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Bob Franken

By some measures, far from exceptional

WASHINGTON — "American Exceptionalism" — the notion that the United States is the greatest nation, right or wrong — has been drummed into our brains from the day we're born. Anyone who dares to debate the concept is dismissed as unpatriotic. • The concept of the country as a "City on a Hill" dates back to the Puritans. Now, it's the conservatives who try and enforce a "Love It or Leave It" zealotry. It's also handy to them as another reason to attack President Barack Obama, for having the audacity to adjust to the modern world.

When the president was asked about it last year he responded: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." That was enough for the conservatives.

Just about all Republican wannabee presidential candidates have jumped on the exceptionalism bandwagon. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., are all onboard. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee declares: "To deny American Exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation."

Sarah Palin — never one to be outdone in the heart and soul department — went right after the president in her book, saying that "when President Obama insists that all countries are exceptional, he is saying none is, least of all the country he is leading."

In the United States, we have been exceptional and still are. One characteristic that makes us unique is the freedom to debate where we've come as a nation and where we're heading. In some vital areas, it is in the wrong direction.

The latest worldwide International Student Assessment rates the United States as average or even below average when it comes to the education of children in math, science and reading.

How about life expectancy, which is such a good barometer of health care? The United States is 49th. And that's not from a leftist organization. That information is courtesy of the CIA Factbook.

The U.S. Agriculture Department recently reported that one in six in our country faced hunger last year.

Much of this is explained by the data that show income disparity in the United States is more extreme than anywhere else among developed nations. We're slipping.

Our performance flies right in the face of the "exceptional" description that Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about in the 1830s. He chose that word then to laud the character and egalitarian ideals of the nation, rooted, for instance, in the Declaration of Independence with its rights to "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

These aspirations are also enshrined in our remarkable Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights. They set us apart. We don't need the political opportunists using their divisive sound bites to demand that we blindly root for the home team.

We still are the richest, most powerful nation on Earth, but we can only stay there if we avoid complacency and meaningless rhetoric. We must continue to live the ideals and values which have created the exceptional America.

© 2010 Hearst Newspapers

By some measures, far from exceptional 12/17/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:42pm]
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