Do Better Better #3: On Exceptionalism

Quinn Emmett
August 3, 2020
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America has suffered dearly the effects of a novel virus, a virus the likes of which nearly everyone in the virological and epidemiological worlds saw coming, a virus whose growth can be easily projected with some simple math.

But as the Stoics say, you cannot control what happens to you. You can only control how you react.

And so what has been far more difficult to project, and greatly muddled such easy math, has been America’s reaction to this new threat.

Your reaction, and mine. Your friend’s, your company’s, your town’s, that of your representative, your senator, our president.

But should all of these reactions been so difficult to project? Is America right where it should be, all things considered? From individualism to states rights to an unchecked president, is our sum greater than our parts?

Is this moment the pinnacle of all of our hard work towards "exceptionalism"?

And finally, looking forward, where can we start to rebuild, and what role can you play?

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We have talked quite a bit here about how a disproportionate percentage of America’s COVID body count continues to fall on Black and Brown families, families riddled with pre-existing conditions far more prevalent than among whites, conditions due in part to pollution, and to racism.

But America has also suffered because of its steadfast belief in the still-young nation’s exceptionalism, and a deeper look into how widely held that fantasy remains across such wildly varying places as Los Angeles, New York City, and the South is warranted, fascinating, and instructive to our past, and future. 

Unfortunately, there is one observation we can make with no deep look required. Despite each of the aforementioned area’s many differences, as well as their geographic distance from one another, the shared, steadfast dedication to this outright fiction has garnered a very similar result: mass suffering and death.

It is said that New York’s citizens finally shed their long-held belief in invincibility and buckled down in April and May in part because of the endless ambulance sirens piercing the otherwise quiet streets, a result of the city’s density. The noise was an inescapable warning to everyone living on top of one another, everyone not already in the back of an emergency vehicle, and so while New Yorkers mourn the loss of many of their neighbors, they have otherwise -- for now -- turned the tide. It is perhaps the greatest manifestation of "neighborhood watch" ever conducted.

Los Angeles, while dense, is nowhere near as tightly-packed as New York, and so didn’t have the accompanying early spike, nor the chance to mourn together (from a distance) with neighbors as ambulances raced down its wide and usually congested boulevards. By some data-driven accounts, those boulevards weren’t nearly as abandoned during the first lockdown as they could have been. Perhaps the current situation, then, is less due to putting down their guard, but more so never having put it up in the first place, never having truly felt threatened.

Let’s stop there, for a moment. Did you feel the same way?

Sure, you bought toilet paper, but --  when did you first feel threatened by this virus, and the accompanying disease? What were your moves, then? What was your company’s initial response? Was there a plan to follow? Who did you listen to?

What was exceptional about your preparation, and execution — as a person, as a citizen, as a community member, as an employee, as a parent?

Rock bottom, where we currently find ourselves, is the perfect time to dissect our actions and plans, if any, to adapt and mitigate, of course, but also to strategize for an even more uncertain future. The economy is in shambles, and may only get worse: do you have six months of emergency cash in a conservatively-invested, relatively liquid equities account? How does that fit into your plan to rebuild?

But returning to our broader story: Los Angeles county is, alas, relatively dense, and vast, and very mobile, and, despite advertising themselves as the vanguard of the so-called #resistance and champions of progressivism, its citizens often act otherwise (see: vaccinations, transportation, housing, and voter turnout).

And so, given such a wide opportunity, our virus was gonna virus, and math being math, Los Angelenos, too, are suffering the practical consequences of self-mythologizing.

The white American South -- a vast multi-state region, entirely different in geography, climate, demographics, and density than those mentioned above -- operates less from a vaunted pedestal; instead, many of its people and elected leaders are more interested in (and dedicated to!) either kicking that pedestal out from under scientific facts and those that deliver them, or just ignoring the field entirely, continuing what seems like an endless streak of voting against their own actual self-interests. Sometimes those interests are vague. In this specific case, they are to continue living and breathing.

