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American Exceptionalism Ethically Challenged

Is America Still a "Shining City Upon a Hill?"

The question is whether American Exceptionalism is alive and well in 2017 as it was when the country was formed in 1776. I did blog about this several years ago and believe the time is right to revisit the issue. In this blog I examine whether the ethical decline in America has created a fissure in the rock-solid notion of America being an exceptional country.

In its classic forms, American Exceptionalism refers to the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation based on democratic ideals and personal liberty. Ronald Reagan characterized the U.S. as a “shining city upon a hill.” There is no denying America's Exceptionalism as a beacon of democracy. However, I consider it to be a necessary but insufficient condition to call America exceptional in 2017. For that we need to examine the level of ethics in the country today.  Shining Hill

Like most things, societal values change over time and it’s no different with exceptionalism. Who would have thought back in 1776 that abortions would be legal; marijuana could be sold legally; or that there would be as many guns owned by Americans as there are citizens. A recent survey indicates that about 4 in 10 Americans own a gun or live in a household with them. I doubt the founders anticipated the level of violence that exists today when they crafted the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. Actually, the way we’re going the country may need a well-armed militia to ward off senseless violence that has infected America. Does that mean we no longer are exceptional?

Just think about the last ten years. The 2007-2008 years ushered in a financial recession unparalleled in U.S. history. Thousands of people lost millions of dollars to financial fraud and avarice. Thousands lost their jobs, their home, their dignity.

Dozens of mass killings have occurred in a variety of locations during the past ten years. The most notable are:

  • College student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people on the campus of Virginia Tech University. (2007)
  • James Homes shot and killed 12 people during the movie premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises.” (2012)
  • Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother and 26 people inside Sandy Hook Elementary School. (2012)
  • Aaron Alexis shot and killed 12 people inside the Washington navy Yard. (2013)
  • Dylann Roof walked into a historic Black Church in Charleston, SC and killed 9 people. (2015)
  • Two people walk into a holiday party and kill 14 people, wounding 17 others in San Bernardino, CA. (2015)
  • Omar Mir SeddiqueMateen killed 49 people and injured 53 at Pulse – a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, FL. (2016)
  • Stephen Paddock opened fire from the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas killing more than 50 and injuring about 200 others. (2017)
  • Devin Patrick Kelley entered the First Baptist Church during a Sunday service, killing 26 and wounding at least 20. (2017)

The shocking thing about these mass killings is most of them seem to target a specific group: students, church-goers, gays and some had a terrorist element to it. How can America be exceptional with such hatred?

What about the misuse of government funds, abuse of power, and even cyber bullying. Here are three examples that touch folks in Congress, government agencies and even the military.

  • In June 2013, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration revealed that more than 1,000 IRS employees misused government charge cards.
  • Former Illinois Congressman Aaron Schock resigned from Congress in March 2015 amidst a scandal involving his use of public and campaign funds including for lavish trips and events.
  • In March 2017, the U.S. Marine Corp announced an investigation of cyber bullying by a Facebook forum of veterans and active-duty troops that has widened into a probe involving all military branches. They’re looking into allegations of swapping risque images of women and denigrating those victims using sexually violent language on multiple websites.

The past few months has shocked America’s conscience with the parade of sexual harassers in all walks of life. Of course, Hollywood, the media, and government have been most publicized. You can bet there is more to come and, I believe, the business and financial community will be the next target of harassment allegations. How can this be in 2017 some 50 years after the start of the sexual revolution?

Have we become a more tolerant society? Have we learned to love one another? Have we learned what it means to be an American – the values and work ethic that it embodies? Have we learned how to be exceptional as individuals? Have we become a more ethical nation? I think not.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 4, 2017. Dr. Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Visit his website website to find out more about his services and sign up for his newsletter.