Persico Challenge:  Issue 1 – American Exceptionalism

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At the beginning of the 2022 New Year, I issued what I called “The Persico Challenge” to some of my blogger friends.  The gist of my challenge was to address three issues over the course of the next year that I would send them.  In return, they could send me three issues that I would need to address.  One friend took me up on this challenge and we agreed on three issues that we would each address.  Ms. Jane Fritz (who has a wonderful blog site at Robby Robin’s Journey) sent me the following issue to address.

“The decline of American democracy – and the moral authority of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation – is a topic of discussion in opinion pieces worldwide these days.  Can the “exceptionalism” of America, perhaps best defined by its unique belief in individualism (vs the common good), unite Americans or is its commitment to individualism to be its downfall?”

Well Jane, I have to start off by disputing the idea that America is committed or exceptional when it comes to individualism.  No doubt there is the “belief” that Americans are more individualistic than other cultures.  Indeed, studies such as done by Dr. Geert Hofstede (A Dutch social psychologist) show Americans to be high in Individualism versus Collectivism.  Dr. Hosftede defined six dimensions that could be used to differentiate nations and cultures.  Pertaining to the dimension of Individualism Americans ranked 91 on a scale of 100 in respect to this dimension.  For comparison, the Chinese ranked 20 on the same scale. 

“The fundamental issue addressed by this dimension is the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members. It has to do with whether people´s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “We”.  In Individualist societies people are only supposed to look after themselves and their direct family.  In Collectivist societies people belong to “in groups” that take care of them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.”— Hofstede Insights on America

I dispute this claim as rooted in desire and not actuality.  Americans profess a desire to be individualistic but in reality, they are to quote Hofstede “The best joiners in the world.”  Americans all want to be part of something that can boost their self-esteem.  The prevalence of what has been called “Identity Politics” is rooted in the American desire to be part of something else that is powerful and noteworthy.  Thus Americans identify as Democrats who love the Boston Patriots and belong to the Boston Choral Society, or they identify as Republicans who love the Green Bay Packers and belong to the Wisconsin ATV Club.  I am stereotyping and generalizing here but my point is that Americans today seldom do anything by themselves.  They belong to clubs, fraternities, associations, and on-line websites that are beyond anything imaginable.  Americans are loath to stand out and speak up.  Go to any classroom in the country to see how seldom students will speak up when asked a question by their instructors. 

But Exceptionalism and Individualism are not the same thing.  Exceptional is defined in Webster’s Online Dictionary as: “Unusually good; not typical; outstanding.”  America is no doubt an extremely unique country.  It has been blessed with an abundance of natural resources, good climate and proximity to oceans and waterways that have facilitated transportation and commerce.  America’s dedication to democracy may seem to be ringing a good deal more faint than in the past but no one can argue that there is still a commitment by many to democracy as opposed to an autocratic government.  One might ask if America’s democracy is the most outstanding or exceptional government in the history of civilization?   

The term democracy first appeared in ancient Greek political and philosophical thought in the city-state of Athens during classical antiquity.  If democracy is “Government of the people, by the people and for the people” than a total democracy has never existed.  From the Greeks to modern times there has always been stipulations in every country professing a democracy on who may vote and who may have a say in running the government.  In early America, only white male landowners had a right to vote.  Gradually over the years, democracy has been becoming more inclusive in terms of who may vote.  Nevertheless, dissatisfaction with democracy remains high in many countries throughout the world. I would argue that there is nothing exceptional about American Democracy. 

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Perhaps we can ask if Americans themselves are exceptional?  Are or have Americans been more moral or ethical than other people in the world?  I would be fairly certain that if you asked the Indigenous people in this country, the answer would be a resounding NO!  I would also assume that the same reply would come from African Americans and many other minorities in this country.  Having traveled to 34 countries, I have not found Americans to be any more ethical or moral than the people I have met in these 34 countries. 

The final part of Jane’s question is “is its commitment to individualism to be its downfall?”  My answer is no.  First of all, I do not see a downfall, but I do see a decline as the “Leader of the Free World.”  However, I do not think that this decline is due to either a true individualism or even a belief and commitment to individualism.  I do not see anything “exceptional” about America’s professed commitment to individualism.  If anything has eroded the moral integrity of America and its leadership in the world, it has been its commitment to a capitalism based on rampant greed and materialism.  True, greed has always been with us.  There are over 70 major verses about greed and materialism in the Bible.  There are 35 Islamic quotes about greed in the Koran and Hadith.  In Buddhist writings, greed is one of the three poisons of life.  In Hindu theology, greed is one of the six sins or vices of life. 

