◄The Exceptionalism of Teenagers and Village Idiots►
Teenagers imagine they are exceptional. For instance, psychologists who study teens recognize that teens have a tendency to believe “it can’t happen to me”. The laws of nature apply to everyone, except to the teen himself. The psychologists call that belief, “a personal fable”.
Adults know better. That is, adults know better than to believe it can’t happen to them. Adults don’t have personal fables of that sort. Unless they’re the village idiot.
In my hometown, there was a village idiot — an adult — who was “friends” with a group of cruel boys. The idiot couldn’t drive a car, so he rode a bike. He’d bike down to the river bank where his cruel young friends liked to play.
The river at that point is about 75 feet wide. The boys understood it was impossible to jump the river on their bikes. And so did the idiot. At least, he understood that at first.
Inevitably, the boys caught onto the fact the idiot could be made to believe things. And the first thing they got him to believe is that he could jump the river on his bike.
The idiot was lucky that day. An adult who was a good swimmer saw the idiot ride off the bank into the water and he dove in after the idiot. All the idiot lost was his bike.
The boys were scolded by everyone from their parents to the sheriff. And for a while, it looked like they’d learned. But the next summer, they got to working up the idiot again. The idiot had the sense to protest he had failed before to jump the river. But the boys took delight in convincing him that his failure was an exception, rather than the rule. They told him he could jump the river if he absolutely believed he could jump the river. That it was all a matter of faith.
The idiot was lucky a second time. The same adult who rescued him the first time — and who lived in a house by the river — saw the idiot go in the second time, and he rescued him again.
Most everyone in town was horrified by what was going on. The boy’s parents forbade the boys from having anything to do with the idiot. But no one could watch the boys every minute of the day, and the boys circumvented the rules their parent’s made for them. By the third and fourth time the idiot was fished out of the river, everyone knew what was coming — except the idiot himself.
On the sixth try, the idiot dragged down with him the man who had so often rescued him from himself, and two people drowned that day.
I think someday American Exceptionalism will get us into something we can’t get ourselves out of. American Exceptionalism is the notion that America is an exceptional nation — not bound nor governed by the natural rules that have bound and governed every other nation in history. It’s the equivalent of a personal fable — but for a whole country.
In effect, American Exceptionalism tells us we can do things no nation will ever be able to do. Such as turn ourselves into a non-repressive theocracy. Or redistribute most of the wealth up the economic ladder from the middle class to the very wealthy without turning into a third world nation. Or that anything we do to other nations must be good because we did it. American Exceptionalism tells us, “It can’t happen to us”.
The cruel boys used to tell the village idiot he could jump the river if he “absolutely believed” he could jump the river. There’s a subtle difference between believing you can do good, and believing that you “absolutely must” do good. One gets you into a whole lot more trouble than the other.