2020 shattered the myth of American exceptionalism

Most people, in my experience, hold close some mythical destination that is similar to what Minnesota is to me. Perhaps it is Fenway Park, or some diner where the pancakes taste amazing at 3 a.m. in a booth with friends. People from Arkansas like to boast of the biggest watermelons you can possibly imagine. Do you remember what it smells like in your hometown after a sudden summer storm? This is about the crossroads of physical place with internal values, where it is possible to conceive and experience some better version of ourselves.

The great national story of 2020, wherever one lives, was the collision of myth and realty. The American mythology is of an exceptional leader among nations. This year’s reality was exceptionalism of the wrong kind, leading in absolute terms in coronavirus infections and deaths, and with a deplorable record even in relative terms as a percent of population. Our shared story, taught to children and commonly embraced by adults, is that we are on the surface a nation of ornery individualists but underneath are the kind of people who put differences aside and pull together when it really matters. Hmm … Do you think so?

This points to what one hopes will be the great story of 2021. That is to prove that our national myths, while plainly not fully real, are at least not fully fraudulent. How does a country recover from lost innocence? A good place to start is to recall that innocence was never really there to be lost.