America has come to define itself with the famous line from the movie Wall Street that “Greed is good.”  Bigger is always better.  There is never enough.  Shop till you drop.  Don’t stop until you have more than your neighbor.  Importance is measured by economic prosperity.  Greed is no longer a vice in America but a virtue.  Every profession in America now seems motivated by greed rather than service.  Lawyers, doctors, dentists, and politicians are more concerned with their earnings than what they can do for others.  Even journalists and their media have succumbed to the desire for more and more profits.  The President of Mexico said a few days ago that journalists are not fighters to uncover corruption. He said, “No, they are none of that. They are hired thugs that do just the opposite.”  He insists reporters work for huge business interests that don’t like him because he fights for the poor.

America’s education system is in shambles.  The elite are privatizing education and pushing the poor into education ghettos where little or no learning takes place.  Our media are only interested in selling advertising for large corporations.  Our corporations are multi-national conglomerates which have no interest in America, the environment, democracy, or the elimination of poverty.  They are only interested in whatever will bring more revenue to their bottom line. 

If there is any one factor that will destroy a person or nation it will be greed.  It is an insidious disease which eats away morality and ethics.  Eventually, you are left with a nation of acolytes who subscribe to amoral philosophies and legal legerdemain to get as much as they can.  Even the courts cannot curtail the onslaught of greed since it is legal and legitimate in the eyes of the law. 

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I see the decline of America as a role model and leader for the world inevitable unless it lets go of its materialism.  We can only agree to spend 1 trillion dollars on needed infrastructure and it takes a year to pass a bill authorizing such an expenditure.  However, a 3.2 trillion dollars defense bill can be passed by both sides with little or no debate in a matter of weeks.  There is something seriously out of balance in America.  Perhaps our obsession with guns and security reflect the fear that someone will take our money and toys away.  We have our priorities upside down and few people seem to really care as long as taxes are low, inflation is low and wages are up. 

PS:

The following excerpt is from an article by Dr. Andrew J. Bacevich published https://www.thenation.com/article/world/ukraine-biden-putin-exceptionalism/ in the Nation, Feb, 2022

“Who in their right mind would identify with a nation that has in the not-so-distant past engaged in a costly and arguably illegal war in one country (Iraq), while waging a 20-year-long war in another (Afghanistan) that ended in humiliating defeat? In what sense does a nation that loses over 900,000 of its citizens to a pandemic, whose dysfunctional central government annually spends trillions more than it takes in, and that cannot even control its own borders qualify as exceptional? Can a nation in which the richest 1 percent control 16 times more wealth than the bottom 50 percent be deemed exceptional? Or one in which a major political party characterizes violent insurrection as “legitimate political discourse”? As for a nation that elects Donald Trump president and may do so again: The term “exceptional” hardly seems appropriate. “Reckless,” “incompetent,” “alienated,” “extravagantly wasteful,” and “deeply confused” more accurately describe our predicament.”

13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jane Fritz
    Feb 19, 2022 @ 15:48:15

    Very thorough and thoughtful response, John. Well done! Sadly, I think you’re right about greed.
    Did you see my response to your first challenge to me? https://robbyrobinsjourney.wordpress.com/2022/02/14/knowledge-wisdom-truth-and-trust/

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    • Dr. John Persico Jr.
      Feb 20, 2022 @ 12:37:50

      Thanks Jane, I left a comment on your blog for the posting challenge. You write so well. Were you and English teacher? Have you ever thought of publishing a book with some of your blogs? John

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

      • Jane Fritz
        Feb 20, 2022 @ 14:04:47

        Got it, thanks. LOL, no I was a computer science prof! But I do love to write. I was taking some writing workshops after I retired, as I started writing stories for our grandchildren and a memoir about my mother, and the idea of blogging kept coming up as a perfect way to practice your writing. I love it. Keeps me thinking AND writing. You fall in the same category.

