On March 4, as Covid-19 was spreading rapidly through parts of the US, but remained almost untraceable for lack of testing kits, a friend of mine texted me somberly, “this has made me soberly reflect on the fact that for the first time America may be shown up for what it has become—a lazy, second-rate power in the world, whose brightest minds are engaged in selling ad space on Google and Facebook.”
I couldn’t help but think back to Peter Thiel’s opening talk at the National Conservatism conference last summer, in which he lamented the misdirection of American technological ingenuity and declared
The doctrine of exceptionalism has led to a country that is exceptionally overweight, that is exceptionally addicted to opioids, that has an exceptionally dysfunctional public infrastructure…that is, in short, exceptionally un-self-aware, exceptionally un-self-critical.
This lack of self-awareness has been on depressing display in recent months. As news of a strange new virus in Wuhan, China began to slowly penetrate the awareness of an American public inebriated on endless impeachment proceedings and Democratic debates in late January, the reaction was as predictable as it was tragic. Most Americans who could be bothered to pay attention were inclined to shrug their shoulders and say, “Well of course this would happen there.”
The popular American vision of China as a backward third-world country that somehow manages to dominate global trade by some kind of dirty authoritarian trick has had remarkable staying power. As China has become the economic powerhouse of the world, has overtaken America in high-tech industry after high-tech industry, has established some of the most advanced public infrastructure in the world, and has mobilized its immense population in a patriotic quest for global leadership, Americans still persisted in the self-congratulatory conceit that we were in a class of our own.
When stories leaked out about the Chinese regime’s clumsy attempts to silence dissenting doctors and cover up the scale of the problem, we shook our heads condescendingly and said, “Of course they would…thankfully that would never happen in America.” As we read about how they dithered in the early days of the epidemic and wasted a crucial opportunity to contain the virus, we cluck-clucked and said, “We would never make that mistake.” The Chinese case numbers were dismissed as propaganda, while the death tolls were shrugged off: “That’s what you would expect with their healthcare system; but the disease won’t be anything like that bad here in America.”
As the virus continued to spread throughout the world, the self-congratulatory dismissals evolved. Sure things might be bad in Italy, but that’s because they had lots of Chinese garment workers, and lots of old people. I even heard, “everyone knows Italian healthcare sucks”…they do? As Spain and France succumbed to the onslaught, we heard that these high death tolls were simply what you would expect from “socialized healthcare”–our own healthcare system, I heard repeatedly, was the best in the world. (Not by any OECD statistical measures, perhaps, but in our own minds, and I suppose that’s good enough for Americans.)
Sometime in early March, Americans began to wake up to the fact that while we had been exceptional for the previous few weeks, it was because we were exceptionally bad at testing, exceptionally bad at tracking the virus’s spread, and exceptionally lacking in any political gameplan for how to curtail it. The result was a pell-mell rush for the exits, as Americans across the country, unsure where the virus might be spreading undetected, stayed home in large numbers, and state after state formalized this isolation with stay-at-home orders.
Although the US soon found itself with the dubious distinction of being #1 in the world in both Covid cases and deaths, the dramatic mid-March implementation of social distancing effectively halted the exponential spread of the virus, ensuring that at least in per-capita terms, we avoided the fates of the hardest-hit European countries. But April saw an epidemic of a new form of exceptionalism-induced myopia, even more dangerous than the virus itself.
I refer of course to the lockdown-itis that took hold almost immediately, especially among many conservatives and indeed my Christian brothers and sisters. Don’t get me wrong; no one is denying the painful and even disastrous effects of stay-at-home policies on many American families and workers, especially those who were already at the bottom of the economic food chain.
It is perhaps unsurprising, given America’s yawning inequalities and lack of protection for workers, that we would find these economic consequences more damaging and disconcerting than many other countries, but this alone does not account for the ferocity with which many Americans turned on their governing authorities and began entertaining the wildest conspiracy theories to discredit lockdown measures. Conservative friends abroad, in countries similarly locked down, but dutifully resigned to the necessary measures, watched with bewilderment and concern as American conservatives descended into a frenzy of revolutionary rhetoric.
There is of course a lot to analyze about the deep-seated libertarianism in the American DNA and our reflexive distrust of authority, which has made this situation uniquely difficult for us to grapple with. But it seems to me that much of the problem has been exacerbated by our myopic exceptionalism.
If all you look at or think about is the US context, the US virus stats, and the measures we’ve taken to combat it, it can seem awfully plausible to say, “Couldn’t we have handled this differently?” or “Maybe this is all hype” or even “Maybe this is a sinister government grab for power.” But just as a single statistic becomes less and less meaningful the larger your data sample, it becomes harder and harder to mock stay-at-home orders the more you widen your gaze.
Is it really plausible to think that nearly every other country in the developed world, most of which have imposed much stricter policies than the US (Sweden being merely the exception that proves the rule) has given no thought to the difficult tradeoffs? Or that every other country in the developed world is part of some conspiracy to suppress all freedom? Or that every other country in the developed world is fabricating their numbers? There are people willing to entertain such hypotheses, but it is hard to do so when you actually know something about the world around you, or if you have actually spent time in a foreign country.
All of which brings me back to Peter Thiel at last summer’s National Conservatism conference. Too often, he said, the idea of “American nationalism” is confused with the idea of “American exceptionalism.” In fact, however, the two are flatly opposed. Exceptionalism invites us to walk by faith and not by sight, which may be a good thing in affairs of the soul, but not in politics.
Rather than proving ourselves exceptional, we simply assume that we are. The ordinary rules do not apply to us, because we are America. We make things better here, we run things more efficiently here, we live more happily here, because we are America. There is no need to look at OECD rankings, because we already know that they are wrong if they show us anywhere but #1.
As Thiel explained, this way of thinking, far from making America great, is almost certain to make her the opposite. After all, the only way to improve is to learn, and the chief way we learn as human beings is from the examples of others. In the past, nations that wished to become great studied the rise and fall of past nations, or scrutinized the policies and institutions of their neighbors and rivals, hoping to gain some competitive advantage by copying what they did well and avoiding what they did badly.
But learning always requires humility—in this case, the humility of recognizing that the United States of America, too, is a nation among nations. We are not immune to the dangers that afflict other nations—literally or metaphorically. Viruses spread among our people just as readily as among Chinese or Italians. An American gasping for breath needs a ventilator just as much as a Spaniard, and we are no more able to produce masks or ventilators out of thin air than other countries—indeed, we may be less able than some, given how thoroughly we have outsourced our industrial production. America cannot avoid the hard choices between individual freedom and the public good, between economic performance and public health, that are facing every other nation on earth. And America cannot make these choices wisely without carefully attending to and learning from the experiences of other nations.
In this case, as in so many others, pretending that we are exceptional is liable to simply make us exceptionally bad: exceptionally arrogant, exceptionally blind, exceptionally slow-footed, exceptionally unrealistic in the face of difficult trade-offs.
Still, we may have some hope. The Covid-19 pandemic, for all the pain and suffering it has inflicted and yet will, still has the opportunity to prove a blessing in disguise for an America that has lost its way in recent years. If we allow it to do so, it can shine a much-needed light on our failures and weaknesses: the structural deformities in our healthcare system, the hollowness and fragility of our economy, the unresolved tensions between our libertarian creed and our national aspirations. This experience may be painful, more painful than the virus itself. But as Socrates observed long ago, the first step to knowledge is self-knowledge—the knowledge of one’s own ignorance.