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“When you get in the end zone, act like you've been there before” is an axiom that, in about two minutes on Google, I found attributed to Bear Bryant, Vince Lombardi, Darrell Royal, and Paul Brown. They all probably said it, and all coaches probably wish they could say it now to the towel-snapping louts in the locker room. Cool is simply stylish self-confidence. It's a way adults tell the world, "I've got this under control."
I'm thinking along these lines because of a short essay I just read, "U.S. Is Not Greatest Country Ever." Michael Kinsley posted it on Politico.com last week on election day.
Is it cool to think America isn't the best place that's ever been? No. But it's cool to think the question isn't interesting.
"The notion that America and Americans are special, among all the peoples of the earth, is sometimes called 'American exceptionalism,'" Kinsley wrote — and it's a widespread notion. He said a recent Yahoo poll found that three Americans in four believe the U.S. is “the greatest country in the world.” Which would be fine if Americans were cool about it, which in the age of cool — let's say the age of Sinatra and JFK — Americans were. As in, well, OK, and only because you asked — yeah. But these days, Kinsley seems to think Americans insist on our exceptionalism because we're really not so sure. As in, since you didn't ask, we're going to tell you anyway.
One thing halfbacks that trot into the end zone and hand the ball to the ref obviously realize is that not only they have been there before — so have a lot of other players, and many more to come. But Kinsley recalled that two years ago, when Barack Obama was asked his thoughts on American exceptionalism, he replied, “I believe in American exceptionalism just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” And here's what Newt Gingrich had to say about that: “In other words, everything we cherish about America, our president thinks is not so very special, not so very different from any other country.... No longer, in the left’s view, are we the Americans of the frontier, the sturdy, independent farmers.”
In Gingrich's view, Kinsley observed, only Americans get to believe their country's special. And the country Gingrich thinks is like no other is a "fantasyland populated by frontiersmen and 'sturdy, independent farmers.'”
Kinsley's larger argument is that the weaker the evidence that today's America is special, the less willing the public is to face up to the facts and deal with them. The essence of cool is self-awareness, and Kinsley thinks "this conceit that we’re the greatest country ever may be self-immolating. If people believe it’s true, they won’t do what’s necessary to make it true."
More to the point, if people are secretly afraid it's not true, they won't do what's necessary either — not unless some unflappable adult in a position of leadership sets an example. A large part of the appeal of Obama to his champions two years ago was their belief that the whole country would discover he was that kind of leader. The whole country didn't, and now even his champions aren't so sure. There's more to cool than a lack of heat.