Tuesday, April 23, 2013

America the Tootiful: We brag even when we're not very good

Here's an advance look at my next The Life Well-Led column in the Mensa publication, The Intelligencer.

America the Tootiful

America loves to toot its own horn, even when we're not very good. For example, after the Boston Bombing, President Obama crowed about how great America is:

The terrorists failed because, as Americans, we refused to be terrorized...That American spirit includes staying true to the unity and diversity that makes us strong -- like no other nation in the world.

Huh?! The terrorists didn't fail: Despite America having spent billions on anti-terrorism, the terrorists accomplished just what they wanted: They disrupted that iconic American sporting event The Boston Marathon, killing three, wounding hundreds, and spawning a manhunt and aftermath that has already cost all of us billions of dollars. And did we truly react "like no other nation in the world?" Does Obama really believe that not one of the world's 196 nations could even match our unsuccessful effort?

Our undeserved horn-tooting descends from there. Examples:

In the most recent presidential election, both candidates fell over themselves to genuflect before the altar of American exceptionalism despite, for example, the U.S.'s child poverty rate ranking 34th among the most advanced 35 countries, edging out only Romania. But don't worry, we rank #2 in beer consumption. Politico reported, "The President took American exceptionalism to a whole new level Wednesday by suggesting that not only is the United States the greatest nation on Earth, but every other country wants to be us." But even that pales in comparison with Romney's view, which the Huffington Post summarized as, "God chose the U.S. above all the nations of the Earth to bring light, hope, and freedom to all humankind."

Of course, politicians far from monopolize the gasconade.

According to a panel of experts convened at Columbia College (IL), Michael Jackson is widely referred to as a genius. Michael Jackson, a consensus genius??! 

As a career counselor, I can attest that the amount of puffery in job seekers' resumes, cover letters, and interviews could fill a dirigible: "I'm uniquely qualified for the job. I'm a self-starter yet also a team player who delights in exceeding customer expectations, and I spearheaded initiatives that saved the company $10 million." If you added up all the savings job seekers claimed, it would exceed the Gross Domestic Product.

Of course, product marketers know absolutely no bounds. For example, Here's how Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice has been promoted: "This 'antioxidant superpower' is straight-up 'health in a bottle' that’ll help you cheat death with beneficial effects on everything from prostate cancer to cardiovascular health to impotence." In fact, Time reported, "The FTC says there is no science to back up the claims. The results of studies that have been done show that Pom products show no more efficacy than a placebo."

"Wonderful" is downright modest compared with, for example, a kitchen cleaner named Fantastik! not to mention  the makeup, Super Orgasm.

Even the world of theatre, where stage plays relentlessly assault capitalism, can't resist its unwarranted horn-tooting when it comes to lining their pockets. For example, Berkeley's very non-proletarian-priced Aurora Theatre's current play is The Arsonists. Its promo: "See what everyone's talking about!" I live heavily in the Bay Area theatre scene. Not one person has mentioned The Arsonists.

A decade ago, the company that made the two-wheel Segway promised it would revolutionize travel. When was the last time you saw a Segway? Perhaps the revolution was impeded because its CEO James Heselden died when his Segway accidentally rolled off a cliff.

From whence stems America's bloviation? One likely suspect is America's obsession with building people's self-esteem. We praise them or certainly don't criticize them for bragging about attributes they've acquired without effort: "Black is Beautiful," I'm Italian and I'm Proud," Girls Rock." Such phrases are no mere sideshows: A Google search on "Girls rock" revealed 3.4 million hits (and only 0.9 million for "Boys Rock" but I'll leave the reasons for the disparity for another column.) Ironically, studies find that Asians have the lowest average self-esteem and the highest achievement while Blacks have the highest self-esteem and the lowest achievement. That makes sense: If you think you're already wonderful, you're less likely to feel the need to work hard.

