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Harry Shearer

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USA 3.0

Posted: 07/03/11 07:38 PM ET

LONDON -- As I write this I'm flying back to America, specifically New Orleans, to celebrate July 4 by watching fireworks over the Mississippi River. I say that right up here at the top to establish my Yank bonafides. In addition, my parents sought out this country as a refuge (one denied, it should be noted, to many of their equally desperate compatriots), so I've never stopped being grateful that, at least for them, for that special moment, the golden door was open.

But we're three trillion dollars down, the latest reports say, in trying to -- to what? Protect ourselves? Export freedom? Make the world safe for our oil interests? It's hard to know. This America 2.0 would be impossible for the Founders to recognize, even with folks running around with the banner of the Tea Party. After all, the Founders, slave-owners mostly, wouldn't see themselves in Michele Bachmann's characterization. Nor would they recognize a country that thinks nation-building in the graveyard of empires is the spunky little republic they established.

On this Independence Day, though, I just want to mull over for a moment the latest meme from the conservative meme factory (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Newt Gingrich's third marriage): American exceptionalism. This phrase has just recently crawled out of the poli-sci books and into our semblance of a national discussion. And it fascinates me. It's so important for so many Americans to believe that we're... special, and not in the special-ed sense.

So let's look at the record for a moment. Yes, we've had a civil war. Yes, we attempted genocide of the indigenous population. Yes, we've had slavery. That list certainly sets us apart from the run of nation-states. The riposte will come, "but we don't seek territory." Meaning that Puerto Rico and Guam, for God's sake, and, for a long time, the Philippines, just attached themselves to us like so many little charming barnacles?

So what makes us exceptional? Most Tea Partiers will tell you it's the existence of a written Constitution. So that puts us in the category of... most of the nations in the world, with the exceptions of New Zealand, the UK, and Israel. Morocco has a written Constitution. So does Myanmar, apparently. That's almost as amiable a set of companions as the countries that agree with us about the death penalty. Google that.

Yet we clearly need to see ourselves as exceptional, as freer than, say, the Scandinavians, or the Australians, or -- happy Canada Day, everybody! -- the Canadians.

Here's my guess as to why we need to see ourselves as not only swell, but different: if we weren't somehow unique, the Good Lord would have had no reason to shine and focus, like a divine laser beam, His blessings upon us. He'd have said, let's give plenty of arable land to the Brazilians and the Africans, and let's give spectacular scenery to the Aussies, and let's give mineral resources to the Chinese, and -- oh, wait.

Sarah Palin, leading the parade, has learned to emphasize "American exceptionalism" in her speeches, and those who scoff at the notion are supposed to be regarded as the modern equivalent of Communists, or witches. Well, this is a remarkable country, and it was even more remarkable before the financial sector bought every available politician. I revel in the freedom to say what I want here, although I did choose to come to London to do a TV pilot so I could be far freer to do the show I wanted to do than I ever could be in LA.

As we slide into the coming multi-polar world, pols will increasingly be chest-beating about reclaiming the time when America ruled the earth. I'm sure that the more presentable triceratops made similar speeches as the curtain was coming down on their hegemony. I frankly think a world where the Chinese do the nation-building in the backwaters will usher in a better America, a USA 3.0 that may actually be, in a certain way, exceptional.

If that's not the way to bet, it's the way to hope.

 

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