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The humility of exceptionalism

In “The Usual Suspects,” Kevin Spacey delivers another trademark, chilling line that just so happens to reverberate throughout the world.

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

Today, there are a number of devils continuing to exercise their influence discreetly. Among them is the manipulation of patriotism, twisting national pride into an avenue for corruption and profits at the expense of citizens across the world.

As businessman Mark Cuban phrased it in a 2014 interview: “The greatest trick ever played was the [International Olympic Committee] convincing the world that the Olympics were about patriotism and national pride instead of money.”

On a similar note, the chatter surrounding several German players — including star midfielder Mesut Özil — opting not to sing their country’s national anthem before competition evoked its own questions of patriotism. Meanwhile, the real Keyser Söze was lurking behind the scenes during last summer’s FIFA World Cup in the form of the mammoth “white elephant” stadiums. These underused, expensive structures erected across Brazil for the World Cup will likely never see full capacity again and provide the latest example of flat-out abuse in the name of national pride as Brazilian taxpayers footed much of the bill to host the festivities, a disturbing trend that continues in the lead-up to the 2022 Cup in Qatar.

With probabilistic effects, or — to put it more bluntly — damn luck controlling many of life’s initial conditions, is there any sense in feeling patriotic? Given the clear dangers generated by national fervor, would the world be better off by ignoring a phenomenon dictated so heavily by the “accident of birth.”

Despite these legitimate concerns, there is absolutely a place for patriotism in the modern world, but it might require a slight redefinition. In the United States, this question is especially pertinent. The theme of American exceptionalism has been embodied in history and literature before the country was even founded with Winthrop’s dream of a “shining city upon a hill,” for example, and extends all the way to modern presidential debates.

But how do we unify American exceptionalism and, more generally, the concept of national pride, with so many of the patriotism-induced ills we see in the world? By understanding what American exceptionalism even means: a culture — not a birthright — that celebrates optimism and the belief in a brighter future, but one that’s coupled with an essential humility in recognizing the accident of birth.

Contrary to the rhetoric of almost every politician, exceptionalism should not be connoted with a sense of superiority, a danger particularly worrisome in the realm of foreign policy; it should harken back to the earliest ideals of the term, a pride in celebrating freedom and opportunity. While some might question, perhaps rightfully, whether the American Dream still exists, optimism can still be a pervading cultural factor.

But this sense of pride has to be coupled with humility to avoid equating exceptionalism with uniqueness. There’s no reason why those of other nationalities can’t also have a strong passion for their country, tempered by a recognition of the arbitrariness of it all. A sense of community matters. We should absolutely continue the Olympics and press on with the World Cup because it does mean something to so many people, but we should do it in a smarter, less wasteful way, recognizing the devils lurking beneath. These spectacles should be far from a struggle for superiority and more of celebration of athletics.

I believe that America is special because of its high-level ideals; not because we Americans are anything out of the ordinary. I love my country, but with the understanding that under different circumstances, I would insert a different name in place of “country.”

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It has been a trying year for Stanford and the entire nation, but there is that optimism for a better future that defines American exceptionalism; however, we must also have the humility to avoid delusion and tackle the challenges immediately present.

What would this redefined idea look like on a day-to-day basis? Perhaps we would see less of the fervent, costly bidding wars to win the right to host the Olympics, as well as approach foreign affairs with a concern for representing American interests without always keeping one eye on maintaining a propped up sense of superiority. A country is not special simply for existing; it’s special because of the values and culture it chooses to embody. That’s the ground where humility and exceptionalism and coexist.

Patriotism is a beautiful thing, but only with the right perspective.

Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu 

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