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Americans Still Lead the World in Self Regard, Latest Poll

11/21/2011 04:00 pm ET | Updated Jan 21, 2012

The Pew Research Center's latest Global Attitudes Project survey brings interesting news. Only half of all Americans believe our culture (which I understand to be an identifier of all the things that resonate with the majority populace) is superior to others.

The earnest reporting to understand the meaning of it all followed, devoid of irony: "Is America exceptional among nations? Are we, as a country and a people and a culture, set apart and better than others? Are we, indeed, the "shining city upon a hill" that Ronald Reagan described? Are we "chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world" as George W. Bush said? This year, for the first time, most Americans did not say yes," wrote one.

Let's deconstruct: Half of all Americans believe our culture (as mysterious a phenomena as that is) is superior to others:

*after ignoring the whole world to swagger, strut, and start a war with Iraq over WMD and finding, well, none;

*and that we're a shining city on a hill, despite an economy in tatters that has forced many young Americans to decamp for Auckland, Shanghai and Bangalore for jobs.

Pew's findings are a tribute to the resilience of our super-size ego. It shows that most of us are quite pleased with ourselves. Why analyze anything, or learn from our shortcomings, or examine our mistakes, when we can just tell ourselves how superior we are?

According to one MSM report:

A Time Magazine/Abt SRBI poll conducted last month found that 71 percent of Americans believed that our position in the world has been on the decline in the past few year. And an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey conducted earlier this month found that most Americans believed that we aren't simply going through tough times as a nation but are at "the start of a longer-term decline where the U.S. is no longer the leading country in the world."

So what if we're no longer the leading country in the world? The post-modern America of the 21st century is a different one from the shining city on a hill first imagined in 1630 by John Winthrop. The Puritans believed they were latter day Israelites re-enacting the Exodus and chosen by God. They needed to believe in their new country's superiority.

The Founders' disdain for monarchy and autocratic rule birthed an elegantly articulated democratic ideal that is, even today, an inspiration to those living under dictatorships around the globe. Call this democracy American if you want, but those protesting abroad against corrupt governments and longing for political freedom, would rather celebrate it as an ingrained universal, humanistic ethos -- stripped of its American lineage and especially its unfortunate link with American military intervention.

That democracy builders around the world routinely study the work of the Founding Fathers, their biographies, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and our current political system, should be satisfaction enough and a soothing massage for our ego. It's time, however, for us to accept that the new arbiter of principled global governance will not be America on its own, but a transglobal, transnational coalition with new players -- China, India, the ASEAN pact, and the European Union. Why not share the great responsibility of having to save the world with others?

Conversely, if half of all Americans no longer consider ourselves superior, it is, to me, a mark of our maturity as a people and as a nation. A superiority complex is often a cover for an inferiority complex, according to Adlerian psychology. "If we feel small, one way to feel big is to make everyone else feel even smaller," Adler wrote. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams in their letters home from service abroad in England and France complained, often bitterly, of being treated like provincials, and with disrespect. What is the Declaration of Independence if not the ultimate revenge against arrogant, established power? The Founding Fathers were badasses! Determined to promote America's egalitarian ideals, they tossed the ceremony and formality of the Old World to the winds. George Washington, after borrowing $500 from a neighbor to get to his inauguration in New York, arrived wearing a simple brown suit instead of his regal military uniform. Jefferson, while, President received an important ambassador wearing his nightrobe. A superiority complex was essential then to the task of nation building.

In my favorite work about American idealism and good intentions, Graham Greene's Vietnam-era book, The Quiet American, Alden Pyle (the "Quiet American" of the novel and the fictional forerunner to President George W. Bush), has very superior views of his own country and very simple opinions about the world. Armed with explosives, he goes to Vietnam to bestow it with the gift of democracy whether the Vietnamese people want it or not. "Pyle was determined to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world. Well, he was in his element now with the whole universe to improve ... I never met a man with better intentions for all the trouble he caused," Greene wrote. 
He poked fun at our lack of awareness about cultures older than ours, and our superiority complex. When Pyle declares America's intention to bring freedom to emerging nations like Vietnam, Greene has another character, Thomas Fowler retort: "Vietnam, an emerging nation? Do you mean compared to Hawaii, New Mexico, and Puerto Rico?"

Several reporters in citing the Pew study link national pessimism to the decline of American Exceptionalism. Why couple our national pessimism with the decline of our feelings of superiority over other countries, at all? Why do we need to feel superior over other countries before we can feel good about ourselves? "We must look out at the world with clear eyes and sober minds and do the difficult work as we've done time and time again. That's how a city shines upon a hill," writes one columnist. I would argue that what we really need to do, before we can focus on the pressing problems facing this country and begin to solve them, is to get over ourselves.

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