Why do so many different segments of America’s melting pot still consider themselves untouchable? Why is this our most unifying trait in 2020?

Looking back, did America’s sense of exceptionalism begin a hundred and fifty-seven years before the Declaration of Independence, as her first permanent settlers took their first steps onto the shores of Virginia, and with their second, commenced the complete destruction of the First Nations? Or was it breaking away from the vaunted British empire? Or maybe it was the subsequent construction of the world’s largest slave empire, and a fantastically comprehensive and successful system of white supremacy. In each of those cases, America could have certainly graded itself as being the exceptions to the rule.

Considering what’s been happening in our streets for the past few months (and years, and decades), it would seem that the any of the above apply, especially when we are faced with that constant theme of those same white southern people voting against their supposed self-interests. 

Let’s call it what it is: In 2020, is "exceptionalism" still the title belt for racial superiority, despite the trade off of worse jobs, worse pay, and worse economies? Is the title still worth the self-inflicted damage (saying nothing of the greater societal wounds)?

Apparently so.

To get more specific, "exceptional" is perhaps a term perfectly suited for white America’s steadfast requirement that the jobs that cannot be accomplished via soft pants and Zoom — picking, slaughtering, processing, cooking, serving, delivering our food, for example — be filled, no matter the pandemic, by Black and Brown Americans. Americans, who virtually by rule, must live near coal plants and refineries, earn low hourly wages, have no health care, no childcare, and so, when you add it all up, are most at risk of being infected, and also perversely most at-risk of having an underlying condition making the disease more deadly than it otherwise would be.

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And so we do remain exceptional, of course, at least in this regard: during this global pandemic, nowhere on earth has brought as much suffering upon themselves as we have. Once again, we are the exceptions to the rule.

America’s post-mortem, of which we have already and necessarily started conducting not even halfway through the crisis itself, is devastating.

We can blame Trump, we can blame McConnell, we can blame racism and racists, we can blame smarter-than-thou liberals, we can blame Fox News, we can blame the decline of public health, a just-in-time medical supply chain, the repudiation of new-age generalists that can help see and connect all of the moving pieces, paired with a sadistic appraisal of fact and expertise, and of course America’s ritualistic allegiance to liberty and freethinking. We can blame white people, who mostly continue to support Trump, just as we can blame our failing and extortionate education system. We can also blame fax machines, and a refusal to participate in contact tracing, a time-tested monitoring system that’s helped defeat polio and the measles.

We watched, horrified, but still mostly unthreatened, as the richest parts of Italy became a COVID zombie warzone, and now, just months later, the Italian medical machine collect and process tens of indicators on the virus and public health on the daily, basically building a detailed, dynamic report card with which to to make decisions, like, say, whether to open schools.

What is exceptional about the former title holder for most innovative country on the planet being a big data laughing house in 2020, when it counts? Everything, it seems. We’re the only ones who insist on doing it this way, which is to say, not doing anything at all.

Does that same strategy of compounded negligence feel appropriate for Californians in range of wildfires? For those of you in the midwest along a flood plain, or in New Orleans or Miami on the coast? Those of you who work in insurance, in live events, in travel, in food production?

It seems insane, doesn’t it?

Going forward, the question becomes: How do we get back to neutral in each of these marks? Once there, can we create a measurable standard for excellence, and exceptionalism, in coming months and years? And where do we begin? What are the benefits of individual action when tied to systemic measures?

Where can you begin?

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Epictetus talked about being ruthless in identifying the choices under your control, and the ones that aren't. A couple thousand years later, Pete Drucker said that you can't improve what you can't measure. We have all recently been given a measure of our choices, of our preparedness, and desire and ability to react, with or without empathy. And now we are challenged to build a new plan for going forward. 

Exceptional is a high bar, but we are inspired by examples of the truly exceptional every day, by people often playing the game of America with one hand tied behind their backs, who succeed, against the rule, despite a system designed against them.

What are the practical applications of exceptional in your world, and what are the steps to get there?

— Quinn

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