Exceptionally Upsetting (Preface)

Ideas Roadshow
11 min readFeb 25, 2021


These are the times that try men’s souls.” –Thomas Paine

Below is the preface of EXCEPTIONALLY UPSETTING: How Americans are increasingly confusing knowledge with opinion & what can be done about it written by Howard Burton. Visit the book page —here— for further details.

The United States often likes to think of itself as exceptional. It is often hard to know exactly what to make of such a claim.

On the one hand, tautologically, every country is exceptional insofar as each one has had a uniquely distinct historical trajectory which has culminated in a range of identifiable national characteristics — some decidedly more substantial and meaningful than others.

And then there is the time-honored trope of powerful countries calling themselves “exceptional” or “privileged” as some sort of realpolitik maneuver in order to justify whatever unilateral geopolitical acts they’re persuaded are in their best interest at any given moment.

But on reflection there is, clearly, something noticeably different about the United States based upon its unique origins: an often highly self-conscious, unabashedly grandiose desire to promote itself as nothing less than an exemplar for the entire world. As Alexander Hamilton put it:

“The world may politically, as well as geographically, be divided into four parts, each having a distinct set of interests. Unhappily for the other three, Europe, by her arms and her negotiations, by force and by fraud, has in different degrees extended her dominion over them all. Africa, Asia and America have successively felt her domination. The superiority she has long maintained has tempted her to plume herself as the mistress of the world, and to consider the rest of mankind as created for her benefit…Facts have too long supported these arrogant pretensions of the European. It belongs to us to vindicate the honor of the human race, and to teach that assuming brother moderation…”

It was not enough, apparently, to simply argue something like, After careful review, we’ve come up with a really great way to structure our new federal government in a manner that will provide maximum prosperity and justice for all, and we feel that it’s important to the common welfare for your state legislature to ratify our proposal. Instead, right from the get-go, Americans were imbued with a determination to clothe their domestic political convictions in terms of how they might inevitably become the standard bearer for all the oppressed people of the world and poke those damned hubris-riddled Europeans in the eye.

But aside altogether from any triumphalist rhetoric from its founders, it cannot be denied that there is also a certain distinctiveness about America exhibited by what I would call its exceptionally large “societal dynamic range,” a conspicuous ability to simultaneously hit the extremes of almost any social issue you’d care to mention: a counter-intuitive combination of unprecedented scientific accomplishment and passionate religiosity that seems to fly directly in the face of classic Weberian secularization theory; a strikingly high level of social tension — racism, violent crime, economic inequality — juxtaposed with unusually high levels of community engagement and profound generosity of spirit towards others both within and beyond its borders; a world-leading medical research culture coupled with a dispiriting number of citizens without regular access to basic medical care.

Beyond that, there is, very importantly, the uniquely American “can-do” attitude — that formidable fusion of intellectual chutzpah and single-minded determination that every American seems to magically possess from birth — enabling them to continually create transformative new products and ideas, merrily indifferent to the fact that nobody else ever seemed to regard them as necessary or even possible.

Related to that, perhaps, lies a distinctive sort of political uniqueness too. When I was growing up in Toronto and starting to pay attention to the social world around me, I remember finding it nothing short of incomprehensible that so many poor, underprivileged Americans would regularly vote for a political party that was consistently determined to lower tax rates on the extremely wealthy. Anywhere else, the have-nots typically support political representatives dedicated to wealth redistribution, which serves as a natural break on the rich and powerful’s determination to retain their social and economic advantages. In America, meanwhile, an often-found view among those currently living in a trailer park seems to be something like, It’s vitally important to lower the tax rate of billionaires, because when I become one I don’t want to be forced to support the types of people I’m currently surrounded by. The positive way to interpret this sort of statement is to declare that it represents an irrepressible form of societal optimism. A rather less sympathetic way to describe it is as a form of collective insanity. But either way, you certainly can’t deny that it’s different.

