When American Delusion Masquerades as American Exceptionalism; And other fables we tell ourselves

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Although it now feels like a lifetime ago I remember the first argument my boyfriend and I had about our different approaches to handling the pandemic. It was Saturday, March 14th, 2020. Both his work and my work had implemented a work from home policy a few days before the majority of the country followed that upcoming Monday. He had already been working from home since Thursday and hadn’t left the house. He was headed out to go to his uncle’s house to see his cousins that were gathered there. I had decided to cope with the uncertainty of the pandemic the way I always deal with uncertainty, cleaning and organizing the entire apartment. I was in the middle of wiping down the walls of the bathroom when I saw him headed out.

The conversation went something like:

Me: Where are you going?

Him: To uncle’s.

Me: Ummmm no you’re not.

Him: Ummmm yes I am. I haven’t left the house since Wednesday.

Me: There is literally a deadly virus out there that we know nothing about!!!! Everyone is saying not to leave the house. (Imagine me pulling out images on my iPhone about the importance of “flattening the curve”.)

Him: I don’t like other people telling me what to do.

It is now August 2021 and I am sure we are not the only couple that has argued about our different ways of handling the pandemic for the past almost 18 months. The first five year years of our relationship we went from rarely arguing to having a consistent underlying theme to all of our arguments in the last year and half. That theme revolves around existing and living in a pandemic and the amount of risk we were comfortable with. What was, and wasn’t, worth risking our livelihoods and our lives.

As someone who studies human behavior, what I understand about conflict is that it is not just about the topic itself but the disagreement is triggered by our values. When something is a threat to, or is asking us to act in a way that is out of accordance with our values, it can stir up a lot of emotion and can cause friction or conflict.

Was it easier for me to modify my behavior during quarantine because I am an introvert who could stay in my house for weeks at a time and be perfectly content? Yes. Was it harder for my partner because he was an extrovert who needs to be exposed to other people and places multiple times a day? Yes.

But, I believe it is bigger than being an introvert or an extrovert. Our different approaches and reactions to the pandemic gave me insight on other people’s reactions and behaviors throughout the pandemic.

I had an aha moment.

This may be a huge generalization to make, but it is my observation. The people in my life who have closely followed safety guidelines, those who have significantly modified their behavior for 18 months and have limited risk taking behaviors are the same people that have been actively critical of American values and acknowledge and/or reject many of the fundamental values that society is built upon.

For the past two months my now fiancée (as much as we argue about how to respond to a pandemic it still didn’t come between us) have been going back and forth about continuing to wear masks as we are both vaccinated (for context this was prior to our city reinstating the mask mandate).

Me: You need to start wearing a mask again in public places.

Him: Maybe.

Me: Why wouldn’t you wear a mask?

Him: Because I got the vaccine and I don’t like wearing the mask.

Me: First, you can still get Covid! Second, you can still get Covid! And you can pass it on to others, including me. It isn’t all about you. Three, you can still get Covid! And you can get long-haul Covid even with the vaccine.

Him: I will think about it.

These conversations often leave me infuriated and him annoyed. He fell into the category of other people in my life who got the vaccine but now didn’t want to acknowledge this new reality. Who wanted to continue on living life like we did pre-Covid even though we were very much in the middle of an even deadlier Delta pandemic. I couldn’t understand why he, and it seems most of America, including our politicians, were very much acting like Covid is behind us.

Until I realized that these behaviors were very much American. Our behaviors are driven by our values, our belief systems.

American exceptionalism is the belief that America is inherently different and superior to other nations. Is it possible that we have all been indoctrinated (accepting a belief uncritically) into thinking that because we are Americans we are unique, special and untouchable? Therefore, we, as individuals, are unique, special and untouchable. “That” (whatever “that’’ may be war, illness, climate change, domestic terrorism, collapse of our medical system, racism) doesn’t or won’t happen here. This is America after all! We are the greatest country in the world! If we just think positively the fact that everything is crumbling down around us doesn’t matter, it will all work out!

American exceptionalism is so pervasive, so ingrained that none of us are immune to thinking that catastrophic events cannot happen here. I even catch myself many times thinking “That won’t happen here. We won’t let it get that far.” I often stop myself mid-thought to dispute my own thinking to reframe it, “Why wouldn’t it happen here?”

If you look around us, “it” is happening. Fires, floods, hurricanes, domestic terrorism, collapsing medical systems, and on and on.

