The idea that the United States of America is somehow unique and exceptional is nothing new. In fact, one of the first people to use the word “exceptional” to describe America to the world was Alexis de Tocqueville. de Tocqueville was a French political scientist and historian who lived from 1805 to 1859 and made the claim about the exceptional nature of this country in 1831. The idea seems to have entered our own national identity relatively recently when President Ronal Reagan gave his famous “shining city on a hill” speech in the 1980’s. But what exactly is this idea and what exactly does it have to do with masculinity?
American Exceptionalism “refers to the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation based on democratic ideals and personal liberty.” But like many concepts, there is the textbook definition and then there are the real-world applications of the concept. A real-world examination of the execution of this concept would indicate that the idea of “personal liberty” (which, to be completely fair, is a concept near and dear to my heart) takes on the toxic notion of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” The idea of personal liberty leads people to believe that we all have the exact same types of boots and – therefore – bootstraps. This notion ties into how masculinity is performed in the United States. The notion of American Exceptionalism also has religious ties, and those will be examined a little later on here.
In the United States, we look at masculinity as the personification of rugged individualism. Think of characters like the Marlboro Man and Batman, both men in our popular culture who depend on nobody but themselves to tame the unruliness they see before them. This performance of masculinity clearly reflects the principles of personal liberty that define life in this country. This performance of masculinity is toxic because, of course, we all need people. Relationships that we build help to tame the unruliness. In the examples of the Marlboro Man and Batman, they both very clearly need people. The Marlboro Man needs a team behind him to successfully “tame” the West (a problematic notion in and of itself). Farming is not for the weak-willed, and it is not for the individual. There need to be farm hands to care for the land and livestock, people at home to make meals and keep the house safe and secure, and a community of people to watch out for you if you fall on hardships. The Marlboro Man also needs a team of people to care for him after he ultimately succumbs to lung cancer, and you’d better hope that all his work and the work of his community means that treatment won’t bankrupt him. Batman needs people, and definitely people other than Alfred (truly, an exceptional example of masculinity within the DC universe). He needs people he’s never met to manufacture his gear, he needs people on the inside like Commissioner Gordon to bring the “bad guys” to justice, and he ultimately needs the Justice League to carry out his mission. At the moment of writing about Batman, it actually occurs to me how strange it is that he’s surrounded by men who are showing him a better way but he is stubbornly clinging to the idea that he alone can bring order to the chaos. That may be a post for another day.
Looking at the religious, and specifically Christian (because that is where my knowledge base is, not because I think it’s a superior religious tradition), perspective I would offer up a way in which we could shift to a different performance of masculinity. As you may know if you’ve been reading with me for a while, I was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as Mormons) and notions of American Exceptionalism were embedded in nearly every part of my religious upbringing. So much so that I wonder what the Church is like in other parts of the world. We were taught that the United States was the only place that was “free enough” to let the gospel of Jesus Christ flourish. This has always been interesting to me as I consider the way that prophets in the Book of Mormon and Bible, and Jesus Christ himself, perform masculinity. As I consider that many of the men in these sacred texts performed masculinity in a very gentle way, I think that we have some very clear examples of what masculinity in a culture dominated by personal liberty could really look like. Imagine, for a moment, what it would look like if the men in our country treated all women the way that Christ treated women (in case you’re not sure, it was with love and tenderness). Imagine if there was an entire society of men who decided that they would bury their weapons and vow to never harm another person in their lives. What if the dominant culture was not one where everyone used their personal liberty to say “it’s every man for themselves” and instead said, “because I have been given much, I too must give”?
In my opinion, American Exceptionalism as we see it performed in our dominant culture means seeing toxic masculinity at the forefront of very nearly everything that we do. But one small switch, and one that is certainly possible if men and women could look at the loving and peaceful parts of their belief systems, and American Exceptionalism could change from a toxic concept to a concept that succeeded in making some permanent good.
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