        Some of your ideas in your analysis of the American Dream resonated with me against what I wish I could believe. We’re the same age and grew up in the same country, but my New England experience in a stable family focused on education during the 50s and early 60s gave a different perspective. And I left before the Vietnam War even became a focal point. I never had a sense of the notion that apparently is central to the American sense of identity, that government should be as unobtrusive as possible. There are so many policies that the majority seem to agree with that one simply does not find in any other free world country, including: guns rights, no parental leave, no universal health care, capital punishment, etc. That’s why I have sadly come to more or less the same conclusion I think you were reaching, that the defining value remaining is self-interest and greed. But that is so, so sad. So sad. So much potential to do good in the world, Sigh.

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        • Dr. John Persico Jr.
          Feb 22, 2022 @ 18:58:01

          Jane, It is very interesting to hear some of your history. Are you happy with the move you made? Would you do things differently if you could go back in time? It is sad in the sense that the American Dream seems to increasingly look like a myth. I sometimes wonder whether I am being too pessimistic. It is so much more fun seeing good things happen and having a positive view of the world. It is a perspective that increasingly seems to be slipping from my awareness. What happens if we lose all hope? Are there other places in the world that can offer better possibilities for a healthy happy existence? I have been to 34 countries but I do not really know what it would be like to live in any of them. I know that my overall life has been better than I ever hoped it could or would be and that Karen and I are enjoying old age despite some recurring aches and pains. Locally, things are going well. Globally, it seems that things really such. I suppose I should narrow my focus more. My mother always said that “Ignorance is bliss.” I never agreed with that but maybe she is right. John

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          • Jane Fritz
            Feb 23, 2022 @ 19:43:11

            LOL, your mother’s saying does seem tempting by times these days! Interesting questions you ask. You have to keep in mind that my upbringing prior to leaving for university was very different from yours; it was stable and encouraging. I left for McGill when I was 17 and arrived in Canada 2 months before Kennedy was shot. So many violent and divisive things happened in the U.S. after that, but I didn’t experience any of it. I embraced Canada, embraced the Canadian who became my husband, and consider my fairly arbitrary decision to attend McGill a blessing that changed the direction of my life completely. Absolutely no regrets. I was born to be a Canadian! We’ve actually been to 61 countries and lived in London and York, and although there are many fascinating places, people, and cultures everywhere, I absolutely love where we live. I’ll take relative calm, friendliness, and far removed from competition for power. Mind you, it does help that I love winter, which is actually one reason I chose to go to McGill way back then.

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            • Dr. John Persico Jr.
              Mar 06, 2022 @ 13:22:28

              Jane, Different paths. Different folks. Different upbringings. But now we seem to have converged in many ways. That process itself would be very interesting. John

              Liked by 1 person

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              • Jane Fritz
                Mar 06, 2022 @ 18:57:52

                It would indeed. Everyone has a story. From what I’ve read in your posts, I think my path was easier/less traumatic than yours. Of course, every experience along the way provides a learning opportunity.

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              • Dr. John Persico Jr.
                Mar 06, 2022 @ 23:51:46

                Jane, I often wonder if I would have been better off with a kinder family upbringing. One thing it did was sensitize me to the problems of poorer more helpless people. I have grown up hating bullies and willing to fight for the underdog. John

                Liked by 1 person

              • Jane Fritz
                Mar 07, 2022 @ 15:16:12

                And your very articulate voice in that regard comes through most effectively in your writing!

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              • Dr. John Persico Jr.
                Mar 07, 2022 @ 19:41:27

                Thanks Jane, very nice of you to say. John

                Liked by 1 person

  2. Gregory Edwards
    Feb 20, 2022 @ 07:31:29

    Perhaps you may want to investigate the trilogy of books on America by historian and cultural critic Morris Berman. The 3 books are “The Twilight of American Culture” 2000, “Dark Ages America” 2006, and “Why America Failed” 2011.

    On Sat, 19 Feb 2022 at 3:48 PM, Aging Capriciously wrote:

    > Dr. John Persico Jr. posted: ” At the beginning of the 2022 New Year, I > issued what I called “The Persico Challenge” to some of my blogger > friends. The gist of my challenge was to address three issues over the > course of the next year that I would send them. In return, th” >

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    • Dr. John Persico Jr.
      Feb 20, 2022 @ 12:36:56

      Yes, thanks Greg, I read “Why America Failed.” Very impressive. He is now living in Mexico I believe. I have often thought it might be interesting to go down and visit him.

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  3. Trackback: Persico Challenge:  Issue 2 – How Can We Save the Environment? | Aging Capriciously

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