Myths of American exceptionalism
Having moved to live in New York three and a half years ago, I am, like Beauvoir, an outsider looking in. Like anyone calling a new place home, I have tried relentlessly to figure America out – to understand what keeps the wheels of its society turning; how the teeth of each cog mesh with another. The first thing I realized that I never did before living here is that “conservatism that runs very deep” within this country, despite, as Beauvoir writes, “the rapid progress in material and technical domains.”
It took me some time to realize that New York – Manhattan – is a small island of anomaly in this sea of a country. Like the American told Beauvoir, “this country is like an enormous whale,” and Manhattan is but a tiny part of its brain. The rest of America looks very different. I never realized how deeply woven into the American tapestry religion was until after coming back from a year abroad in London and Shanghai. It goes without saying that communism has no official room for religion, and the steps taken to enforce that in China during the late 20th century and at present has resulted in its lasting absence. London, I thought, was surprisingly non-religious. Although it gave birth to much of Christianity and provided fertile ground for its proliferation and expansion, there was very little of it woven into everyday life. All the cathedrals and churches with their beautiful spires and centuries-old pews were still much-respected institutions, but religion appeared to have a more compartmentalized role in peoples’ lives; it did not underpin society and politics.
The contrast of America conservatism with other parts of the world was articulated so succinctly by Beauvoir: “The American credo seems to be the expression of a supreme law.” What gives many Americans a sense of patriotism and belonging is the belief in American exceptionalism; a Manifest Destiny that has persisted even after there are no more frontiers left to tame. This supreme law is “at once natural and divine; it’s apparently inscribed in eternity.” This ties into the “fatalism that [she finds] terrifying,” one that is echoed in a binary political sphere cleaved into halves.
Beauvoir notes: “In Europe women have understood much better that the moment to affirm themselves as women has passed. They try to prove their worth on a universal level, in politics, in the arts of sciences, or simply in their lives.” I cannot speak to the conditions of the European woman, but as a woman entering a male-dominated industry here I cannot help but ruminate on the condition of the woman in America. There is constant conversation about a glass-ceiling, and there are numerous subtleties that run through everyday interactions that remain chauvinistic. A woman has more to learn than her male counterpart – she has to learn to navigate the corporate landscape in the tricky role of a woman. Sometimes I feel weary just thinking about it; shouldn’t we have moved past this by now? Yet the “earthly manifestation” of this issue sets in, and my personal experiences in the workplace and the larger political decisions made about women, such as the tightening restrictions on abortion in numerous states, tell me that the moment hasn’t passed; to aspire to such an ideal would be to ignore reality. I try to prove my worth on a “universal level” independent of my gender, but the truth is that I did hurry to buy Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In
What would Beauvoir think if she were to visit America today? Would she be shocked to find the essence of America as she understands it relatively unchanged? Perhaps she had already anticipated that everything she loved and deplored about it, from the “exhilarating feeling that anything can begin here,” to the “conservatism of Americans,” will only take root and flourish.