I am a child of the 1980’s. My first memories of national and international events are surrounded by Reagan’s sweep into power carrying the mantle of American Exceptionalism. From the dominance of the US in the LA Olympics to Nike’s “just do it” and Apple’s personal computers to the fall of the Berlin Wall marking the U.S. victory in the Cold War, just about everything in the outer shell of my childhood taught me that America is number one, no doubt about it, not even a second place country anywhere in our sight.
And what vaulted us to this lofty place? As far as Reagan’s American Exceptionalism is concerned, it’s the magic formula of democracy, capitalism, and the power of the individual to use both of these to achieve his own greatest potential. Today, it’s fascinating to me that culture, religion, and community are only a secondary part of this formula, if they’re a part of it at all. American Exceptionalism is about the singular, and the group plays absolutely no role in this.
Fast-forward to 1992, when I left this country for the first significant period of time, spending a few weeks living with a French family outside of Bordeaux in a cultural exchange program. Here, as a sixteen-year-old, my ingrained sense of American Exceptionalism was confronted head-on by a much more refined and centuries’ old French Exceptionalism. The family with which I stayed had a modest respect for democracy and capitalism, but they out-and-out mocked my lack of cultural identity as an American – from my description of a typical American dinner with my nuclear family to the trumped-up but ultimately shallow purpose of religion in our lives and (worst of all) my description of an American mall and its food courts – the French whom I met were incredulous at the absolute lack of any redeemable cultural quality to American life. And quite frankly, after eating several meals with these people, shopping at the markets before making the family’s dinner, and visiting the historic chateaux from which they bought their wine, my sixteen-year-old self couldn’t really challenge their claim to cultural superiority.
Now fast-forward to 2011, when many media outlets are describing the “French-style labor protests” surrounding the budget battles in Madison and other of our nation’s state capitols. This is certainly not the first time in this nation’s history that The People have risen up to protest a perceived wrong against the masses. But this time the protesters seem older, more solidly educated and middle class. These protesters are closer than ever to losing the manifestation of the long-held ideal of middle-class comfort in the form of lifetime pensions and healthcare. These protesters, in both their focus and the sense of loss that they fear greets them just over the horizon, are more a unified community moving as a single mass than a group of individuals with a common cause.
A new nation’s identity and growth is often metaphorically tied to the growth of the human being; so it is true with the United States. Our infancy at the end of the 18th century was full of unabashed hope; our childhood full of foibles, and our adolescence in the middle and late 19th century fraught with tears and nearly tore us apart from the inside. Our teenage years of the twentieth century showed the world our strength, our emerging personality, and our immense potential. But as we as a nation become adults, we realize that despite the importance of the individual in our history thus far, we’re much closer to “We the People” than we’ve been in a long time. These Gallic protests might just be the indication of our growing up.
The Beertown that we’ve created in the last few weeks is full of founding individuals, whose singular visions combined to create a town with a history that parallels the growth of the Nation. The town as we’ve imagined it is now undergoing exactly such a sea change from this adolescent individualism to adult inclusivity. Certainly the changes that Beertown faces as it ponders its future will bring its singular past into account. But its citizens also must face the fact that such individualism is no longer viable for the town to grow. It must come together as a community to achieve its greatest potential.