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The exceptionalism of our two Americas

Sometimes we make America more complicated than it really is. With 2013 nearing the end and yet another make-or-break midterm election about to knock us upside the head, we look at our inability to get anything done, our inability when we do try to do something to get it right, the inability of millions of people to find meaningful work or to make ends meet, and we wonder if things have ever been worse. This, interestingly, in a nation that was forged in a violent revolution and had a second one that was cut short -- with a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands in between.

So what's our problem?

We can't handle the big stuff -- income inequality and a low-wage economy, failing urban schools an achievement gap compared to other post-industrialized nation, and an inadequate system of health insurance. So we wage guerrilla warfare over the small stuff, whether it's one whacked-out PR executive's racist tweet or the half-wit and un-wisdom of the patriarch of TV's most popular reality show. But the funny thing is that the "Duck Dynasty" flap and the war on Obamacare all stem from the same impulses.

Welcome to America -- a nation so exceptional that was have two Americas, still too separate and now way more unequal than ever. And until we come to grips to that -- and with our original sins that can't be papered over with happy talk about the great American melting pot -- our future is condemned to keep repeating the past.

We can certainly talk about "Duck Dynasty"'s Phil Robertson and his GQ interview where he made sad and completely unsurprising comments about homosexuality and race. While his words about gays were starkly crude and offensive, his comments about race -- that Southern blacks sang happily as they toiled in the fields before civil rights..."pre-entitlement, pre-welfare" -- were arguably worse. But that was just a famous guy uttering the kind of sometimes vague and sometimes overly racist claptrap you can find routinely on your car radio,

I was actually more struck by what some non-famous Americans has to say in an online op-ed by David Firestone of the New York Times. The newspaper's editorial board had looked at why the United States trailed other European and Asian nations (as well as Canada) in math and science education -- and some readers responded with mostly unvarnished candor.

They blamed American culture:

Scores of readers blamed that disparity on this country's more libertarian culture, and on an outlook toward learning that if not overtly anti-intellectual is at least non-intellectual.

"Canadians' acceptance and indeed pride in their more egalitarian society contrast with Americans' acceptance of having an underclass," wrote Blair P., of Palm Desert, Calif. "It's an Ayn Rand philosophy."

Several of the biggest Canadian provinces distribute school funds far more equitably than American states, which tend to let school districts fend for themselves based on the wealth of their property-tax base (or lack of it). Equity is a "laughable" idea in a country that lets low-income cancer victims die, wrote Jonathan Broder of New York, and Republicans "would never in a million years allow this type of socialist funds distribution system."

The reason I wrote "mostly unvarnished" is this. I think this conversation about inequality ignored a key ingredient: Race. The reason that America tolerates insane levels of unequal access to quality schools, to good health care and to job opportunities is because fundamentally not enough of us believe what is supposed to be a bedrock principle of this nation: That all men and women are created equal.

Diversity could be America's strong point and on our best days it actually is, but too many days our attitudes toward diversity remain our Achilles heel. Times have changed and the glove has grown softer, but from slavery to segregation to a political war against the "moochers" formerly known as poor people, the stench remains the same. The more one learns about American history, you realize that the stench of prejudice covers everything -- the suburbanization of America and how we fund our schools, highway funding versus transit funding, the ridiculously misguided "war on drugs" (with draconian penalties for inner city residents for crimes that suburbanites routinely get away with), and the highest rates of prison incarceration.

Because those policies are meant for "them," not "us." The Other.

What about schools? Our education gap is largely the result of one factor, and it's not the teachers' union or too much self-esteem. It's poverty, pure and simple. The truth is that students who attend schools in resource-laden, affluent schools do as well as their peers in Norway or Singapore. But urban schools that are left to wither atop a property tax base of abandoned homes and factories achieve at levels closer to the Third World. And as long as a kid in a rich suburb like Lower Merion, Pa., has resources that a kid born a mile away in Philly couldn't dream of, it's going to stay that way.

Because the truth is we're OK with failing the Other America..

What about Obamacare? There's no excusing either the website's failings or President Obama's dishonesty in explaining how parts of it would play out. (The greedy insurance companies that actually cancel the policies get a free pass...go figure.) At the same time, we've taken America's obsession with Otherness to new levels. How we can consider it morally acceptable that Southern states with the highest rates of poverty -- concentrated among blacks and Latinos -- have GOP governors elected by their white majorities who deny federal Medicaid to their poorer constituents? Why does the media rush to brand Obamacare a "failure" because it changes things for a sliver of the middle class (some get a worse deal, some get a better deal, some pay more for more coverage) but no one calls it "a success" when Amercans have access to health care (and escape the risk of crushing bankruptcy) they didn't have before.

Is it because the Other Americans are the ones getting new coverage? You'd have to think.

Like I said, America's diversity is also a source of strength; I wouldn't want to live anywhere else, and chances are neither do you. But that's what makes it so frustrating, that someone from Canada would never think it was okay to proclaim that every kid deserves an equal shot and then enshrine a system that gives wealthy kids a 50-yard head start -- yet we don't seem to have a problem with that. I suspect people in other nations do more to fight poverty because when they see someone who's homeless or hungry that's not acceptable...because when they look into the face of the poor they're looking at one of "us."

Because at the end of it all, that's what's truly exceptional about America -- that we have not one but two of them. And after all these years, one America is still all about sticking it to the others who doesn't look like them. I guess that's our nation's real "Duck Dynasty" -- and it shows no sign of relinquishing its grip on us.