Posted by: Vikram | October 6, 2008

Of America and exceptionalism.

One of the things that I have constantly encountered in the US, whether on TV or just conversation, is a general feeling of exceptionalism. It sometimes seems that Americans are willing to make crass and obvious changes to the European roots of their culture to ‘make it different’. Now many will rightly argue that America and Americans are indeed exceptional, but this exceptionalism is mostly derived from its geograhical location and the achievements of certain individuals. Of course there is also an environment present here that encourages innovation. But that was present (without the same capitalist emphasis) in Europe, the Islamic Caliphate as well as China much before America was even discovered. In fact, if any ‘civilization’ stands out in this respect, it is that of the Indian subcontinent, where the caste system managed to strangle systematic science (apart from sporadic accomplishments) but the extremely diffused polity greatly encouraged cultural innovation.

The exceptionalism becomes very painfully evident when one starts getting interested in America’s national sport, American football. Even though the game is clearly derived from a code of rugby, no (grossly obvious) stone is left unturned to make it seem more different than it should. The heavy duty gear the players need to wear, so they can hit harder and take harder hits as well the excessive insistence on the most trivial rules, end up making the game unplayable in normal conditions for normal people. This is perhaps the biggest difference American and Association football (soccer), with soccer even a simple two on two game simulates the real sport to a great extent, especially at the individual level. But many Americans still insist that rabidly following football and working out like crazy in the gym makes their culture ‘macho’ and that of Europe (and all other places) ‘pansy’. Many people here apply the same thinking to cricket, most people simply assume that the cricket ball is ‘softer’ (it is in fact a little bit harder), without ever bothering to check the facts.

I have seen many movies and shows here depict Persians, Italians and French men as effeminate due to their supposed ‘metro-sexuality’, but almost every other ad here is about some mens skin cream, deodarant etc. These are often packaged as products for tough men who need ‘protection’ for their skin, this is inspite of the exceptionally temperate climate here, I cant imagine most Americans lasting more than a day in the Delhi’s May heat or Mumbai’s super-wet August, let alone go work the fields in such weather like most Indian men and women do. I must add however, that the people who are into fitness here, are really into it, I have seen 50-60 year old men overtake me easily on long runs and the environment to pursue one’s fitness is excellent, comfortably better than perhaps any Indian city.

But the exceptionalism is the most destructive when it comes to American’s politics. The only things that make the American political system stand out from the rest of the developed world as far as I am concerned are the relatively higher levels of corruption, little or no restraint on executive power and excessive, unjustified emphasis on the election to one post. America’s presidential system seems to be very successful when one glances at America, but a quick look at the other countries that follow this system does not inspire much confidence, they include, Nigeria, Pakistan, Chad, Argentina, Bolivia, countries not exactly known for their political achievements. In fact, this map indicates that most countries in the world follow the same system as the one followed in the US, not the best case for being exceptional.

There are many other qualities that make America exceptional, its research universities are unmatched (when considered as a whole) anywhere else in the world, there is a very high emphasis on individuality and a great respect for original thought. But one cannot help feel that the dominant expressions of American culture today do not reflect the true nature of the society here.


  1. Wasn’t left hand drive also a reaction to the British way of driving? Also, the accounting system, and the metric system like kms instead of the British miles etc?

    Perhaps it is pride that makes the Americans want to appear different from and better than Europeans. Pakistan also has a similar problem vis a vis India. It has consciously tried to project differences with India and in the process has wound up pretending that it is more Central Asian/ Arabic than subcontinental.

    The problem with Pakistan is especially acute. Not only has the country not succeeded economically and politically so far, it has been an almost complete cultural failure. The migrating Mohajirs sought to preserve the Indo-Islamic culture of UP at the expense of the native Sindhi culture, but as it turned out, the Indo-Islamic culture flourished in India, esp. the Hindi movie industry and the Sindhi culture has been affected very badly indeed while the Mohajirs have struggled to either preserve their culture (they follow Bollywood more than many Indians) or truly become Pakistani. The other cultures of Pakistan, specifically Punjabi (overshadowed by the Sikh-Punjabi culture of Indian Punjab), Pathans and Baloch people have also been severely affected by Urdu imposition.

    It is only the Indians who have faithfully stuck to everything colonial, as if there was nothing worthwhile in India before the Brits came, and as if they are not capable of bettering 19th century colonial systems!

    I have said many times that culture should be a last resort to explain a state of affairs, but I feel that in general Indians are quite slow to change, if the status quo has even some semblance of stability or temporary gain, future initiatives are resisted. This is changing, but again not as fast as it perhaps should.
    Many countries have adopted the British system of democracy but have made a mess of it. Pakistan is an example that has tried to mix both the American and British systems…if the leaders are what they are, no system can help!

  2. @ Vikram : Nice analysis although I must say I do not know much about the United States so I am not in a position to comment much on it. The longest exposure I ever had to Americans was on a 20 very LONG day trip to Tibet in 2001. They were the most difficult I must say among all the nationalities in the group. They always wanted to do things THEIR way. However there are somethings I like about them they seem very dedicated to what they do and they seem to have fortitude. By the does not the French President have a lot of executive power as well and it seems to be successful as far as France is concerned? What about the Russian presidency? Let me know your thoughts. Over all I must say Americans are amiable people and if they have made many mistakes they have done a lot of good as well. I guess people everywhere are that way.

    Yes, in general Americans tend to be more professional than Indians and take their jobs more seriously, this might look like a cultural factor but also has a lot to do with how easy it is to fire and get fired in this country. I dont know if privatization is leading to a similar atmosphere in India.

    America is successful to a great extent but its power and wealth tend to hide deeper problems in its national psyche. France (or any nation in Europe) is difficult to directly compare because they are a relatively small country and usually dont tend to get involved in messes abroad. Also, after the 2nd world war European (and Japanese) attitudes towards war and confrontation have changed dramatically. So French, even if they have a system of unchecked executive power, it only affects their own populations not that of other countries, like Iraq and Vietnam.

    About Russia, I dont know that much. I do know that the country has extremely high levels of corruption (higher than even India, according to most agencies, inspite of much higher levels of education), so the ‘strong’ presidency probably doesnt help with that. One interesting thing to think about would be, if the Indian PM decided to invade Nepal or Bhutan on some pretext, what would the response be, would there be a huge internal outcry or would people just have no say (as it is in Russia). I dont know the answer.

  3. if it was before september 11 2001, I would agree with the title of the post. america is just another nation behaving like anyother nation would in when they were attacked and everything has changed,

    jobs, education, security, fear, health ( in the doldrums ). the pharmaceuticals and the health insurance is all contorted.
    one has to look at all corners.
    the FDA does not determine everything right.
    death of students who come to study in the US ( whoever heard of that before )
    etc etc etc.. the list is super long

    My post was more about the general culture of the US, not specific actions. But, yes, of course Sept. 11 changed many things. But I cant help but notice the prevailing anti-intellectualism in this country, being informed about other places is almost like an insult to some people here.

    i would say the country is turning communalistic.
    communalistic capitalism is the word.

    there is still funding for research ( but not as much as it used to be)
    Absolutely, its the first aspect of federal funding that gets hit whenever anything goes wrong.

  4. you are in texas. how can you expect better ?Southern part of the US is characterised by anti-world. In the north east it is just the other way around. if you want to know what D.C thinks about West Coast, they say it is ANOTHER country. (not my words) right from the mouth of washingtonians.

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