Is American 'Specialness' on the Decline?

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American exceptionalism has been an article of faith for the right than for the left. (I discussed the issue here last year.) The New York Times columnist Charles Blow adds a novel warning on the liberal side. We are losing our precious sense of specialness:

According to a report issued on Thursday by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project, when Americans were asked if they agreed with the statement "our people are not perfect but our culture is superior to others," only 49 percent agreed. That's down from 60 percent in 2002, the first time that Pew asked the question.

Perhaps even more striking was that, among young people (those ages 18 to 29), the percentage of Americans who believed that their culture was superior was lower than young citizens of Germany, Spain and Britain.

But what do these statistics really mean? They're not about behavior, such as knowledge of one's national history and classics. Or rather they're about a certain kind of behavior, what people tell opinion surveyors, which may depend on what they think the researchers want to hear, or how they expect the results to be used, or even their moods. As the Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman observed in an interview:

[W]e know that the French are very different from the Americans in their satisfaction with life. They're much less satisfied. Americans are pretty high up there, while the French are quite low -- the world champions in life satisfaction are actually the Danes. And yet, when you look at the way that the French live, they seem to have pretty good lives. You know, they spend their time in ways that I think many people would envy.

And elsewhere, Kahneman notes that the French describe themselves as much less healthy than the Americans do, but they live three years longer.

This is the context for considering the most surprising statistic cited in Blow's column, that only 15 percent of college-educated French people, as opposed to 43 percent of their American counterparts, endorse their culture's superiority. Tell that to the North African immigrants in the banlieues, whose children have embraced American hip-hop.

As a confirmed Francophile, I'm not blaming French respondents from substituting the ideal for the reality in their replies; people all over the world do it all the time. I'm just suggesting that the survey quoted, like all others, needs to be read with a grain of salt, preferably of the superior organic Breton sea variety.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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