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Lake Wobegon

Published June 02. 2012 09:01AM


In writer Garrison Keillor's fictional Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon "everyone is above average." I was reminded of this during President Obama's speech at the U.S. Air Force Academy's graduation ceremony last week. (My nephew, Claire's cousin, Alex Zubey one of Tamaqua High's greatest track stars graduated and was commissioned a second lieutenant; I was pleased and proud to be there.) The Prez touted America's "exceptionalism" and predicted that the 21st would be a "new American century." (He also shook the hands of all 1017 graduates, Alex included; I have the picture to prove it.)

Wikipedia, that Internet fount of all knowledge, informs us, "American exceptionalism is the theory that the United States is different from other countries in that it has a specific world mission to spread liberty and democracy. In this view, America's exceptionalism stems from its emergence from a revolution, becoming 'the first new nation,' and developing a uniquely American ideology, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire. This observation can be traced to Alexis de Tocqueville, the first writer to describe the United States as 'exceptional' in 1831 and 1840. Historian Gordon Wood has argued, 'Our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolutionary era. So too did our idea that we Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy.'" (

The notion got a bad rap during the late, great George W administration, when it was invoked to justify America's aggressive incursion into Iraq. Whether or not, as Dr. Johnson suggested, patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, certainly American exceptionalism was Mr. Bush's last refuge. After the WMD and al Qaeda rationales for the invasion proved to be smoke and mirrors, the Bush White House was left with only a self-proclaimed American mission to jam our "unique" brand of free-market democracy down everybody else's throats.

Some three years ago, President Obama explained what he personally means by American exceptionalism. "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world toward peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone." (Washington Post, April 5, 2009)

His Air Force Academy speech was consistent with that statement. He emphasized the need for strong alliances around the world. I think most young Americans would agree. I suspect that, being more widely traveled than their elders were at their age (except for those of my era who got a free trip to Southeast Asia in the sixties), and more likely to take diversity for granted, they see themselves in a hard race among equally matched opponents for what was once considered to be, uniquely, the "American Dream." They know they don't live in Lake Wobegon.


I hate to quibble with President Obama (since I tend to agree with him), but as I get older I'm finding America, and my fellow Americans, less and less exceptional. Everywhere I go I encounter people who can't seem to do even the simplest tasks, tasks they are paid to do, without griping. Then they do those tasks poorly, to boot. College was a constant surprise; I was surprised that the many of my fellow English majors had never read a single one of the assigned books, for example. I'm not sure if the fact that they still passed the classes reflects more poorly on those students, my professors, or me. Lest you think I'm only haranguing my own generation, let me point out that I have friends with co-workers in their forties and fifties who can't make it through a workday without complaining, or a workweek without taking a "mental health day."

What ever happened to taking pride in one's work? What happened to Bruce Springsteen's working class hero?

It seems a thing of the past. Is it the fault of our parents and teachers? They told us we could be anything we wanted. What they failed to mention is that there actually is a limit on the number of artists and astronauts a country can sustain, and in lieu of our dreams there's always a need for more trash men, more waitresses. Or is laziness and discontent simply a disease that has overtaken the country?

That seems a bit simplistic, though. There are reasons, hard as they may be to pin down, and harder still to fix. Poor education. Overpopulation. The film "Idiocracy" doesn't seem far off if in summation of the downfall of the human race.

I've dismissed the idea before that young people of my generation are brought up to believe we are "special snowflakes" who deserve nothing less than the realization of our absolute dreams. I'm going to take that back, to a degree, right now. While I don't think it's a generation-specific malady, I do think that Americans as a whole have grown to believe we are all the exception: Sure, the world needs janitors, but that's not me! I'm exceptional; I deserve to be a best-selling fiction author, despite the fact that I've never taken the time to write a manuscript. I may be working-class now, but just you wait.

It's the American dream, to be able to become anything if you work hard enough. But it's a warped dream, because so many of us have forgotten about the "if you work hard enough" part.

On the other hand, I'm happy to have a president who believes in the traditional definition of American exceptionalism. After all, somebody needs to. A great teacher believes in the potential of his students, and inspires his students to believe in their own potential. President Obama does this, but he can't do everything for us. After so many of us have reached the step of believing in ourselves, we need to move on to the next part: working our potential into action.

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