By Harlan Garbell
“A traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation…..”
Definition of “myth” — Dictionary.com
In retrospect, growing up in post World War II America was like winning the historical lottery. The United States emerged from the war as the single most dominant nation in the world. Rival countries in Europe and Asia were left shattered and it would take many years for them to recover. The mainland United States, bounded by two large oceans, was never seriously threatened during this most destructive war in world history. Our industrial base remained intact and our wartime economy was running on all cylinders.
Attending grammar school in the 1950s, there was no doubt in my young mind that I was living in the greatest country on Earth. Not only at that time, but ever. Television and I grew up together and watching it reinforced this perception. I almost inhaled all the Westerns that were offered in TV’s early years: “Gunsmoke,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” “Wyatt Earp,” “Bonanza,” “Wagon Train,” and many more. Was there ever a better role model for a boy living in the United States than Marshal Dillon? Essentially these were morality plays where good always conquered evil at the end of the hour. Television was also replete with war movies and I loved them. What could be more thrilling for a boy than seeing the U.S. Marines storming the beaches of a Pacific island while in the background plays the Marine Hymn? Semper Fi.
It seemed that the U.S. was better than other countries in everything. Didn’t we win more medals than any other country at the Olympics? Didn’t we conquer polio? Weren’t Cadillacs the best cars in the world? What other country could produce someone like Elvis? Wasn’t our democratic system and way of life the envy of the world? Yes, we had it all. Who wasn’t proud to be an American? Later on, historians and social scientists would create a term for this phenomenon — “American Exceptionalism.”
As I grew older, of course, I realized that although the United States achieved many great things, it really wasn’t exceptional at all. It had its major flaws and historical embarrassments as any country does. Do I really need to reiterate in detail the shame and dishonor of our ethnic cleansing of native tribes, slavery, Jim Crow, forever wars of choice, etc.? I didn’t think so. But I do need to mention them in order to make the larger point that “American Exceptionalism” is not only a myth conjured up for social and political reasons, but a myth that has actually proved counterproductive and harmful for the United States over the years. Even worse, and more dangerous, is that this myth is now evolving into a form of mass delusion.
A journey into critical thinking would clearly not conclude that a country with our depth of dysfunction in so many fundamental areas is somehow “exceptional.” For example, it is no secret that this nation’s physical infrastructure is inferior compared to other advanced nations. Its sewers, roads, airports, and electrical grid are significantly below standard, according to several well-respected civil engineering surveys.
Our national health care system, based on outcomes and longevity, trails all of the so-called “high income” nations that comprise about a third of the 37 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Moreover, we pay about twice as much for those substandard outcomes than other countries do. However, the United States is indeed exceptional in other respects: It has one of the highest levels of overall addiction, gun violence, and suicides in the OECD. And its public health response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been catastrophic, a stain on our historical legacy that will be studied for years as a case study in national incompetence.
Our national education system is not much better, consistently underperforming other advanced nations. Although the U.S. does have elite universities, its primary and secondary schools produce students who regularly do poorly on national science and math tests compared with other advanced countries. Plus the physical fitness of these students, on average, compares poorly with students of these other nations. There is nothing “exceptional” going on here.
Perhaps the biggest concern this nation has is its increasing level of inequality. How often do you hear from our politicians that “we are the richest and most powerful nation on Earth”? If that were so, why are so many families experiencing food insecurity during this pandemic? Or, why are a disproportionate number of Native, African-American, and Latino people dying of Covid-19? The data suggest that the U.S. has not had this level of economic inequality since the 1920s and 30s. Some historians and social scientists have argued that unless remedied, this level of inequality in our society could lead to a breakdown of our social and political systems. Perhaps this is already under way and we just don’t know it yet.
The past several years have demonstrated that this nation is not only economically and socially divided, but also so politically divided that we do not have the collective will or means to solve some of our most basic problems. Even the result of our last election has been disputed for no apparent reason other than the losing side wants to hold on to power. As I write this article, Trump’s “elite strike force” legal team, led by the clownish/ghoulish Rudy Giuliani, is seeking to overturn the presidential election on the grounds that George Soros, the Clinton Foundation, and a long-dead Venezuelan dictator have rigged the voting machines across the country. And the truly scary part is that a majority of Republican voters believe him!
One of the truisms of 12-step recovery programs is that you have to admit you have a problem before you can effectively deal with that problem. In my view, the United States is not nearly ready to come to terms with the level of inequality and dysfunction that keeps ordinary working people one medical bill or layoff away from bankruptcy. Yes, it’s true that many in this country, including powerful elected officials, understand that our basic infrastructure, as well as our health and educational systems, do not meet the needs of large segments of the population. But the failure of the political process to solve these problems is part of the current national dysfunction that belies the claim that we are an exceptional nation.
The problem with “American Exceptionalism” is not that it is a myth. It is. The problem is that, for the most part, large segments of its people and its institutions don’t see it as such. If a society does not recognize the pathologies within itself, it will not seek “treatment” to reverse its decline. If it insists that there is nothing wrong, that indeed this is still an “exceptional” nation, then it is clear we are entering the realm of mass delusion.
Harlan Garbell is president of HumanistsMN.