American Exceptionalism in the Face of Covid-19

Food takes a special place in times of universal distress. Amid this Covid-19 pandemic, food insecurity and hunger are growing exponentially. Here in the US, the richest society on Earth where the forces of wealth and greed are aligned against poverty, there has been a run on food pantries and food banks. ( “A perfect storm: US facing hunger crisis as demand for food banks soars,” Guardian, April 2, 2020). The reports of food shortages are reminiscent of the photographs of the long lines of worn and beaten people standing outside of soup kitchens during the Great Depression.

Over six million people filed for unemployment last week (the last week of March 2020) and the US, the great bastion of global wealth, has soaring numbers of coronavirus cases and has abysmally low supplies of protective gear to help prevent the transmission of the virus. The healthcare system has tanked in some areas and mobile morgues are used to warehouse the growing numbers of dead. This is reminiscent of the portrayals of the dead during the bubonic plague in medieval Europe. Covid-19 has exposed the failed healthcare, economic, and political systems in the US.

People are hungry, they are without jobs, many are scared, and the healthcare system has crashed in the epicenters of the disease such as in New York City, and not because of the heroic efforts of healthcare workers. The bailout from the federal government throws a relative pittance at workers while big business, in a reprise of 2008, gets the real windfall. The best a working person can get will be $1,200, with billions of dollars going to the same fat cats in the banking, airline, cruise line, and fossil fuel industries, among others, as it did in 2008. The latter will end up in the pockets of CEOs and shareholders. The government and their mouthpieces in the mass media can fool most of the people most of the time. And why not: Isn’t the US the most exceptional nation ever on Earth? Perhaps the nation is working toward exceptionalism, but not exactly in ways that enhance and enrich the lives of people.

The political left needs to hold up a huge mirror of almost galactic proportions so we in the US who continue to survive can finally see ourselves and the political, economic, and social systems in which we live. We need to see those systems for what they really are in the bright sunlight of midday. The propaganda and lies from the wizard behind the curtain of American exceptionalism can have the full light of the sun and its disinfecting qualities blaze and shatter its lies that this is the best that homo sapiens (“wise man?”) can do. If this is the best, then the worst is probably far beyond the worst nightmares of frightened children.

American exceptionalism crashed and burned with the firestorms of World War II and the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in August 1945. The US and its allies defeated fascism, but the cost of the cold war was high. American exceptionalism ended with racism, white supremacy, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. It ended with the cauldron of death and destruction in Vietnam and the far right’s attempt to sanitize that murder through the great lie of a “noble cause.” It died with the end of the Vietnam syndrome and the endless wars unleashed that go on until today. It ended with the US-backed Saudi war in Yemen. It ended with the gulags established to torture the terrorists of 2001. It ended with the race to build weapons of mass destruction, the plans for their use, and the military-industrial-financial powers that profited from militarism.

The only way it will end is through mass protest and mass actions of civil disobedience! Don’t think you need to protest, that the situation will return to normal? Think again, the systems mentioned above have our death warrants already written.

The post-pandemic apocalypse could see the fragmented left in the US return to its penchant for identity politics and political correctness soon after generalized fear is gone. That, sadly, has been the left’s track record for a very long time.

Here in the US, we’ve lost the right of habeas corpus and the guarantee of due process of law. The government knows exactly where we are at every minute of every day and can figure out what we’re saying and with whom we’re communicating through the use of metadata from cell phones and our use of the Internet, information that is collected since the enactment of the so-called Patriot Act. The environment deteriorates daily through the use of fossil fuels when alternatives exist that would employ many people in useful and satisfying work. Instead, the government subsidizes the death-dealing fossil fuel companies.

Adding exponential levels of insult to Covid-19 injury, Trump announced on April 2, 2020, that his son-in-law and White House adviser, Jared Kushner, would assist in the federal government’s distribution of its abysmally low supply of medical equipment to “states and hospitals” (“Clown Prince Crashes Corona Presser,” Huffington Post, April 3, 2020). Following Trump’s announcement vis-à-vis Kushner, many wait with bated breath for the appointment of  a duckbill platypus as first violinist in a world-class philharmonic orchestra.

Preparedness did not go unheeded in Taiwan and that nation has thus far contained the Covid-19 epidemic through early measures to protect its people (“How Taiwan Contained Covid-19: Early Action, Technology & Millions of Face Masks,” Democracy Now,April 3, 2020). Protection from and mitigation of this horrific disease could have happened here if there was the will for it to happen and people mattered over profits. But here, we have a jester-in-chief and minister of dread who cannot hold one cogent thought in his mind for a nanosecond.

On the ground here in Massachusetts, generally regarded as a liberal state, the number of dead and infected at nursing homes and assisted living centers grows (“15 reported dead in Norwood facility as nearly 80 nursing, assisted living centers battle coronavirus cluster,” Boston Globe, April 4, 2020).

For a few years after the end of the Vietnam War there was a respite and the sense that this nation and the world could be a much improved place. That hope was quickly extinguished by those who put a money value on everything and began the accelerated trip to the grotesque debacle of a fallen planet. It may be that there is a constant tension between those who seek to defile the Earth and those who seek its emancipation.


Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).