The winner of the 7th grade American Legion essay contest then stepped up to the front of the room, a room for wedding receptions, family reunions, meetings, fundraisers – the center of our village. The child I recognized of course in this town of 300 people. I knew his parents, his grandparents, his aunts, uncles, cousins. I had gone to church and school with them, seen them at the grocery store and the baseball game, and waved at them as we passed each other driving down gravel roads among the endless, straight rows of corn.
As they introduced the boy, they revealed the essay contest’s theme that year, “why the United States is the best country in the world.” Puberty had not yet hit him, and his innocence glowed from the podium. Except I knew how flawed this premise now was.
This same sense of community, of connectedness was also what I was experiencing in a supposed “developing nation” on the other side of the world. As I listened to all the parroted freedoms that people in the U.S. have, I whispered to my mother sitting next to me, “Doesn’t everyone think that their country is the best country in the world?”
“American exceptionalism” is a term that first surfaced in the 20s and 30s among U.S. socialists, and may have even appeared during the Civil War. And the group of people gathered in that hall, who had helped raise and shape me, had rarely, if ever, had the opportunity to consider – let alone experience – other countries outside of the context of U.S. exceptionalism.
There is nothing inherently wrong with having pride in ones origins. We all need to feel grounded and special and part of something bigger than ourselves.
Except last November’s elections demonstrated, among many other things, that exceptionalism is dangerous when it translates to superiority. The need to assert one’s intelligence, status or control, should by now be seen as the obvious throwback to colonization and imperialism that it is. And from superiority is a slippery slope to supremacy.
For those of us U.S. citizens working on social justice, be it local or global issues, American exceptionalism is often at lurking under the surface. It is part of our personal and societal liberation work.
The “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” impulse that has been engrained in me as a Nebraska farm girl kicks in. Rooted in individualistic ideas of self-sufficiency and hard work, it shows up as hopelessness, then shame, that most effective tool of oppression rather than change. Am I doing enough against these enormous challenges? Luckily, my albeit still growing knowledge of what it has taken for Black, Brown, Indigenous, and LGBTQ people to stay alive as America and other nations have been shaped also takes hold. It is only we, rooted in collective well-being and harmony with nature that stands a chance.
Around the world, people have been fighting authoritarian governments and oligarchic regimes for lifetimes and in some cases, for generations. Citizens in the U.S. have an opportunity learn from the visionary leadership of women, youth, and Indigenous people around the world.
Here are but a few examples: In India, women are creating new models of joint land ownership. In South Africa, farming advocates are fighting large corporations like Monsanto—and winning. In Mexico, activists are building alternative local economies that are deeply inclusive, healing, and transformative.
That’s why it is time to remove the blinders installed by American exceptionalism. The U.S. resistance does not need to recreate the wheel. The U.S. resistance needs to remain humble and prioritize learning and cooperation across organizations, movements, and issues. Those with funding resources need to support more grassroots transnational work.
Though we suffer setbacks in the jailing of Stella Nyanzi in Uganda or the death of Sheila Abdus-Salaam in New York City or the murder of natural resources defenders in Honduras, there has never been a time where the local-to-global connection and interdependence has been more salient.
Bringing about complex economic and political shifts, while countering ultra right wing doctrine and policies the world over, requires grounded solidarity and action where grassroots leaders are the thought leaders and innovators within our movements.
They are currents of change – there are grassroots organizations and movements on all continents teaching us what it means to lose, mourn, and then organize in new powerful forms to win for food sovereignty and climate justice; that these steps backwards are painful and historical, and that we must become even more courageous and creative for the struggle ahead.
What if the U.S. resistance adopted a “world view” of its struggle rather than an “American view”? What are the grassroots-led changes we would seeall happening around the world, long before the U.S. election last November?
Let’s boldly imagine what we could accomplish together.