20th Century Twisting of “American Exceptionlism”

Ronald Reagan, painted by Steve Penley

By chance, last Friday, while reviewing some ‘essay guidelines’ in a book I hadn’t pulled off the shelf in a few years (my 2002 edition of Writing Personal Essays, by Sheila Bender (http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Personal-Essays-Shape-Experiences/dp/1582971781/ref=sr_1_9?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1298796606&sr=1-9)) and in the prep for the ‘To Be or Not to Be’ post below, I came across this on page168:

“In writing about the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Peace Corps, Alan Guskin…said in the Fall 1991…’Growing up in the U.S. makes one predisposed to cultural arrogance, a sense that our culture is not only different but better than others, a belief that everyone else should speak English but that it is not necessary for us to speak their languages.’ (Bender now continues) This very predisposition is so internalized, that even inside our own country, inside our own families, we are unaware of how this ‘cultural snobbism’ plays a role in blocking effective communication.” [emphasis added]

I had to stop and let the steam spewing from my ears dissipate before making this rapid penciled response on the front (‘note-taking area’) inside cover of the book:

“168__American ‘cultural arrogance’__I think it’s good. When free food, Tsunami relief, mosquito nets & clean-water machines are coming to me (in the U.S.A.) wrapped in Swahili-language instructions, I’ll learn Swahili, thank-you very much.” [Ditto for German, Chinese, ‘Guskinian’ or ‘Benderian’.]

Later, by chance, reading over at Big Hollywood (where I hadn’t been for weeks) I got introduced to a terrifically talented portrait artist, Steve Penley (click on his Reagan painting above). In the National Review Online article (http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/260485/steve-penley-patriot-brian-bolduc) which Big Hollywood links to this line of Penley’s then jumped out at me and got me thinking some more:

“Penley thinks America deserves greater appreciation because it is a magnanimous world leader: Whenever there’s an earthquake or a tsunami, who comes to the rescue first? It’s always us. Americans are always first on the scene and most willing to help. This is what drives me crazy about talking to my little brothers. President Obama wants parity with the rest of the world, but there’s always going to be someone on top, and if you want America to be weakened, who will fill that void? I promise you whoever it is won’t be as kindhearted as we are.’” [emphasis added]

The steam now barely trickling out of my ears was by that time forming into a shape I hadn’t foreseen when I made my note earlier that same day in that Essay book. Now I was sensing a dark side. I was beginning to see something slightly sinister at work, a year-by-year, newsstory-by-newsstory, classroom-by-classroom, purposeful re-conceptualization of American uniqueness. But had we done it to ourselves? Fostered such criticisms, such near self-loathing?

I am working on what originally was to be a 5-paragraph Essay on the topic, but without spending hours (on the Internet) it will likely be shorter. Hopefully I will get it done in a couple of days. In the meantime, bemoan with me, the fact that Mr. Penley’s books of paintings are all “Out of Stock” but then again, be cheered by the fact he’s getting some reward for his significant talents!


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