The past two weeks of Obama afterglow have left many of us with a sense of American awe. We somehow have it in our heads that “only in America” would it be possible for a person of Kenyan and White American descent from relatively humble beginnings to rise to power as the 44th President of the United States. Obama himself has said on numerous occasions that “only in America” is his story even possible. I don’t buy that. At least not hook, line and sinker. I know that miracles are possible, in America and all over the world. Name any culture, any civilization, any time period, and you can find a rags-to-riches or peasant to emperor story. Only in America is it likely that Americans can only see the uniqueness of their own culture and history, making the leap of hubris that ours is the only society that would allow for a Barack Obama to become its first leader to not be White and Male.
I’m hardly arguing that America isn’t a place of miracles for some. But let’s be real for a moment. Can anyone really argue American exceptionalism when a bigger miracle occurred in South Africa in the past two decades? This time twenty years ago, Nelson Mandela was in the middle of a twenty-seven prison sentence as an ANC terrorist from the early 1960s. Apartheid was alive and well, and even with the global anti-apartheid movement, the White South African power elite retained control of every aspect of South Africa’s social fabric. Yet so much has happened in the past twenty years that many Americans know nothing about the history of apartheid in South Africa, nor about how it ended. Mandela went from a condemned terrorist to the first Black president of South Africa and one of the great statesmen of the second half of the twentieth century. I guess that Mandela’s story could only happen in South Africa. In America, he would still be at Gitmo or in Leavenworth.
The “only in America” refrain also has negative connotations. Like, only in America can someone in their late-thirties or late-forties be considered a “young man” or “young woman” when their combination of advanced education and successful work experience makes them what they really are — gifted, an expert, a highly skilled administrator, or an intellectual. Or that only in America can every American think that they somehow can become rich regardless of education, training, or family background, even though the odds are piled moon-high against such a thing for the worst off of us. Or that only in America can someone serve more time in prison for become addicted to crack cocaine than they could if they committed manslaughter. Only in America can someone with no talent and little education can become a rich celebrity (see Rush Limbaugh or 50 Cent) while someone with both in spades have to fight for every inch of success they end up having.
Just because we elected Obama president of the United States doesn’t mean that we live in an unusually fair and open-minded country, where mere hard work and discipline can make a poor kid into the ultimate success. Just like in the rest of the world, meeting key people in high places, making friendships with gatekeepers usually helps, and helps a lot. Which is why I think what happened to Obama here in the US could’ve happened for him in Canada, New Zealand, Chile, Brazil, South Africa, Finland, and other places where diversity and relative levels of open-mindedness make an Obama ascendancy possible. It also could’ve happened in Confucian China, Ancient Rome, the various Persian empires, and in other periods of world history. My point is that America is not as unique as we say it is, and certainly not as accepting as Obama’s election indicates.
I think that we should make a rule that prohibits Americans from saying “only in America” as if the rest of the world or the rest of world history doesn’t count. We should be proud of who we are. But we should also possess enough wisdom and humility to realize that all things are possible anywhere, not just in America.