At this time of year, caught in winter’s breath, with snowdrifts lining the streets and rock salt staining our shoes, it can be hard to remember that the days are growing longer and springtime closer. The changing seasons remind us of history’s cycles and, on darker days, of Zarathustra’s eternal return. Powers wax and wane, balance is won and lost, economies rise and fall. Exams and holidays behind us, we move into a new semester with new classes and activities, revisiting a cycle lived before.
But just as a surprise frost can kill spring buds, exceptional events sometimes disrupt the ebb and flow of history. One of the worst play calls in football history loses Yale its greatest rivalry. A prominent athlete’s car crash reveals a hidden life of sin. The most substantial progressive legislation in 40 years becomes law.
Perhaps the exceptions are really the rule. Five years ago, journalist and explorer Hampton Sides published a book of stories called “Americana,” an account of his travels and interviews with an assortment of eccentric American characters. His goal was to capture something of the essence of the country’s spirit, but what he discovered was a tremendous diversity — of beliefs, traditions, habits and sheer style. From Tony Hawk to the founder of Tupperware, Sides uncovers a landscape of oddities and quirks which defies patterns and asserts individuality.
Indeed, America has always been a land of exceptions. It pioneered religious freedom in the West, preserved some of the world’s most remarkable natural environments, achieved the most powerful industrial and technological capabilities in the world and saved democratic civilization in two world wars. Sides adeptly captures the essential spirit in his introduction: “We’re a supremely confident people, sure of our ways, proud of our machines, swaggering with our guns — a people confident enough to wage preemptive war on sovereign nations in defiance of world opinion. This confidence, perhaps rooted in our frontier past and in the licenses of our Constitution, scares the crap out of other countries, especially now that the United States has achieved a cultural and military hegemony without parallel in the history of the world.”
He’s right — humanity has never seen the likes of America’s worldwide cultural, economic and military influence. Our partners have profited; our enemies have suffered. And while “city upon a hill” imagery is fatigued in Ronald Reagan’s wake, John Winthrop’s words still resonate. So do his warnings, which forecast our relationship with so many nations: “We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.”
America can lead only as long as its exceptionalism does not become hubris, as long as its eccentricity does not engender bitterness. M. Scott Peck, in “People of the Lie,” reminds us that, “We must somehow be both tolerant and intolerant, accepting and demanding, strict and flexible. An almost godlike compassion is required.” And while Peck was speaking to parents, not governments, in both cases moderation is a tightrope over a long fall.
Whether the cycles of history be grand or modest, millennia or months, remember that exceptions are both the greatest danger and the greatest virtue. Cities on hills don’t shine without some polish. America needs Tony Hawk and Tupperware, even if we risk an occasional Tiger Woods.
Rushing to take that seminar on Establishment Narratives of Pre-Industrial Ethnic Sexualities might not be the best way to interrupt our own cycles, but tutoring children, or going to church, or reading the newspaper might be.
At the same time, we shouldn’t neglect the habits that make the cycle work. We need those meals with our suitemates, intramural games and movie nights for the same reason that America needs the mailman and Dick Clark. In this new year, we should hold on to our traditions, but not too tightly; and do our best to find that godlike compassion somewhere between convention and deviance.
Benjamin Miller is a senior in Morse College.