March 10, 2015 Leave a comment
Ignoring the reality of our mediocrity is an existential threat
By Michael M. Barrick
Update 10:10 pm., March 11
The Secret Service, which is supposed to be an “elite” agency and the poster child of American Exceptionalism is embroiled in yet another embarrassing episode. Read here.
BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. – Before the phrase American Exceptionalism became widely used, and before our politicians were stumbling over one another to pledge their allegiance to the concept of American Exceptionalism, I wrote the book, “The Dangerous Delusion of American Exceptionalism.”
It was published in 2011, but is as timely as ever. In fact, I direct you to this interview of me by nationally-known TV and radio host Tavis Smiley. His questions were timeless. I hope my answers were.
With hindsight, I think we might have been a bit ahead of our time in talking about American Exceptionalism. Additionally, at the time, a series of life-changing personal events coincided with the release of the book. So, we did not publicize it as we would have liked.
Those circumstances have changed. So has the discussion about American Exceptionalism. More and more people are now talking about the notion; most disturbingly, those who are, generally insist that America is exceptional.
They are wrong. Polling and headlines support the assertion. Ignoring these facts is very dangerous because it blinds us to our own mediocrity. This situation poses an existential threat to not only residents of the United States, but the entire planet.
First, let’s consider the polls. In the latest Rasmussen Reports poll, 62 percent of Americans think the nation is headed in the wrong direction. Most disturbingly, that number has remained consistent since at least 2010, at the time I was writing my book. According to the Gallup poll, less than half of Americans think the nation’s education system is in good shape. Meanwhile only about one in ten Americans think Congress is doing a good job.
When I was in school, exceptionalism meant getting an A+. To get below a 70 meant you got an F. So, when rating our nation, Americans give our nation an F, regardless of the topic. That is hardly exceptional.
A few examples help explain why this is the case. Our nation’s political officials – I simply cannot characterize them as leaders – are juvenile. So, our political institutions are paralyzed. To a few, that’s a good thing. However, if you drive on the roads, cross a bridge, send children to school, or go to get a driver’s license, you will experience something between frustration and fear. And, of course, we are now in our 14th straight year of war, with some congressional leaders just itching for a war with Iran.
As my dad told me more times than I can recall, “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” Indeed, we have rarely – if ever – seen such economic disparity in this nation.
Here in West Virginia, where I am intimately aware of emergency preparedness efforts, those charged with preparing for disasters – Local Emergency Preparedness Committees – have generally abdicated their responsibilities. The most obvious example of this is that these folks are not asking tough questions of the energy extraction industry even though they pose significant threats to public health and safety, as well as the environment.
Also in West Virginia, corruption at the local and state level is so rampant that one cannot keep up with the headlines.
In North Carolina, Governor Pat McCrory is nothing more than a puppet for one of the state’s richest men, Art Pope. This is particularly disappointing, as I knew the governor when he was the mayor of Charlotte. The man that excitedly stood in his office overlooking the city and passionately talked about improving the lives of children and the poor has seemingly sold his soul to live in the governor’s mansion. Indeed, his ethics are presently in question.
You, too, know of many examples.
Yet, I have hope. I believe that Americans are beginning to understand that, while we do, rightfully, aspire to be exceptional, we are not. This was made evident by the presence of about 7,000 workers at West Virginia’s state capitol last Saturday to protest actions by the legislature. When I was growing up in West Virginia, labor was always a strong and vital voice. It is good to see that again.
I am also hopeful because of the emerging influence of artists, poets, musicians and writers. Throughout history, they have been the change agents. In one community after another, artists are promoting the spirit of peace through the arts. Offering examples of exceptionalism through their work, they also challenge us to be exceptional in our own endeavors.
Last month, I was privileged to see such an artist in concert – Arlo Guthrie. While I was most interested in hearing his famous tune “Alice’s Restaurant,” I was most touched by his rendition of his father’s song, “This Land is Your Land.” Those not familiar with the history of Woody Guthrie may not know he wrote the song in response to unquestioning patriotism. That does not mean he was not a patriot. In fact, the opposite is true. He believed, I think, that America could be exceptional. I think he wanted it to be. Yet, he was a realist. He knew that until this nation offered genuine equal opportunity and justice to every American, we were not living up to our ideals.
Seventy years after he penned that song, it remains true that we have a long way to go to be exceptional. It is time we admitted it.
If you agree, and if you support the work of the Appalachian Preservation Project, the stories we tell on the Appalachian Chronicle, and the warnings we sound on this blog, I hope you’ll consider buying a copy of the book, which you can do here. Your purchase will not only enlighten you (I hope), it will also help support our work.
© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Barrick Report is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. The Appalachian Preservation Project is a social enterprise committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member.
The Appalachian Preservation Project is also handling planning for the “Preserving Sacred Appalachia” Earth Day conference scheduled for April 20-21 in Charleston, W.Va. Learn about it here.