It is a cliche that we live in an exceptional country. Some activists even insist that a candidate who doesn’t salute “American exceptionalism” doesn’t deserve our votes.
People boasting of our exceptionalism are likely thinking about our personal freedom, winning the race to the moon, inventors, winning almost every war. And the like.
I am prouder that we are the world leader in quite a different exceptionalism. Diversity.
But there are competing trends in diversity. One is toward less diversity, the other toward more. Both tug at quite a few countries.
Quebec’s Francophones call us Anglophones “tetes carres,” or square heads. You know, we all look alike. But tetes carres who look exactly alike to Francophones battled among ourselves for centuries over the bleak turf of Ireland. Today, it’s over slightly more fertile ranges of Scotland.
While others may not be able to tell us apart, some Celts — I lean to the Gaelic pronunciation of Kelt — have been trying to narrow the circle. First, Ireland fought and finally won freedom from England. Except for the six counties of Ulster. In 2014, the Scots almost separated from the United Kingdom, and polls suggest that if that vote were taken again Scotland might hitch up its kilts and walk.
Just to complicate it a bit, the Scots are upset because in 2016 they voted to stay in the European Union while the rest of the UK voted to leave. So, Scots wanted more diversity in economic (and consequently in some cultural) matters while almost a majority of them wanted less diversity in the makeup of a separate nationality.
The go-it-alone trend is strong. Slavs left Czechoslovakia to form Slovakia, leaving the Czechs with the awkward name “the Czech Republic.” Somehow, Czechistan or Czechia just doesn’t ring right.
Yugoslavia split five ways after Marshal Tito died. The Balkans reverted to the status quo ante, or how it was before, and are now Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, each based on ethnic traits. Croatians are mostly Catholic and use a Latin alphabet. Serbs are Eastern Orthodox and use a Cyrillic alphabet. The languages are essentially the same, so they can talk to one another, but they don’t often. Bosnians are mostly Muslim. And so on. Each now with her own. And no one else.
Today, we have the awful news of the army attacking Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, which used to be Burma, trying to cleanse Myanmar of Islamic squatters. A militant band of Rohingya attacked an army post, and the army retaliated by killing nearly 1,000 and pushing 140,000 out of their villages. The Rohingya are squatters because under Burmese law they can’t be citizens, no matter how long they have been there.
On the other side of the coin, America is the shining star, even though we have a hard time living up to our ideals. No one else has matched the United States for diversity.
Even here in the Great White North. Few black or brown folks live in Maine, though that is changing, but we have diversity among white people. Around here, folks nod when you say “Finnish dairy farmer from Temple.” There may be no Finnish dairy farms left in Temple, but most of us know the history of that tucked-away town. Other Finns in Somerville and Monson.
Ed Muskie wasn’t the only Polish-American born in Rumford. And if you drive Route 108 toward Peru, you’ll pass Italian Hall. It wasn’t built for Yankees. Other Italians came to quarry granite in Jay. And Swedes to Aroostook. And Norwegians. And French, both Quebecois and Acadeinne. And more.
Contrast this with, say, Alabama, which has, at base, black Baptists and white Baptists.
Only Canada has made much attempt to match our exceptional diversity, and Canada has done it through immigration, since it had no history of importing millions against their will. Today, thanks to refugees fleeing Africa and the Middle East, Europe has an opportunity to join us in diversity. Nearly 3 million people in Germany speak Turkish. In addition to the Turks, hundreds of thousands of others have come in the past five years or so, Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Libyans. And more.
Sweden’s 10 million blue-eyed blonds are joined now by half a million folks of Muslim heritage. When did a brown guy last speak to you in Swedish? It can happen today.
Our diversity gives us huge advantages. You can brag about Edison while you munch a Reese’s peanut butter cup. Without diversity, would peanut butter have come to be? It was created by the black scientist George Washington Carver. Without diversity, would the artificial liver, Play Doh, the USB or the nectarine have come to be? All were created by Asian-Americans. Without diversity, would the car heater, the medical syringe, the fire escape or Monopoly have come to be? All were invented by women.
And our culture is richer than perhaps any other. Without diversity, where would Harry Belafonte have performed? Or Denzel Washington? Or Meryl Streep? Or Tommy Chong? Where would Alice Walker have written? Or Amy Tan? Or Salman Rushdie? This is our real strength. This makes America exceptional. Even with the other demands on them, black folks and Asian-Americans and women and everyone else have used personal freedom to advance our culture and our economy and technology.
I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Bob Neal of New Sharon is glad on these September mornings that his Nissan has a heater, that he was able to vaccinate his turkeys when he was farming and that he had a peanut butter sandwich for lunch on Monday. Vive exceptionalism!