Rear Window Ethics Rear Window Ethics: American Exceptionalism vs. American Action

Monday, June 27, 2005

American Exceptionalism vs. American Action

Remember when Jan Egeland suggested that Western powers were being "stingy" with their tsunami aid pledges? Remember when many Americans became hysterical over that comment, and blogs posted pictures of kids selling lemonade to raise money for tsunami victims with large headlines reading "WE AREN'T STINGY!"? People got so angry when a UN official simply stated that we could afford to do more.

A very interesting article today mentions the fact that many Americans think our country is more generous than it tends to be in actuality.

Polls over the last decade show most Americans believe 10 percent of the federal budget is spent on humanitarian and economic aid for the world's poor and that America gives more than any other country.

But the world's richest economy actually spends just over one half of 1 percent of its budget on aid to the world's poor, less per capita than every other wealthy nation.

"Americans believe they are giving a lot already and that they are giving more than other countries on a percentage basis," said Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes, which has compiled data on Americans' aid views.
The United States was criticized for giving too little government aid after the deadly tsunami that hit Southeast Asia last year. U.S. President George W. Bush said America gave a lot more when private donations were included.

But even when private giving is counted, American aid on a per-capita basis ranks 19th out of 21 rich countries, according to Foreign Policy magazine's 2004 Ranking the Rich survey.
I certainly don't want to belittle any donation -- public or private, large or small -- made by people in this country, nor do I dare oversimplify the complexities of giving aid to some nations run by corrupt governments. There is, however, something fascinating about the American obsession with the feeling of superiority, as well as our anger towards those that challenge that "exceptionalism", both home and abroad.

To be sure, I love this country in which I live. I love that I can grow here, learn here, find work here, and eventually raise a family here -- all while enjoying freedoms that to many people in this world are only fantasies. But all my love for this country doesn't blind me into believing that it is superior in every way and thus has no obligation for improvement.

At the center of this issue is the division between those who think our best days are past us, and those who think our best days should be ahead of us -- visions of America as the land of Superman, Lady Liberty and "The Greatest Generation" and America as a future leader in charity, medical and scientific breakthroughs, and true social equality.

If we we are intentionally deaf to all criticism of our country, if we define ourselves exclusively by our selective, idealized past, if we balk at the notion that to be a truly great nation is to bypass self-satisfaction and continually strive to make our world better, then this so-called "city upon a hill" will slowly fade into obscurity.