Remembering What America Might Have Been
‘What has died since the coronavirus began cutting its global swath is the notion — central to our collective identity — of American exceptionalism. As George Packer writes in The Atlantic, “Every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state.” The epidemic, he said, has reduced us to “a beggar nation in utter chaos.”
This phenomenon is more than the natural extension of our earlier sense that the federal government no longer functions on behalf of us all. The virus as metaphor couldn’t be more apt (sorry Susa Sontag), for it undermined the dearly held notion that the United States occupies a special, deity-endowed place in the world as a beacon to all others.
That idea of specialness, historically appropriated by religious, not political, entities, was first applied to the United States with intentional irony by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century. (It was inevitably tied, as I learned in grade school, to the concept of Manifest Destiny, which to a sixth-grader explained God’s plan that white Europeans “discover” a “New World,” usurp the land, perpetrate genocide on its inhabitants, enslave peoples from an entirely different continent and lay waste its natural riches to provide goods and commodities for the Motherland.)
Credit the internet with leading us to finally understand how fragile the concept of citizenship really is, and how even leaders with good intentions are threatened by a consumerist conspiracy to turn the world into one big Amazon shopping basket. We have borne out what so impressed Tocqueville more than a century ago: Not American idealism; on the contrary, what struck him was our obsession with accumulation of wealth as the sole factor giving meaning to life.
[Jeremy Gerard is a widely published critic and reporter on culture, politics and human-rights issues. He has been a staff writer at Bloomberg News, New York magazine and the New York Times.]
The light on the hill has faded. We were never Camelot. And there is no air.