The mythos of American exceptionalism has pervaded this country and world for a long time.
The United States is seen as the nation on the hill—a shining beacon for democracy and rectitude for people at home and abroad. But through the trials of the past year, and the last few years, this myth has been steadily eroding in global consciousness.
Perhaps it never existed in the way we (or the world) thought.
The U.S. has long been wrapped in a yoke of its own unknowing appanage, insulated from many historical calamities due to geography and the weight of the American dollar.
No contemporary war has ever been fought on mainland American soil—not Iraq, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, or even a world war. We’ve never had foreign bombs riddle our cities, or heard the thud of boots pounding our streets.
In the realm of health, epidemics like SARS and Ebola were largely contained to regions elsewhere, unable to reach our glistening soil. Illustrated by former President Donald Trump‘s early dismissals of the burgeoning pandemic this time last year, the world’s crises often fail to pierce the everyday American consciousness outside of those directly involved.
Americans protest against far away despots—battles fought over there, destruction wrought over there, people distraught over there.
This phenomenon conferred a certain sense of invulnerability in the American psyche. So often have we been quick to cast judgment and claim a higher moral ground over nations and peoples worldwide. But now that a panoply of crises has hit, we are experiencing the uncertainty, instability and collective trauma that is endemic to so much of the world, endemic to our own past and to the human experience.
The United States has been offered an opportunity to build empathy and sow the seeds of humility domestically and abroad as we try to rebuild into a stronger future.
One might argue that what has been exceptional is not the individual, but rather the system and ideals for which this nation strives. To be sure, having decades of peaceful power transfers is actually uncommon, and many American triumphs have inspired those throughout the world.
Many nations have been able to attain stable governmental transitions. The U.S. doesn’t actually top the list of the longest uninterrupted chain. Moreover, we have a sordid past of thwarting international democracies that were perfectly capable of functioning on their own, but didn’t serve our interests.
Our own domestic history is also not without blemish.
In 1861, after former President Abraham Lincoln’s election, the federal government had to summon troops for fear of an angry mob trying to blow up the Capitol building before his inauguration. There was also the election of 1876, which saw a sometimes violent period of constitutional crisis that resulted in removing federal troops from the South, essentially ending Reconstruction and ushering in the era of Jim Crow that has ramified to today.
It can happen here. And it has. Yet, these experiences seem to escape our collective memory. A mere century ago, Americans were filled with fear and confusion as a silent viral specter stalked their friends, family and neighbors—with little to keep them distracted. And now something similar is here—COVID-19.
We had the events of January 6, reminiscent of insurrections I’ve witnessed incited by African strong men. Cracks in the seams of our public infrastructure have emerged at the city, state and national level with disorganization and outdated systems that we didn’t even think possible, perhaps never even deigned to interrogate.
I’ve been to these nations. Places where an individual half a world away will know more about American culture than most Americans. But the voyeuristic gaze has largely gone in one direction. The world has looked at our ideals, our culture, our system of government. But we don’t as often look back out—to see that there are shining successes, innovations, stable governments, greater economic equality, warm communal bonds and ways that our nation could improve.
States are fragile. Governments are fragile. Ideals are fragile.
The myth was never designed for everyone. And that was perhaps its greatest flaw. Still, the whole world has had its eyes on these United States.
Our rugged individualism has limited us. The only way forward is embracing the delicate lattice that is our entire global community. To step off our mental hill. We are the wayfaring families fighting to withstand calamity.
We are those who stare into a sometimes paralyzing abyss of uncertainty that cannot be swiped away—uncertain of what tomorrow will bring, uncertain of what battles will need to be fought, uncertain of what lengths we must go in order to protect those we love most.
This chapter has offered us an opportunity for true understanding—for American humility.
There is a world of shining ideals and there is the world as it is. We can work to shorten the divide between them. It’s imperative we do so, lest we believe an even worse crisis will only happen over there.
Brenton Weyi is a first-generation writer, thinker and polymath dedicated to cultivating humanity. Informed by travel to dozens of nations to illuminate some of the world’s greatest challenges, his work blends narrative, philosophy and history to examine how we build ethical societies.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.