I have been noting, on the language front, how the "patriotism" that was so heavily promoted in the Bush years has been morphing into a revival of "American exceptionalism." Some might argue that the term bespeaks a real hope for the world in the form of a functioning democracy which assures equal opportunity and equal rights for all its citizens: America, the beacon that beams out the message of freedom to the rest of the world. And let's not minimize the element of truth in this: compared with most other countries on the face of this planet, we do enjoy exceptional freedoms--and exceptional privileges.
At the same time, we would be foolish to ignore the darker side to the assertion of exceptionalism: the sense of moral superiority that accompanies it. In tooting our own horn with too much enthusiasm, we risk overlooking some of the less endearing characteristics that others recognize us by--and which were abundantly evident to anyone who happened to watch the Super Bowl. The first, and least attractive of these is our celebration of military strength and the violence it implies. The sport itself is a ritual re-enactment of gladiatorial combat, with giant battling giant on the open field, the wounded limping off ingloriously to the locker rooms of either side. Particularly distressing, though, to the Buddhist eye, were the advance ads for the new crop of films due to hit the screens this summer--a war on the senses in which titans clash in ever grander scales of epic violence, "saving the world" from the plague of alien invaders. This, too, is a manifestation of American exceptionalism: from the rice paddies of Vietnam to the desert sands of Iraq and Afghanistan, we see it as our right and noble duty to wreak havoc and mayhem as we rout the enemies of freedom. (Or, on occasion, when it suits our purposes, support them.)
What else do we learn about ourselves from our Super Bowl commercials? Sadly, that it's okay--even funny--to be dumb. We wallow, particularly, in the delight of seeing men behaving stupidly. I did not take notes, but this seems to happen most frequently at the hands of women, who are smart. Those alien invaders, watching our Super Bowl in advance of their summer onslaught, would surely see America as a matriarchal society in which men are regarded as inferior in intellect and effective action--indeed, in every way to women, who are all artificially beautiful, smart, and manipulative. And they could be right. There seems to be a celebration of willful ignorance in our still male-dominated political class, where it is considered acceptable, even laudable, to embrace fantasy over fact. (The women, though, are rapidly catching up! Watch out! They'll soon be beating us as our own dumb game!)
We would do well, I think, to recognize that not everything is a battle between Packers and Steelers (I'm surprised that the team I chose to root for actually won. My support is usually the kiss of death; and in the second half it did look as though the Packers were doing everything they could to lose. I was astounded that they managed to hold on.) In the half-time show, I was happy to hear the Black-Eyed Peas reminding us to ask, "Where's the Love"? I did not catch most of the words of the song, but I was aware of the plea for greater compassion for the less fortunate in our society. Looking around at our current political environment, it's hard to see where the love might be--whether between the two parties, or for those future generations of Americans who will inherit the mess we seem intent on aggravating for them. Or for ourselves. Love is in short supply as we attack each other, bloviating about our greatness even as we work dilligently to sabotage whatever it once was.
Am I being cynical, tell me? Or simply realistic?