Huffpost WorldPost
Quora Headshot

Why Does the USA Insist on Doing Things Differently Than the Majority of Other Developed Nations?

Posted: Updated:

This question originally appeared on Quora.
2012-09-12-gteal.jpeg
By Gary Teal, Republican

America doesn't insist on doing anything differently. We just do whatever the hell we want because we grew up in a world where we didn't know, and didn't need to know, what anyone else was doing. Some of this is touched on a little at The United States of America: Why is the US so "hated" worldwide?

From Columbus to the turn of the twentieth century, we weren't isolationist; we were isolated. Of course we imported our language from England and most of our culture from Europe, but it's amazing how much we had to figure out on our own. When someone had the idea to build the Erie Canal, there were no civil engineers living in America, so a couple of judges laid it out. Obviously there are a million stories like that one, and just as obviously, it didn't mean that they did a better job than the dike builders in Holland. It's just that Americans waded into problems with little or no reference to how things were done outside the US. I don't want to exaggerate this effect; people continued to immigrate to the US and read books printed in England. But we were solving problems on our own even while others were doing the same work elsewhere. In some cases, like heavier than air flight or automobiles, everyone in America knows who was first in the world, and everyone in Europe knows who was first in the world, but the names aren't the same.

We did in fact implement many technological innovations on a wide scale before other countries and have suffered a bit on the bleeding edge for our troubles. We have 110 volt power in the US, and we're stuck with it perhaps forever, but the rest of the world was able to wire for 220, which is more efficient. We laid a kabillion miles of copper cable for telephone communication, and other countries will skip that for the most part.

By the time we finally engaged in world affairs in the twentieth century, we were already so large that we just didn't need much of anything in the way of manufactured goods or technology from outside the US. Shipping wasn't yet cheap, and services had to be done locally, so we traded with our small neighbor to the north and our underdeveloped neighbor to the south, but mostly didn't think very often about either of them any more than we did Siam.

After World War II, the US underwent a two decade boom time unprecedented in human history. Our population and wealth grew to a point where we became even more self-sufficient than before, even as we were coming in contact with more of the world. In terms of many manufactured goods, we're different from the rest of the world not because everything we have is better, but because we form a large enough market to support any given product. I think TVs are even now measured in inches all over the world, right? I am not sure anybody makes TVs in the US any more, but we're a big market and our influence is still felt.

Being isolated and self-centered sounds awful, and in terms of a good intellectual education about the world, it is. But it was an outgrowth not of a bad attitude, or a superior attitude, but simple self-sufficiency. Americans often didn't speak a second language, especially in the second half of the twentieth century. French and German people spoke two or three in most cases. Was that because the Americans are jerks and the Europeans are well educated and urbane? Of course not. It's because an American could live an entire lifetime in the US and never come across anybody who didn't speak his language. Of course this extended to cultural issues as well; no need to understand how or when to bow or why to not eat with one's left hand, if you literally never encountered anyone who had different customs than you.

I believe this is all changing finally. Very nearly everyone you know can talk to any person anywhere on the planet now. (The cellphone statistic on Wikipedia is 80% of the world's seven billion people.) Many of us can see pictures or video taken by our friends, made just for us, on the other side of the planet either minutes ago or even streaming live. A larger and larger percentage of Americans know someone who is from another country or someone now living outside the US. Our doughboys saw gay Paree, but now our soldiers are coming home with a thorough familiarity with nations that their fathers and mothers pretty much didn't know existed.

Will Americans seize the opportunity to learn about other cultures via all our new technology? Yes and no. As everyone in the world gets closer, we'll learn about the world, but the world will also learn about us. To some extent, it is inevitable that virtually everyone on the grid will know at least one language among Chinese, Hindi. or English, and frankly, I'm betting on English as an almost universal language at some point in the lifetimes of my grandchildren. It's not because the US is imposing our language on anyone. We have an attractive culture (which is very different from, if not the opposite of, sophisticated culture). We have created a great deal of music and film that is available in English all over the world. If you want to consume those products, you'll end up learning some English. What language will Americans need to learn? Well, I'm glad we're offering our children a wider variety than old standbys Spanish and French (though I'm sorry we don't very often teach Latin, which gives you such a head start in five languages plus English itself), and we certainly are making strides, at least at better schools, with a broad range of offerings that emphasize Mandarin but include Arabic at many schools. (I don't hear much about Americans learning Hindi, though.) Still, an American can live without knowing another language, and that is the minimum test. An Italian or a Brazilian will find it much harder to be part of world trade and travel and culture if they don't learn a second language. C'est la vie. Many Americans won't learn a second language. Tant pis.

Please let me make it clear that no matter how jingoistic I might sound, there is no country which I would not want to live in for a month, and if I could be safe and dry, for a year. (I grew up in West Texas and just don't want to live for months on end in a rainy jungle with bugs everywhere. Sorry, Seattle.) I've mentioned it more than once, so you can guess already that I have a very special place in my heart for India, where I went on my honeymoon, and have been twice since. Of all the places I've seen, India is where you can be farthest from America (I've never been to China). And of course you may know that it was not difficult for us to visit ten cities in India with ten different languages and - this is something that Americans don't appreciate the difficulty of - ten alphabets. (I know there are similarities, but learning the first one is hard.) So I could spend thirty years in New Delhi and not understand everything I want to know, and then drive two hours west and start all over in Rajasthan. You run out of thirty year blocks of time pretty quickly; I'm quite likely on my last such block. I would literally burst into tears if I somehow learned that I would never see Paris again, or that I would never see Tokyo or Rio for the first time.

And yet, I do believe in an American Exceptionalism that flows in great part from our system of government. I know there's an accepted and specific scholarly definition for that term, but I think it's fair to point out that exceptional does not mean "uniquely and permanently superior to all" in the vernacular. It means "really, really good." I believe the Communist Lovecraft was right, and that the US had some unique advantages that freed us from some of the historical problems that Communism was a response to. I don't believe that it should be taken to mean that the US has any supernaturally guided mission to lead the world as a political force. But the ideas that made American exceptional are ideas that other countries will find advantageous if and when they do adopt them. We set a good example. There is a future just ahead in which fifty nations are just as rich and safe and comfortable and well educated as we are today, and some day a world where virtually everyone is as rich and safe and comfortable and well educated as we are today. I think it's stunning that such a young nation as ours is operating under the world's oldest constitution. This is not to say that our constitution would work this well in any other nation, but it has worked extremely well for us. Capitalism has worked for us. The Rule of Law has worked for us. And a culture of transparency has worked for us. We should be proud of our multiculturalism, and it may be this, if anything, that teaches us the value of learning more about the various cultures of our family's (often multiple) origins and those of our neighbors. In each of these areas we started with more of an ideal than a reality, and in each case we make progress decade by decade. None of these things is uniquely American at all. It's a political disaster if or when they get labeled as American ideas, because each developing country should want their own version of these concepts, not the American concept of them. While I think we are doing very well compared to most countries, my own definition of American Exceptionalism includes actively working to help any country who wants the help reach the same level. Our exceptionalism is not measured in a way that implies that we will always be better than the rest of the world. It means that we're closer to our own ideals.

More questions on American Culture: