American Exceptionalism and Contradictions
By now, the world has concluded that America is insane. A crazy country filled with crazy people who have gone off the deep end. A superpower that has become a veritable asylum.
But for all those who dismiss our colorful country as having passed its prime, I say: American irrationality is part of our greatness. Yes, we can take craziness at times to a bit of an extreme, but the American willingness to always push the envelope and do everything outside the box is what has elevated the United States to become the greatest country on earth.
I lived in Europe for 11 years as the rabbi at Oxford University. I also lived in Australia and studied in the holy city of Jerusalem to become a rabbi. Live anywhere outside of the United States, and you’ll understand why no president — not Trump, and not even Biden — can lock the country down. Tell Americans there is a global pandemic and that they must shut their stores, schools, and synagogues — and they will defy you. They will fight you. Tell Americans that after an innocent Black man is suffocated by a cop that they should not protest because of the coronavirus — and they will march in millions.
There is no way of controlling the strong sense of American individualism.
Let me be clear. That doesn’t mean that we should ever flout medical advice. We must not. People are dying, and we must bring the coronavirus under control. But if anyone is wondering why other countries succeed at lockdowns while the United States defies them, here is your answer.
Americans have a natural suspicion of authority. And I don’t only mean conservatives and Republicans. Liberals and progressives are largely the same. It’s part of the American character, and it’s bipartisan.
I saw this when I lived in the United Kingdom. I’d go to buy a ticket for a movie with my wife, and I watched our British brothers ask, “Where is the queue? Where do you get in line?” But Americans hate lines; they hate waiting; they have no patience.
I admit that sometimes this impatience is a liability, and perhaps the coronavirus is the biggest example of it. But is it any mystery that the same country that refuses to be locked down is also the country leading in the race for a vaccine?
That’s what it means to be an American. We are contradictory, hypocritical, virtuous, flawed, rebellious, divided, united, together and apart. We are all those things and more. But one thing we are not and never will be is controllable.
We’ve seen this in the overwhelming show of force unleashed by America in conflicts such as World War II. When Al-Qaeda murdered 3,000 innocent Americans at the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on 9/11, the result was America unleashing a fury that continues to this day in the war in Afghanistan. Was it wise? Was it an overreaction? Should we withdraw all our troops?
All this is debatable, and no doubt many Americans have regrets over the war in Iraq. But the debate misses the larger point: what remains of Al-Qaeda, not to mention Iran, will definitely think twice before attacking again.
Our nation’s capital is named after the father of our republic, George Washington. But the quintessential American is not the victor at Yorktown but rather Thomas Jefferson, the author, quite literally, of our independence.
Jefferson, in all his contradictions, embodies the paradox that is America: A slave-owner who nonetheless wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever”; a devoted husband who swore to his wife Martha on her deathbed that he would never wed again, but then had six children with Sally Hemings, his slave; and a president who delivered the famous lines at his inauguration, “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle,” but then engaged in brutal partisan warfare against Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists.
We are Jefferson, and Jefferson is us. Virtuous and scandalous. Brilliant and irrational. Visionary and at times blind, as we were in Vietnam. Supremely religious but at times agnostic, as many were with the abomination of slavery. Deeply spiritual but also materialistic. Profoundly just while often ignoring the dictates of justice, as we have in racial matters.
I suspect that this Jeffersonian impulse is one reason that 70 million Americans voted for Donald Trump while he is excoriated by the rest of the world. For Trump embodies so many of the contradictions that are America. A billionaire businessman who has also declared bankruptcy. A twice-divorced husband who has the absolute loyalty of his children. A man accused of being an Islamophobe who attacked Syria for gassing innocent Muslims. A man accused of hating immigrants who married two immigrants. And a president who is loathed by a media that remains utterly devoted to covering him.
Of course, this does not mean that the 80 million who voted against Trump will, or need to, appreciate him. But they do need to appreciate, as do we all, the differences that exist in America.
It is something that President-elect Biden and his supporters — all of whom possess contradictions of their own — ought to remember as they begin to govern. America is not monolithic, it can’t be contained, and it is made of multitudes.
Every American is a host unto themselves.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of more than 30 books and the founder of the World Values Network. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.