I once had the chance to interview Charles Kuralt, the late CBS correspondent famous for his “On the Road” series. I asked him this question: “In all your years of traveling around the United States, what is the single most important thing that you learned?” Without any hesitation, Kuralt replied, “I was always impressed at how well informed Americans are.”
Kuralt was correct. Americans are probably the best informed citizens in the world. That is true because, first, they are involved. Notice, in any presidential campaign, how the tracking polls change instantly as soon as anything significant occurs. Second, they are the best informed because the American press, with all its many failings, is the best available. It is far superior to the European press, which is shot through with bias and a disturbing level of bigotry.
Kuralt’s answer, while correct, was politically incorrect. The elites of the United States believe Americans are ignorant, apathetic and uninformed. Of course, they never actually speak to average Americans, but they know this. They know it because they know it. They rush home at night to turn on public television and watch the BBC news, thinking they’re getting the facts because the news readers sound so good. In fact, the BBC has always been a second-rate news organization, an embarrassment with a veneer of excellence because their diction is so special. (Many don’t realize that the BBC, in the 1930s, essentially banned Winston Churchill from its airwaves.)
I raise this point because there is an ongoing discussion about “American exceptionalism,” the belief, correct in my view, that this is is a very special nation, with a unique foundation and destiny. The elites, of course, are anguished and pained at the very concept, and they rush to their medications when it is mentioned. We are, to them, either a rogue nation or an inferior one, or, at best, just another big country with a lot of guns and churches. And a country that must be restrained.
There is an old Hollywood definition of a star – someone who has that indefinable something extra. I think it’s true of nations as well. American exceptionalism can be explained, but only up to a point. Beyond that point is some indefinable spirit, of innovation, of dreams, of vision. It cannot be analyzed. It reminds me of a line from the musical play, “South Pacific,” in which a character tries to explain, in song, why people fall in love. “Fools give you reasons,” he sings, “wise men never try.”
Recently, Fareed Zakaria, a CNN news analyst, did some programs on innovation and education, both critical of the United States. Zakaria, with whom I normally disagree anyway, is a new citizen, a native of India, and his broadcast attempts were commendable. But he tried to do his programs using the kind of dry analysis done in university classrooms. He used statistics to show we are behind in certain areas, and he was probably, if simplistically, correct. He was impressed by the fact that Sweden has a cabinet minister for innovation, something that struck me as borderline hilarious. I would have preferred to see some innovation, not the cabinet minister.
Where Zakaria fell down was in failing to understand the “magic,” that indefinable something extra, that is the United States. He should travel around, talk to ordinary people trying to make their lives work, instead of restricting himself to “experts.” I don’t demean the deficiencies he found. Work is needed in our educational system and in our industrial base. But no great nation can be built on statistics. Nations are built by kids working on computers in garages in California, learning to play on a used guitar in Nashville, or taking an acting course in New York because they didn’t want to go into a safe business. You can’t reduce those things to statistics, or international rankings.
Some time ago I lectured to a group of German students visiting a publishing house in Manhattan. I had to be impressed by them. They were orderly. They were polite. They spoke flawless English, better than most American students. And we had a fine discussion. But there was not an original idea in that room, not one student whose personality differed in any significant way from that of the others. They were statistically superior, but that was it. I heard no dreams.
I’ll take American kids any time. In any group of America’s young we’ll find those who disappoint, those who depress us, even outrage us. But there, in the back, will be one kid who’ll see a different, better way of doing things. And he, or she, will live in a country that will provide an opportunity, if the opportunity is seized. That is American exceptionalism, and, no matter where we stand in international rankings, it will always be there, unless we, as a nation, decide to destroy it.
From Urgent Agenda (www.urgentagenda.com)
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