Blogs & Comment

Why the U.S. may be an exception to history

It can be boiled down to three things: freedom, opportunity and surplus.


(Photo: Aaron Logan/Wikimedia)

In thinking about my book, Sex, Bombs and Burgers, in an American context—which I’ve been doing a lot of lately given its U.S. launch this week—I’ve been reading up on something called “exceptionalism.” It’s a theory that dates back to the mid-nineteenth century and holds that the United States is somehow a special nation in the world. While the term didn’t originally confer a sense of superiority, it has since been adapted by some thinkers to lean that way.

In considering my book, which focuses heavily on the U.S., I think there may be something to the theory, that the United States is indeed a special—and perhaps superior—nation. It’s an abhorrent thought to many non-Americans and especially us Canadians, but in fact, it’s sex, bombs and burgers that are the symbolic roots of this exceptionalism. Some explanation is in order.

Sex (pornography) = freedom. The U.S. is a porn leader. Like it or not, pornography has its place in a prosperous and exceptional nation. American producers have argued for decades that what people choose to do—or consume—in their own homes is their business and that government has no place in it. For the most part, the courts have sided with them, enshrining free speech as one of the country’s most protected laws along the way. While there have been other tests of this tenet, the right to sex and pornography has essentially been at the vanguard of American freedoms.

Bombs (military) = opportunity. I recently outlined just how much money the U.S. military spends every year, much of which has direct ties to corporations and educational institutions. While researching and designing new weapons of war isn’t exactly the most noble of pursuits, the consumer and humanitarian spinoffs are wide, varied and numerous. As such, the military provides a deep funding pool for anyone who is willing to dip into it. Recent examples include some of the most successful companies in the world, such as Google and Apple.

Burgers (food) = surplus. The United States is the biggest food exporter in the world, a position it has enjoyed since at least the Second World War. Indeed, Americans have so much food that they throw out more than many nations produce. If ever there was a Land of Plenty, the U.S. is it.

When those three things—surplus, opportunity and freedom—are put together, amazing things happen. While some nations may have more of one or the other, no one else comes close to matching the sum combination that is found in the United States. Success is therefore built into the country’s very DNA.

This is especially true when it comes to technological innovation, an area the United States has led for much of the past century. While countries such as China and India are coming up in the world both economically and intellectually, they don’t currently match the right blend of surplus, opportunity and freedom. Moreover, they’re unlikely to any time soon because of long legacies and historical traditions that will be difficult if not impossible to overcome.

It doesn’t apply to just those big countries either—it affects smaller nations such as Canada, as well. Here, many are now worrying about a possible collapse by our biggest technology company, BlackBerry maker Research In Motion. The fretting is almost pointless because, as I wrote several months ago, the collapse is inevitable. Canada simply doesn’t have the right mix of surplus, opportunity and freedom either (opportunity is our biggest problem). We are a country that excels at producing small businesses, but those companies will inevitably get swallowed up by bigger concerns and our best and brightest will depart for greener pastures down south.

When it comes to innovation, other countries are—and will be for some time—just satellites that revolve around the United States. It’s a tough pill for many to swallow, but there’s no shame in it. Despite American exceptionalism, the world is truly global now and we all have our parts in it.

There’s also the possibility that the U.S. could do something incredibly stupid—like ban pornography, or enact the Stop Online Piracy Act—to sabotage its own specialness. Many people in many other countries are crossing their fingers…