Years ago, when President Obama was hard at work putting together a consensus on the Affordable Care Act, I had the beginnings of an argument with a relative. I say “beginnings” because it was over almost as soon as it began. I was mentioning how other countries were delivering health care to their citizens, and he cut me off with, “You want us to be like Canada?! Like France?!” And to him, that was the end of the argument. It wasn’t even a matter of whether other countries were providing inferior care, or more costly care, or care only to certain segments of their citizenry. It was the mere fact of looking outside our own country for possible solutions that was repugnant to him.
I was too bewildered to get the conversation back on track. But I’ve never forgotten that response. And I’ve been thinking about it more and more these days.
As of this writing (July 30, 2020), the United States has passed the 150,000 mark for COVID deaths. According to the World Health Organization, as of July 28th, 655,112 people have died of COVID worldwide. That means the United States has suffered 23% of the global death toll.
We make up 4% of the world’s population.
We’re doing something very, very wrong.
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“American Exceptionalism” is a peculiar form of nationalism. It’s woven into our history books, into our popular culture. It’s so insidious that most of the time we’re not even aware it’s there. We’ve just come to accept it as part of the story. It’s the idea that America does everything better than any other country. We have the best government, the best military, the best movies, the best farms. The best universities. The best economic system. The most freedom.
We’re taught to believe this early on, and the history we teach our children is generally in support of this narrative. “Aberrations,” like slavery, genocide of the native occupants, are either downplayed, or held up as proof of our progression. “We used to have slaves. But then we freed them! Isn’t that great that we did that?” As if the entire institution of slavery existed to give us a happy ending we could feel good about.
American Exceptionalism teaches not that anything the United States produces is objectively superior to something produced outside our borders, by any scientific comparison. It teaches that America can do no wrong, simply because it’s America involved in the doing. It’s not wrong to say this is a supernatural way of thinking. The roots in religion, in the idea that we are God’s Chosen Country are right there under the surface, even roiling above ground when politicians and religious leaders begin inciting a deity as an ally. And the racism, for those not in denial, is easy to see. These are White accomplishments, the accomplishments of White men in particular, that American Exceptionalists are crowing about. If a White American wasn’t personally responsible, White America made it possible.
The biggest problem with American Exceptionalism is that by definition it forbids you to look outside the US to see how other countries are handling similar problems. If what America is doing is always superior, then what the rest of the world (the Brown world, in particular) does has to be inferior. Anything different than what the US is doing is wrong. It’s impossible to look at other forms of government, other economies, other health care systems, other educational systems to see what might be learned. It’s not just incorrect. It’s unAmerican. It’s unpatriotic. It’s what my relative at the top of this post was saying when he wouldn’t consider looking to what other countries did to solve common problems.
COVID tore away the facade of American Exceptionalism, and in more ways than just our horrific death toll. COVID exposed deep, deep fractures in the foundation of American democracy. It exposed an educational system that had unfairly saddled teachers with the added burdens of child care, nutrition, family services, because we’d never bothered to address those concerns anywhere else. It redefined who our “essential workers” really were, and revealed that we didn’t pay them enough of a wage to save for a few weeks of unemployment. It exposed our senseless system of tying affordable healthcare, not just to employment, but to the rarer beast of full-time employment, and only with an employer with a certain number of workers. It exposed the frailty of our medical supply lines, and the way American Capitalism pounced to profiteer over dwindling PPE, ventilators, and testing equipment. It exposed the way generations of Americans had been been encouraged to believe “freedom” meant, not “freedom from want” or “freedom from fear” but “freedom from inconvenience” or “freedom from civic responsibility.” All because it suited the American version of democracy to keep citizens pitted against each other.
4% of the world’s population. 23% of the world’s deaths.
If that doesn’t tell you we’ve gone tragically, horribly wrong, I don’t know what will. We, the United States, our country, is getting something terribly wrong that the rest of the world is getting right. And if we don’t avail ourselves of one of the greatest strengths any people can embrace – humility – and begin looking outward for solutions, we will not survive this crisis. American Exceptionalism has prevented us from honestly looking at problems generations in the making, because American Exceptionalism will never, ever admit that we could make a mistake. Or that we could learn from someone outside our borders.
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There’s a closing thought I’d like to make, and it’s in response to an attack I’ve seen lately on people who suggest we look at our past more honestly, and perhaps a little more humbly. The attack goes that liberals want children to be ashamed of America, and to deny moments of actual greatness. The opposite is actually true, and I’d like to give a light example of how that can be.
I love baseball. The writer and scholar Gerald Early, in Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary series said something like (I’m paraphrasing), “A thousand years from now, America will be known for three things: The Constitution, jazz music, and baseball.” I can’t think of anything I’d add to that list,* and I think any one of those things would mark a great civilization. Baseball especially. The bastard child of a dozen European bat and ball games, baseball was developed, refined, and perfected in this country. And then gifted to the rest of the world.
When countries started competing in the World Baseball Classic, many fans bemoaned the fact that it was only recently that the United States finally won. Japan was a powerhouse that we couldn’t unseat, and it seemed to anger many fans who felt the United States was somehow entitled to dominance. In their anger, some made excuses for the American players, or criticized them for not playing to their potential. Others turned to more racist tropes, accusing Asian teams of essentially creating brainwashed automations that were chained to their baseball acadamies, a la Japanese Ivan Dragos.
I loved that the US lost the first World Cups. Not because I didn’t want them to win. But because I saw it as proof that this country, in inventing baseball, had made something of such beauty and value that even the rest of the world had embraced it. People in the Caribbean, all throughout South and Central America, and all across Asia loved this thing we created. They embraced it, played it, practiced it, taught it, made it their own. American football has never taken hold anywhere else, not really, because people outside this country have difficulty relating to it. But baseball proved to have global appeal. We made something so wonderful that other countries, other cultures loved it enough to get good enough to beat us at it. Really, it was the ultimate compliment. They couldn’t beat us at our own game, if they didn’t love our own game.
That’s the kind of thing American Exceptionalism overlooks. If everything is superlative, then nothing is. And you miss the honest moments of greatness that we stumble on. Not because we’re Americans. But because we’re part of an astonishing species.
*When I first heard him say this, I wanted to add “movies” to the list, but what I’ve learned since about Japanese, German, French, Italian, Soviet, Chinese, Indian, Scandinavian, South American, Mexican, and Caribbean cinema of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s convinces me the US was a major player, but not the leader in the art of cinema.