America’s Exceptionalism Will be its Downfall
American exceptionalism has a lot to answer for.
To observe it closely, however, demands an awareness of other cultures and realities its proponents seldom have, despite the multicultural fabric that has always made up the United States.
I’m a naturalized immigrant but I still feel other, more so than ever. My particular brand of otherness is commonly referred to on this side of the Atlantic as ‘cheese-eating surrender monkey’, sometimes in jest, sometimes with spite.
Suffice to say I was born in a country not only famous for its myriad cheeses, but also for its collaborationism during WWII. This, however, is not how I introduce myself every time the “Where are you from then?” question arises, which happens regularly since I don’t sound American at all. (More Sherlock Holmes than Clouseau, sorry not to fit the cliché).
“I’m from the country that gifted the United States the Statue of Liberty,” I reply.
It’s a good way to break the ice and find out whether it’s safe to continue the conversation. Over the years, this answer has elicited everything from big smiles of delight to confusion, shock, surprise, and even denial. Let’s just say that some folks are still having difficulties digesting their so-called Freedom fries.
Still, I do believe it’s more important than ever to embrace multilateralism and strengthen allyships, and that it falls to each and every one of us at every level of society to try and do this, not just to the career diplomats.
To me, this is the only way to push back against the rise of state-sanctioned nationalism, a scourge decidedly as unexceptional as it is un-American, at least to this little European kid who grew up in a region that doubles up as a giant military graveyard.
To give you an idea of how present history was, the first German word I ever learned was Friedhof thanks to the many signs pointing to the final resting places of Wehrmacht soldiers. The second was Stalag because my grandfather — himself an immigrant from Eastern Europe — spent the war in German labor camps as a POW. Choosing to study German at university was a no-brainer.
Because Nie wieder. Plus jamais. Never again.
As long as I shall live, this will never not be relevant to me.
Imagine my horror when my history books started coming back to life, in America of all places.
Imagine my dismay when, instead of taking the rising threats seriously, America just kept laughing at the buffoons on the screen, the orange clown and his repulsive mastermind, a blessing and a boon to humorists and journalists alike, who, to this day, are still cashing in.
Imagine my revulsion when the also-ran was crowned king of everything. This was a brutal introduction to the US electoral system, one that led me to conclude American democracy is a sham.
Intellectually, I cannot comprehend how a country where all votes do not carry equal weight dares call itself a democracy — it goes against the very definition of the word.
If you’re an immigrant too, you don’t even need to imagine any of the above because we lived — we’re living — through the same thing together while some of the natives continue to give us the side eye.
And we’re all second-class citizens now.
Please, please do understand that I take no pleasure in writing this but it needed to come out. I do not feel proud of being an American anymore. That pride died on Jan 20, 2017, it was not even two-month old! Since then and like many of you, I’ve been absolutely mortified.
“How could a sexual predator become POTUS?”, my mother — who lives overseas — asked shortly after the election. To this day, reader, I have been unable to provide an answer.
The America I pledged allegiance to in December 2016 is no more. Instead, it has been replaced by some grotesque ethno-nationalist, christo-fascist experiment straight out of the dictator’s playbook. Before this happened, like countless others, I was dazzled by the forward momentum of the Obama era. I was giddy with joy in 2008 and again in 2012 although I had no plan to immigrate at the time.
This, America, is how much I loved you. I loved you like you love a family friend who had your back when it mattered. You helped free my country from the Nazis, remember? I wasn’t born but this is the kind of gratitude that is passed down from one generation to the next and onto the one after that, at minimum.
The entire world used to look up to America for the longest time.
Now it looks away in embarrassment while Americans with a conscience — and a heart — apologize profusely to whomever is still willing to listen while our country becomes a little more isolated every day.
And yet, amid the uncertainty following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I took great pleasure — and sought solace — in preparing for naturalization and learning civics as I’d frequently be rewarded with a grinning picture of Barack Obama or Joe Biden when I answered the relevant questions correctly.
Never underestimate the power of a benevolent smile in trying times.
I took the online civics test obsessively, time and again, just for those smiles. On the day of the naturalization ceremony, I unexpectedly felt tears rolling down my cheeks as I watched President Obama’s video message to new citizens.
I could barely hold it together. The relief I felt in knowing I was safe was greatly overshadowed by the gnawing dread of what was to come.
None of this dread turned out to be paranoia.
Since then, we’ve witnessed human rights being taken away piecemeal from anyone who doesn’t fit the current regime’s idea of an American, or of a ‘desirable’ immigrant.
As for asylum, forget it: There’s no longer any pretense of having a duty of care toward those in need.
In this context, does anyone still believe America is the cat’s meow?
Many are now roaring with pleasure, rolling around in their delusions of grandeur like rampaging MAGA-hatted bull elephants on heat, oblivious to the suffering of those among them, oblivious to how America is being perceived abroad, oblivious to what it likely took to facilitate the ascension of the Cheeto-hued one to power.
To believe in American exceptionalism is to be blind to the rest of the world even though the whole world used to be at home in the United States.
To believe you’re the biggest, the strongest, the greatest inevitably means looking down on everybody else, including many of your foreign-born fellow countrymen and women.
Is this who America is now? And if so, where does that leave those of us who came here from elsewhere?
With a heavy heart, I must confess that the longer I stay, the less I feel I’ll ever belong here.
For to belong would mean to be complicit with this regime.
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