Thursday, April 23, 2020

COVID-19 and American exceptionalism

Like serious health emergencies tend to do, COVID-19 is magnifying pre-existing economic, social and political problems in countries around the world. The United States is a glaring example: having responded slowly to the pandemic threat, it finds itself approaching 50,000 confirmed COVID-19 related deaths, shortages of personal protective equipment and other medical necessities, and a massive economic meltdown in a society with a threadbare social safety net. Unemployment has skyrocketed. Businesses are going bankrupt. The general chaos is further stirred by a science-averse and business-friendly president, and protesters demanding the 'liberation' of citizens from the 'tyranny' of public health restrictions aimed at protecting them. Right-wing media channels call the pandemic a hoax while at the same time telling its own employees to work from home and follow public health guidelines. There is a lashing out at perceived enemies: the World Health Organization, China, whoever. Every day brings something mind-boggling. If the country was a person, you might prescribe cognitive-behavioral therapy, bedrest, and Zoloft. But it is not a person, it is a nation where people are dying en masse from COVID-19, with no end in sight, and nothing confidence-worthy at the wheel.

I guess it is predictable that, in this situation, discussions about 'American exceptionalism' are going to crop up. The positions usually fall into three camps: (1) America is still exceptional in terms of being a economic-moral-cultural leader of the world and beacon of democracy etc., as opposed to 'shithole countries', and it is just going through a bit of a rough patch now; (2) America was exceptional, but now it isn't, and it has been in decline since [fill in the blank]; (3) The whole idea of 'American exceptionalism' was always a myth built on amnesia and hype, given its foreign policy history and longstanding internal social pathologies, and now the myth is being busted in Technicolor 24/7 for all the world to see.

The first position is represented by those who think that the path forward is to wave more flags, carry more firearms, and use the word 'freedom' in sentences even more than usual. The second position is represented in a New York Times piece that ran today entitled: 'Sadness' and Disbelief from a World Missing American Leadership. In it, we are supposed to think that the United States had a glorious past (including apparently winning the Second World War without Soviet assistance) and the world now has heavy nostalgia for that made-in-the-USA dispensation of global goodness. But the reporter apparently did not interview anyone who takes position #3 seriously, which may in fact be in the ascendency during the COVID-19 crisis. Look at the reader responses to the New York Times article, for instance. Or look at articles coming in from the global south, such as this or this, where the unraveling of the United States' grip on the world is regarded as not entirely unwelcome.

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