Abroad experience calls American exceptionalism into question

By Scott Onigman ’15, Staff Writer

I recently returned from a semester abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was an incredible experience, one which changed my perspective on many facets of my life. For full disclosure as part of this piece, I am a liberal raised in the nest of liberalism: Boston, MA. Thus, my study abroad experience in what some would call, “com- munist” Scandinavia, was not a departure from my political comfort zone.

While abroad, I made a variety of observations about the political, economic, cultural, and social prac- tices of the Copenhageners with whom I met. One of the most palpable were the differences between the two countries’ political culture. In the United States, there is a significantly wider divide resulting from a variety of differing moral sentiments. On the other hand, in Denmark, there is a more standardized moral and cultural instruction rooted in Danish upbringing.

Frequently present in the backdrop of the political discussion in the United States are the duties — or lack thereof — on the international scale. What is inevitable in these discussions is the statement of, “America is the greatest country in the world”— an over-simplifying, obnoxious, cover-all recited as if it is going to make the United States the greatest country in the world, even if for that moment.

Admittedly, inspiration for this piece is derived from the pilot opening of The Newsroom, an Aaron Sorkin-written TV show featured on HBO. It begins with the protagonist, anchor of the news- show, making a callous argument refuting American exceptionalism.

While the rest of the show does not feature such candid political discourse, this frequently advertised hook has been thought-provoking; this opening scene was something I thought about frequently while living, learning, and traveling abroad.

What piqued my interest on this topic the most while abroad was a pairing of posters in the Statens Museum for Kunst (National Gallery of Denmark) in Copenhagen. The poster on the left, with white text and a deep purple background illustrated, “I often catch myself criticizing my own country. But do I really think it’s that bad a place? Or am I just afraid of seeming nationalistic?”

This contrasted with the poster on the right, that stated, “I often catch myself defending my own country. But do I really think it’s that good a place? Or did I just grow up believing it is?” in black text with a golden yellow back-ground.

The juxtaposition of these two,inverse opinions exemplifies a liberal arts breed of logic. When viewing these two posters, opposite in color but converging in sentiment, one cannot help but to consider the aforementioned rant against “America is the greatest country in the world” logic.

And though I am very proud to be an American, I side with the multitude of reasons as to the invalidity of American exceptionalism. The art featured in the Statens Museum for Kunst em- bodies thought processes that have crossed my mind before when considering whether America was the greatest country in the world.

Before my study abroad experience, my opinion aligned closer to the vein of thought embodied in the first poster. Ironically enough, my study abroad experience changed my stance on these two posters.

Experiencing the Danish way of life made me appreciate the American economic, cultural, political, and social practices more than previously. This is not because I did not enjoy or favor the Danish approach to these fields, for it was the logic behind their economic, cultural, political, and social practices that caused greater appreciation for American practices.

Though I have a greater appreciation for the American way of life after an abroad experience with Copenhagen as my home and Europe as my classroom (program motto), I still cannot decide which of the posters’ opinions I favor more.

Whether or not this matters, it is important for the logic with which our Great Society must reevaluate its priorities and policies so that it may continue the journey toward one day achieving the title of “greatest country in the world.”

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