So for most of my life, despite having unconsciously imbibed a constant stream of “American culture” from the infield fly rule to Ocean’s 11, there was always the sense of not having quite understood everything correctly, that at some point when I might least expect it something truly head-shakingly odd would arise that I couldn’t possibly have predicted. That, too, of course, is part of the interest, part of the appeal. For the appeal is undeniable: the concept of “America” is also one deeply wedded to a sense of excitement, a sense of genuine, unabashed fun. Equally importantly, beyond all the silly flag-waving triumphalism and political theater, it has always been evident that the vast majority of Americans are, at heart, decent, generous and fundamentally good people, kind of like a deeply eccentric, brilliant uncle. You may not want to live with him — and you might well think twice before inviting him to dinner when you’ve got company coming over you’re trying to impress — but you’re very glad he’s around, particularly when times get tough.

And right now times are particularly tough. We are in the midst of a global pandemic the likes of which none of us have seen in our lifetime, wreaking havoc with our health, our economies, and our state of mind.

Meanwhile, as if that weren’t enough, America is mired in its own separate crisis, starkly reduced to two bitterly divided camps, each one furiously dedicated to exercising its First Amendment right to indulge in inflammatory rhetoric explicitly geared to demonize the other.

Americans, of course, are notoriously opinionated, widely recognized as being particularly susceptible to unhesitatingly pronounce on a vast range of topics without any actual knowledge to back up their confident claims. This is the sort of thing that tends to make them both unpopular and figures of fun elsewhere; and it must be admitted that the stereotype of the brash, culturally-insensitive American condescendingly munching his way through foreign lands very much exists in real life, as does the talk-radio phone-in contributor who passionately opines on the state of the nation’s economy while explicitly citing the frequency of alien landings as obvious justification for his claims.

But however much amusement other nationalities take in highlighting specific examples of “the ugly, ignorant American” — and they most assuredly do — it is hardly the whole story. In the first case, a more reflective analysis reveals that such blatant overconfidence in one’s opinions is likely the inevitable flip side of possessing the distinctively American “can-do” attitude referred to earlier. The very same unshakeable belief in her intuition that enables the successful entrepreneur to battle through the surrounding skepticism of everyone who told her she couldn’t possibly succeed, might also — particularly when reinforced by a sympathetic environment that will mirror her views — lead her to confidently aver the latest conspiracy theory.

So there is that. But unquestionably the most obvious counter-argument to those who seem determined to condemn the entire United States as some sort of irredeemable miasma of intellectual incoherence is the incontrovertible fact that they not only have many of the world’s leading institutions of higher knowledge, they clearly and conspicuously have the world’s dominant share.

By any objective measure you care to choose — the Shanghai rankings, Times Higher Education rankings, QS rankings — American universities dominate the top 10, top 20, top 50, whatever. Think that’s too general? Pick a subject — any subject — and search the rankings again. Same result. Don’t like the criteria being used? Choose your own objective measures. No difference. That is nothing less than an outstanding achievement, and one which — unconscionably — most Americans seem to take completely for granted, if they even notice it at all.

Almost everyone alive today has witnessed brash American chest-beating pronouncements about how the United States is the best country in the world, typically justifying such claims by vague appeals to its particularly advanced form of democracy, or freedom, or capitalism — all of which, it turns out, are decidedly less convincing grounds than you might think when examined carefully, as I aim to show in what follows.

But through all the nationalistic bombast that I’ve encountered over the years, one statement that I’ve frankly never heard is that America is the greatest country in the world because it so obviously contains the greatest number of the world’s most knowledgeable people in virtually any area of human inquiry. I’d still balk at accepting the claim, of course — the very idea of trying to convince people that your country is somehow objectively “the best” strikes me as a deeply curious and highly unproductive thing to be doing — but I would nonetheless admit that a strong and important point is being made.

But I don’t hear these sorts of arguments — to put it very mildly. In fact, these days, the situation is rather the opposite: America is mired in a profound and deeply debilitating societal crisis whose roots can be clearly traced to an inexplicable determination to collectively minimize the value of knowledge by vigorously promoting the belief that it is fundamentally indistinguishable from mere opinion. This must change. Quickly. For everyone’s sake. And this book represents my little attempt to try to move things in a more positive direction.

Before I begin in earnest, a few more personal disclosures. While I might sound — and even write — like an American, I am not: as alluded to earlier, I am a Canadian. I appreciate that you might be tempted to conclude that this fact should invalidate me from meaningfully commenting on American political life, but I disagree for several reasons.

