in relative decline some are questioning the whole idea of American exceptionalism. Yet just two years ago a Gallup poll found that 80% of Americans believe that the U.S. has a “unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world.”
I’m not sure that view will have changed much. When I first arrived in this country sixteen years ago the thing that struck me were the flags. You see them in rich neighborhoods and poor ones, Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal. Today I can assure you the flags are flying as far and high as they ever did. After two world wars driven by nationalism, we’ve grown understandably weary of such zealous patriotism but to dismiss it as loud-mouthed arrogance is to miss something that does make this country exceptional.
On the day after the 4th of July, I took a tour of Ellis Island. For 62 years this was the gateway for millions of immigrants coming to America. Arriving by ferry, you start to imagine what it must have been like to leave the land of your birth, with no more than what you could carry, and start afresh in a country where you couldn’t speak the language. As you saw the statue of liberty beckoning, flame in hand, you knew that whatever persecution you were fleeing, here you would be free.
Up until recently, America’s immigrants were almost always freedom seekers. In the early 1600’s it was the puritans fleeing religious persecution from what they saw as a corrupt Church of England. They believed their manifest destiny was to create “a shinning city upon a hill” free from tyranny and oppression, that would be a beacon of light to the entire world. If they got it right God would favor them. For many this divine endorsement simply became a form of nationalism. However, the critical difference between European and American nationalism is that in Europe, nationalism was an ethnic entitlement. You were either part of the supreme race or you weren’t and if you weren’t you could face relentless persecution, or as the holocaust demonstrated, extermination. American nationalism was never a blood right and it couldn’t be attained by bowing to a monarch, it came by swearing allegiance to an idea of freedom. In a land that embraces immigrants from all over the world, nationalism is actually internationalism, internationalism of the ideals of personal and political liberty.
Along with freedom, America has always been synonymous with opportunity. But it’s vast lands and mineral wealth belies its true wealth—people. At Ellis Island I found an inscription of an old immigrant joke:
“I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things: First, the streets weren’t paved with gold; second, they weren’t paved at all: and third, I was expected to pave them.”
Those immigrants who arrived with little more than a dream got down and did the paving knowing that if they worked hard one day they could own a house on those streets. It’s no coincidence that the first self-help books were written in the U.S., acknowledging that your past wasn’t your future; if you worked hard and improved yourself the sky was the limit. Today that’s a cliché but back than it was revolutionary. A European peasant never dreamt of being more, his class was his destiny. That changed when American ideals spread around the world.
A reader of my book, Quest, Inc. asked me why I set my fictional personal development agency in the U.S. Where else would you position the world’s #1 personal development agency? Not just freedom, historically America’s gift to the world is the freedom to be more than you currently are.
Does that make America better than anywhere else? President Obama put it like this: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” America may not be objectively better but for centuries it held up a better ideal. While Native American, black, female and homosexual Americans have not always been granted those rights, their country’s ideals have ultimately made the U.S. and much of the rest of the world a far better place.
I was taking a break on a run through central park yesterday. I got talking to an old New Yorker. Nick told me that his father had emigrated from Sicily. In the political turmoil and persecution he and his compatriots had fled, they had no documents. That’s why, he told me, Italians were called Wops—With Out Papers. Just before parting he shouted out: “Give me liberty or give me death! That,” he said, “is the essence of this country.” I’d add a caveat: Give me liberty—the liberty to be who and what I want to be.” That, to me, is the essence of this country.
Ellis Island – Immigrant Arrival Area