Exceptional in Las Vegas, a lament for the city on a hill

There are so many reasons I made aliyah, but getting some distance between me and  the American obsession with guns was sure one of them.

a-shinning-city-on-a-hill I’m still at least half American. I carry an American passport. I will always love America, especially for the incredible openness that allowed my grandparents to escape the oppression of Europe and to be able to give their children access to college educations and a piece of the American economic dream with home ownership in safe neighborhoods (yes, safe even for the Jews). I love it for tipping the balance in WWII for democracies to defeat the Nazis. I love it for giving us jazz and rock-and-roll and baseball. But I will never love it for what it did (does!) to black people. I will never love it for having massacred Native Americans en masse countless times. And there’s one more original sin — one a bit more difficult to totally grok — that I’ll never love the country of my birth for. If you want to put it in one word, let’s call it exceptionalism.

Exceptionalism. What could be wrong with that, with having, in the language of today’s pop psychology, good self esteem? Well, one problem is that if you’re convinced that you and all the ideas you have are so wonderful you might not be really capable of seeing the other people around you and what they might have to offer.

Yeah, whether the issue is healthcare or gun control, most Americans don’t want to hear anything about how other countries do it. Seriously, if you spend hours watching cable news debates on these issues, you will only hear mere minutes where other nations’ approaches are mentioned. Can you imagine if the top execs at Ford only spent a fraction of their time wondering what GM and Toyota are up to? There wouldn’t be a Ford much longer, would there?

But, friends, if only the delusion of exceptionalism stopped there. I was listening to the producers/creators of the new PBS Vietnam documentaryseries_banner on Fresh Air talking about the Tet Offensive, and actually debating which side won. If you have never heard of the Tet Offensive, let me tell you what it was in the smallest amount for words possible — the greatest defeat of the US Armed Forces in American history, hands down, a decisive defeat where we lost the entire Vietnam war in a single blow.

Can you feel something tightening up in your chest just reading those words, Americans? Does something inside you want reflexively want to jump up and defend against this, to tell me — scream at me — America has never lost a war, not to mention a great battle?

I grew up with this, with this idea that America had never lost a war (and, really, never would). The problem with this self-delusion — as Freud and friends will tell you about all big self-delusions — is that, if you never get past them, you will just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again (can you say, Iraq, friends).

Here’s how this works with Vietnam. Since you think it’s impossible for America (ie, “the good guys”!) to ever lose a war and since the other side ended up in charge of all of Vietnam at the end then there must be some kind of “asterisk” that explains it, some kind of exception that proves the proverbial rule. And what is the only exception available? Betrayal.

We must have been betrayed! By forces within. By cowards who wouldn’t let us do ‘what we needed to do to win”.

But there was no betrayal. We lost because we were up against somebody whose combination of the will and resources they were willing to put into the war were greater than ours.  Yeah, we had enough bombs and money to buy or flatten the entire country of Vietnam, but we were up against somebody whose will to win that war and kick us out of their country — the sheer amount of human blood and sacrifice they were willing to commit to it — was many times greater than ours. Watch the PBS documentary. This part they get right. (And I am thankful we were only willing to sustain the loss of 58,318 American lives there, not the over one million the enemy lost, and the many more it was willing to lose in its inhumanity.)

The self-delusion of American exceptionalism can actually be traced back to one place and one person. From the decks of the flagship of the 11-ship fleet that brought the Puritans to New England in 1630 their leader, John Winthrop, preached about “a city upon a hill” (yes, Ronald Reagan and others would borrow this phrase in the their speeches down the years). The world would stare up at this exceptional city — an inspiring example of pure virtue — and want to be more like it, Winthrop said.

Well, Americans, in 2017 not too many people in the rest of the world are finding too much that’s inspiring when they “look up.”MandalayBay2010 What they see is a place where a 64-year-old gambling addict sat up in a tower and rained death down on dozens of concert-goers. They see a place that can’t give heathcare to all its citizens and where its most powerful politicians are plotting to make it available to even less people. Shining city, my foot!

The arrogance and puritanical roots of the idea of American Exceptionalism make that idea America’s third great original sin. It’s a sin that hurts every one of us and helps traps us in repeating our worst mistakes.

Leadership in the 21st century isn’t about telling other people you’re better than them and that they should thus heed what you say. From schools to corporate board rooms to international meetings, it’s about empowering others, about identifying their gifts, and, yes, learning from them. Wake up, America. Don’t continue to be Stephen Paddock’s America. Come home. We love you.

About the Author
Alan Abrams is a spiritual care educator who made Aliyah in 2014. He and his wife live in Jerusalem with their two "sabra" children. Alan is the founder of HavLi and the HaKen Institute, spiritual care education and research centers based in Jerusalem. A rabbi, Alan received a PhD in May 2019 from NYU for his dissertation on the theology of pastoral care. He was a business journalist in his first career.