First, while I would certainly concede that in the normal course it doesn’t make much sense for a Canadian to be urging Americans to address significant structural dysfunctionalities at the heart of their sociocultural world, we have clearly left “the normal course” behind some time ago. Desperate times call for desperate measures — such as involving unknown Canadians to help you right your suddenly grievously leaky societal boat. That, if nothing else, should be a sign of how urgent the situation has become.

Second, I would like to state for the record that I don’t happen to be one of those obnoxiously smug Canadians who makes a habit of casually spewing condescending sentiments towards his “southern neighbours” (note the spelling). Canadians, of course, will strongly disagree that such a creature exists, but I’m certain that any American who has spent any time in Canada or around Canadians knows exactly what I’m talking about here. But rest assured that I’m not one of those types. As it happens, I don’t even live in Canada.

Third, the United States clearly matters to non-Americans more than any other nation on earth matters to its non-citizens. Some people like this and some people hate it, but it’s hard for any rational, reasonably informed person to deny its truthfulness.

More specifically it needs to be emphasized, I think, that quite aside from its considerable geopolitical footprint, the United States is not your average country: it plays a highly significant role in the imagination of many people, myself most definitely included, in a way that transcends its military might or the size of its GDP.

For many of us, the United States is an idea as much as it is a place, an idea that is inextricably linked with its past: the vision and determination of the Founding Fathers to seize the unprecedented opportunity to create a new nation by explicitly incorporating the most salient political insights from some of history’s most astute minds, from Aristotle to Locke to Montesquieu, with the deliberate aim of establishing a place where abstract notions of justice and freedom could be concretely applied and made to flourish like never before.

This is why, for those who feel inspired by such things, the American Constitution is the thing that really turns our crank. The Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War were all “well and good, but it’s hard not to see all that as little more than the logical culmination of what happens when the hubris and rapacity of an out-of-touch empire encounters the energy and spirit of its underestimated former underlings.

But the Constitution — well, that was a horse of a very different color: here was a determined effort by a group of educated, passionate idealists to deliberately construct nothing less than a new model of structuring society. From scratch. I mean, really — it takes your breath away.

So a couple of centuries later, when the bold and ingenious American political experiment has been transparently reduced to two warring tribes whose only common ground lies in a steadfast determination to obstruct the other at every turn to the overwhelming detriment of an equally polarized citizenry, the rest of the world notices. Big time. Even to the extent of compelling an otherwise reticent Canadian living in France to take a few moments to try to jump into the fray.

One final note. The astute reader will notice that I often use the word “we” to describe aspects of the current American predicament, rather than the more distant “you” or “they” that one might naively expect a non-American would invoke. This is, of course, deliberate.

In the first place, while the current American combination of rampaging tribalism and knowledge-free opinion is considerably more acute than exists elsewhere on the globe, it must be admitted that the phenomenon is hardly exclusively American (one is reminded, for example, of how “What is the European Union” was revealed to be the second most googled query throughout the United Kingdom immediately after the results of the 2016 Brexit vote were officially announced)3. Indeed, it is quite reasonable to expect that — like many things — the descente aux enfers represented by contemporary American life is but a depressing harbinger of things to come for the rest of us.

So there is that. But the main reason why I feel a natural tendency to invoke the first person when discussing these issues can, I think, be best expressed by the indescribable gut-wrenching nausea I felt when watching those planes fly into the World Trade Center a little less than 20 years ago. It wasn’t a case of, “Look at what those bastards have done to America!” or “Oh, those poor people!”, but rather an immediate and overwhelming feeling of being personally attacked. Nous sommes tous américains was the headline in Le Monde on September 12, 2001; and it perfectly summed up my sentiments. Then and now.

If America has some legitimate claim to being exceptional — and I believe it does, but generally not in the ways that most Americans believe — then the current situation desperately cries out for all of us to calm down and start thinking about how we might be able to improve things by harnessing that exceptionalism, rather than merely wallowing in how exceptionally upsetting things have now become.

Howard Burton


This is the preface of EXCEPTIONALLY UPSETTING: How Americans are increasingly confusing knowledge with opinion & what can be done about it by Howard Burton.

Visit the book page on our website for more details.