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.