Sure, when it's exigent, we may feign modesty. After all, humility is core to America's New Testament roots: "I accept this honor not just on behalf of myself but of my colleagues, friends, and family without whom this wouldn't be possible. It truly was a team effort." Not withstanding such calculated understatement, we are America the Tootiful.

I cannot claim that every word that has emerged from my lips or fingers rises to sainthood but I write this column in hopes it might encourage all of us to pull on ropes of restraint and become a little less tootiful. It is key to the life well-led.


Rex said...

I couldn't agree more...the outpouring of grief here in Boston has been excessive in my opinion, as has the beefed-up security pretty much all over the city...no one bothers to ask why this happened in the first place...the guy was a muslim and obviously upset about what was happening overseas...could this be an unintended consequence of the drone attacks?

Dave said...

It's everything, Rex. The Mohammad cartoons, educating Afghan girls,
condemning female genital mutilation, some little-known church pastor
burning a Koran, the use of the word 'crusade' in a presidential
speech, globalization and modernity, etc. What doesn't anger Muslims?

Dr. Nemko,

American exceptionalism pre-dates the founding of this nation. Ever
wonder why we hear 'providence' and 'destiny' in US presidential
speeches? Those words can be found in Puritan sermons and hymns. I
have read a few of them. In reference to Matthew 5:14, in the Bible,
Puritan America was supposed to be that light on a hill, and a great
beacon of which all the other nations of the world could aspire to.
America's Puritan experiment may have ended in 1689, but its legacy
lives on. No European head of state would ever use those words.


Rex said...

Dave, we as a country are killing A LOT of people overseas, all in the name of fighting terrorism, making the world safe, free and democratic and so forth. The intent behind what we are doing may or may not be pure, but the way we are going about it is through violence...I do not consider myself to be a pacifist, but whether or not you agree with the policies we as a country are following, violence has consequences, and in my opinion, those can sometimes manifest in ways that are quite unexpected, and I think that's what we saw in Boston. A single human being is capable of wreaking an awful lot of damage and suffering if that person has the motivation to do so...

IMHO, people here in Boston and the rest of the country seemed to be in complete shock that the marathon was bombed, but given what is happening overseas...it's not that surprising...

Dave said...

Why? Washington has nothing to do with Moscow's handling of the Chechen problem.

Rex said...

If he were angry at the Russian government, he would have bombed a Russian city, Dave...clearly, that's not what happened...

Dave said...

Well, one thing is now clear: We can't civilize the savage; hence the saying: "Decolonization was the detour the Third World took on the way to adopting the West." I think that detour will lead to a dead end, no matter what course of action (or inaction) the West decides to take.

Rex said...

Lol...you may be right...I like to believe that if you don't give people an excuse to be pissed at you, aka bombing them, then they'll have only themselves to blame and can either flourish or rot on their terms...

Dave said...

A crude mish-mash of random thoughts (I'm in a hurry):

Yeah, and those that hold values antithetical to our own, come here. They won't leave us alone. They want to change us. That's why that defamation of religion law is always rearing its ugly head at the UN.

I think it's beyond our control. Remember the Old Testament story of Isaac and Ishmael? The Muslims are angry because they got the short end of the stick in the prophecy. We don't think about those things, but they do. The West consumes itself with worldly things while the Third World/Developing World consumes itself with otherworldly things. I think this is what has exacerbated inter-civilizational conflict. Both the West and the Global South are concerned with higher things, but they cannot agree on what those higher things are. This is one of the reasons why the Muslim World has no respect for the West. Cultural and moral relativism are signs of weakness in a society, not strength. We have lost confidence in our democratic and cultural institutions and the Muslim World knows it. We won't fight for the things that our ancestors fought and died for.

Also, the Muslims are scared and angry at Christianity and the inroads it has made in the last century -- mainly in Africa. Christianity has Syrian roots, but is identified by Muslims as a European religion.

People who hold alien values and carve out enclaves (parallel societies) are a threat to our already weakened democratic and cultural institutions. Muslims in France are one example; the UK is another, with scores of Sharia courts now operating there.