I’m not American, and I realize that by gently commenting on the ongoing electoral process in the U.S., I expose myself to quite a bit of vitriol. Nevertheless, I hope some Americans will hear me out.
I’m from Switzerland, living in Japan, and every few months, my work sends me to the United States. Each time, there are two guilty pleasures in I shamelessly indulge before returning to my humble Tokyo apartment: hyper-caloric food and — more interestingly — American television. Specifically American news channels, with their oddly fascinating advertising.
I have yet to see any advertisement on American television that has ever made me want to buy anything — and it figures. Those ads aren’t made for me. For starters, the average cable news viewer in the U.S. is over twice my age. More importantly however, my European education and upbringing have ingrained in me a set of values that don’t overlap with the ones put forward in these commercials.
The most salient value to be exploited beyond reason in American advertising is exceptionalism. Whereas a European advert would encourage you to buy an apple because it’s healthy and tastes good, an American advert would insist that the apple is the product you deserve — the crimson orb of vitamin-packed majesty that will give you the strength and energy you need to be your true, authentic and amazing self.
Such an ad wouldn’t fly in Europe, simply because we don’t get told that we’re exceptional. When I was good at something, my teachers told me “you’re good at this,” not “this amazing skill makes you unique.” As a result, when I see an ad telling me that I deserve the best in life, my first question is: why? I mean sure, I suppose I want the best — when I can afford it and it makes sense — but what is it about me specifically that makes me deserve it?
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think exceptionalism is a bad thing in and of itself. Feeling exceptional leads to confidence, which invites taking risks, in turn breeding creativity, originality and entrepreneurship. These are the qualities upon which America’s might was built. They’ve become so deeply associated with the U.S. that the word foreigners most often use to describe Americans is “confident” (sometimes preceded by “overly”).
However, exceptionalism becomes an issue when exploited for monetary purposes. The truth is, we don’t all deserve the best at all times. In fact, we don’t all need the best at all times. But recognizing that we don’t need things is contrary to the spirit of capitalism; an offense to Uncle Sam. Instead, exceptionalism has been attributed a moral value: Unwavering belief in oneself is seen as an absolute virtue.
Hence begins the vicious cycle. American schools teach children that exceptionalism is a virtue, then companies capitalize on that virtue for monetary gain, which normalizes a distorted view of the merits of exceptionalism, in turn making it socially unacceptable to question the educational methods that started the whole thing, and so the cycle repeats for another generation.
It just so happens that I myself entered the cycle, and was only able to get out because my family moved away at just the right time.
No way out, almost
I started my education in the American public school system and stayed there until the age of 10. Then, I left the U.S. and moved to Europe. The different approach to education was massive and off-putting in ways I couldn’t begin to comprehend at the time. Looking back, two things in particular stand out.
The first is nationalism. In the U.S., the first couple things we did at school every morning were pledge allegiance to the flag and sing the national anthem. That’s not something we do in Europe. We have enough ultra-nationalists as it is, without having to teach our children to worship national symbols and learn hymns that glorify the wars of the past. I can’t even sing past the first five words of the Swiss national anthem .
The second is that modern America has become a society in which every individual has had hammered in their psyche since preschool that they are unique and can do anything. I was told I was special and amazing simply by being alive; that I could become anything I wanted to be, because hard work always paid off.
On the other hand, in Europe I was told that by working hard, doors could potentially open, but I shouldn’t dream too big. That was pretty much it. I had no inherent awesomeness that would shine through no matter what.
Once exceptionalism is firmly established as a virtue in the minds of the young, behaviors and attitudes associated with that exceptionalism become socially acceptable. Because I’m amazing, treating myself from time to time is a good thing. My awesomeness is complex, so others will never be able to truly understand me. And since I’m one of a kind, taking care of myself before helping others seems like the most natural thing in the world.
These behaviors are exploited by cunning advertisers to suck money out of unsuspecting consumers. In a way, American society has become too good at behavioral psychology, employing it for the advancement of vested interests, with no regard for the collective good.
Television abounds with examples. Not happy with your current car? You deserve a new one! Feel like your relationship is in the muck? Someone as incredible as you can definitely find the perfect match! Can’t afford that dream house? Sure you can, here’s a four-generation loan! Feeling pain? You know your body better than the healthcare professionals, so don’t wait for a diagnosis, ask your doctor if Ridiculox is right for you.
This cycle has put America in a very sticky situation. It’s not like teachers can start telling children they aren’t exceptional — even though statistically speaking, most people are by definition pretty close to average. Also, pop culture and advertising need to capitalize on exceptionalism to maximize profit, and don’t have any incentive to stop. Unless we witness some sort of mass reckoning, akin to the famous opening scene from The Newsroom, there just doesn’t seem to be an easy way out.
Incrementally changing minds
I don’t expect for the United States to find a way out of this mess in the near future — although if there is one country that can suddenly mobilize tremendous resources for positive change, it’s America. For now, the best thing to hope for is baby steps; incremental change. That’s where Bernie Sanders comes in.
Some may find it ironic that I believe Bernie Sanders — the guy who keeps calling for a political revolution against the millionaires and the billionaires — is the candidate who can bring incremental change. To understand, we have to distinguish between two types of change. For slow and safe policy shifts, a Buttigieg, Klobuchar or Biden is the way to go. But that kind of incrementalism won’t put a dent in the vicious cycle of consumer exceptionalism. For nationwide incremental change in mentality and morals, Bernie’s the only one there is.
I’m glad to see that the youth vote is buoying Bernie Sanders — and it make sense, who better to question the moral foundations of America than the young. As Bernie’s movement spreads across the country, more and more Americans are coming to terms with the idea that maybe at least in some areas, America is lagging behind. There are countries with better healthcare, public education and social security. Admittedly no single country has found a universally perfect system, but perfection is an unreasonable standard for change.
In my experience — however limited — curiosity and humility have always served as the pathway to self-improvement. We should all take interest in what’s happening in other countries, because the world is brimming with great ideas and has become far more interconnected than most people imagine. That openness toward the outside, coupled with some healthy skepticism about our own institutions and processes, can lead to the kind of creative thinking that we urgently need to solve the greatest issues this world is facing.
Trying to designate the “greatest country in the world” has always seemed to me like a futile exercise in vanity. It’s like asking parents to pick the greatest kid in kindergarten. Rather than making it a competition, we would do much better by collaborating with each other to advance the world as a whole.
That being said, I realize there will always overly competitive people. To them I say: If you want to be the best, at least make sure you shamelessly copy all the right answers off your neighbors.
It reminds of when I was in language school, learning Japanese with a group of students from around the world. One day we had a test, and I finished a bit early. I hung around and asked my classmates as they came out how they’d done. A British guy came out first and told me, “I did rubbish, I’ll probably have to redo my year, I couldn’t even remember the simplest word.” Then an American guy came out and told me, “No problem, it was pretty easy, I’ll pass.”
Out of 100 points, the British guy got 85, the American got 62. Both were somewhat divorced from reality, although in opposite ways. While neither attitude is serving humanity particularly well in this day and age, I’m more concerned about baseless optimism.
Bernie can still say that America is the greatest country in the history of the world — I don’t mind that, it’s part of how politics is played. As long as he keeps encouraging Americans to look abroad for good new ideas. In that most basic act of humility, Bernie is pointing out a gaping hole in the foundation of American exceptionalism. I hope that Americans will see the hole before it’s too late, realize that their exceptionalism is being used against their collective interest, and go back to using reasonable confidence as a fuel for positive change in the world.