At its core American exceptionalism is denial, the action of declaring something to be untrue.

Look at where we are now…“fake news”, rampant misinformation, the rejection of America’s founding story by rewriting history to favor those in power. For f*cks sake we have people ingesting horse dewormer because a famous podcast or radio host told them to rather than listening to scientists to get a vaccine that has been found to be safe and effective!

How did we get here?

American exceptionalism.

If you look closely though it is not just those on the “far right” or anti-vaxxers or anti-maskers who are susceptible to believing that the United States is untouchable.

I want you to think back to January of 2020. What were you thinking when news of this novel coronavirus hit the airwaves? What about in February 2020? Did you think that what was happening in Wuhan, China was going to impact you, here, in the United States? Or, when we heard people being locked aboard a cruise ship, did you think that yes, we too, will soon be quarantined to our houses? Or did you think, “That is happening over there. There is no way it will get that bad here. We had SARs, MERs, bird flu and those didn’t have a huge impact on us. Coronavirus won’t happen here. Not like that.”

That is certainly what I thought. Yes, me, the person writing this piece. The person who is highly critical of American values, American exceptionalism and culture got caught up in the false narrative that, “Because I live in the United States this will not happen here because things like that do not happen here.” I can be highly critical of that mentality and recognize that I am not immune to the beliefs that have been instilled upon me because they are embedded into the fabric of this culture. I have to work, actively, to untether myself from the myths I have been told about this country and what I believe about myself because I have been born in this country.

I believe that all of us, including myself, perpetuate and keep this myth of American exceptionalism alive through our collective behaviors and actions. I include myself as part of the “all of us” because I, too, am a part of society. It is not about me, as an individual, but about me existing in a larger community, a society composed of other people. Although I can disagree or critique the thoughts, behaviors and actions of others I am not immune to their consequences because all coexist in community, together (whether we like it or not.)

Here are ways that we, as a society, have upheld the myth of American exceptionalism.

For instance;

  • When we prioritize and participate in indoor dining, festivals and large events rather than implementing mitigation efforts to minimize the spread of Covid so we can keep kids in school safely.
  • When we continue to travel to places like Hawaii and Mexico because we want to. Because “we have been through so much this year” without taking into consideration how traveling to these places impacts the lives of the people who live there or how we can negatively impact our own community when we come back.
  • When we think that our experience and our livelihood is the only one that matters and that anything that inconveniences us, on an individual level, we can ignore the reality and severity of a situation because it does not fit into the image of the world that we, as Americans, have been promised.

American exceptionalism has created a world where:

  • “If I do not think about it I am immune to the consequences.” (For example, a president who thinks we would have fewer cases of Covid if we did less testing.)
  • No matter what, “I am entitled to do what I want to do, when I want to do it, no matter the harm it causes to others because I am an American.” (Visiting other countries and spreading a deadly disease because I want to go on vacation.)

In order to justify these types of behaviors I have heard people say:

  • “It won’t happen to me.”
  • “It won’t happen here.”

Or we dismiss reality and create an alternative reality by insisting:

  • “I can’t think like that.”
  • “I don’t like thinking like that.”
  • “I can’t live my life in fear.”

But just because we declare something untrue does not make it so. For example, Just because I did not want Trump to be my president did not make him NOT my president.

The act of declaring something untrue does not make it so.

Our collective behaviors and thinking perpetuate American delusion which has been sold to us as exceptionalism.

Our behaviors are very similar to those of a toddler or adolescent, teenage phase of rebellion. “You can’t tell me what to do!”

My partner encapsulated this perfectly when he said to me that day he wanted to go to his uncle’s, “I don’t like other people telling me what to do.”

This proclamation echoes the American values of freedom and independence.

Has the pandemic been a deadly experiment of letting the collective immaturity make risky versus rational choices? Like, a child who only wants to eat candy for every meal or a teenager who makes reckless decisions because developmentally they do not have the foresight to think of the consequences of their behaviors.

Is this not where we are as a country? Are we developmentally ready to examine how our societal values shape our collective behaviors? With 750,000 of us dead and counting, what else will it take to get to the point where we are ready to be collectively self-reflective? I know this to be true, that until we acknowledge the fables we have told to ourselves, about ourselves and how the foundational values collectively impact us today, we will all continue to suffer the consequences of this American delusion.

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