I was thinking a lot about this travelling through Tuscany. It is a simple thing to make comparisons about life at home and different cultures. Back home President Barack Obama’s comments that America is exceptional to Americans just as Belgium is exceptional to Belgians, or Japanese or whoever set off a firestorm in the Right wing media, which now dominates the radio and TV airwaves. It is outrageous in the era of growing American nationalism that anyone should be as prideful about their lives and their cultures as Americans.
We wrote a Constitution 220 some years ago that was a monumental moment for Human Rights. But some would have us believe that our work and responsibility to those high ideal ended then, and that all that was promised in that simple document was achieved. One only has to look back through our history of Native American rights, slavery, women’s rights, labor rights and gender equality and Gay rights to see that America is not a destination ut a journey, and we are very much in the middle of that journey. We have evolved from the waning days of the Revolution and dark days of slavery and the civil war. Blacks and women can vote sure enough, but racism and bigotry and sexism are hardly settled issues, illustrating that America is not panacea of virtue and freedom, and grudgingly wrestles with issues of freedom , justice and equality by virtue of persistent pressure by the oppressed and through a constant struggle to maintain a government and legal system that protects the rights of the minority. It may be said, in that regard, that the true blessing of America is that it does not rest on its laurels, but constantly assails its shortcomings, and that the desire by some to eschew those shortcomings are hardly acting in the true spirit of the nation.
Th idea came together for me finally as Ana and I were driving the sundrenched back roads of Tuscany and hour or so west of Florence. These were the hills and roads around Leonardo d’Vinci’s home, little hanged in glimpses through the centuries. Among pale green olive groves, poppy fields and the scent of wild mint still wet with morning dew I finally realized succinctly why the assertion of so-called American Exceptionalism bothered me so.
Say you have a neighbor, a big loud neighbor. And maybe he’s done some great things for the neighborhood, but he’s also been a bit obnoxious and arrogant at times. And he comes up to you, pokes you in the chest and says I am the most exceptional person on the planet! Fair enough. Pride is pride, and to an extent pride can be a good thing for each of us. And you look up at him, and look him straight in the eye and say, well I think I’m pretty damn exceptional too. Rather than take it at that, he has to belittle, and maybe even bully you. He starts telling you why he’s the best and you’re no good, and for good measure shakes his fist just to give you reason for pause. Anyone would think of that person as, well, a bit of a dick. Depending on how hard he pushed the issue, and how bad a day you were having, you might even take a swing at the guy.
And that’s the key. If you believe your exceptional, that is reflected in the humility surrounding your good deeds, not the tactic of bullying others into admitting something thy may or may not really believe. Truth is, countries are like people, and I have met some incredibly exceptional people travelling around the world. What makes them exceptional is that they allowed me to rise to my exceptional abilities as well, and weren’t annoyed or intimidated by the exceptionalism of others.
The air through the open car window carried the scent of Tuscan fields warmed beneath a cloudless blue sky. It was an exceptional day, in an exceptional place. I laid my hand on Ana’s knee and glanced at her in th passenger seat beside me. Her eyes were closed, face turned towards the sun, her satisfaction hinted in the slightest smile. She was exceptional, and I doubt that I would have turned out to be half the man I am without that exceptionalism.