I was a student of American history at the university in the 1980s.
I will be honest with you. I was touched by the way American history was told back then. Emigrating to the United States was joining the luckiest and largest nation in history. "Nothing in all of history had been as successful as the United States, and all Americans knew it," wrote Henry Steele Commager in his 1950 book, "The American Mind."
To be born American was to be born to a glorious destiny. We were the nation of the future, the vanguard of justice, the last best hope of humanity. "Have the major races stopped?" Walt Whitman asked: “Do you bow down and finish your lesson, tired out there beyond the seas? We take on the eternal task. "
To be born American was to be born boldly individual, daring and self-sufficient. "Trust yourself: every heart vibrates with that iron rope," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in an essay called, very American, "Self-sufficiency."
To be born American was to bow to no one, to say: I am not better than anyone, but nobody is better than me. Tocqueville wrote about the level playing field he found in the United States; no one airs on anyone else. In 1981 Samuel Huntington wrote that the American creed was based on a suspicion of authority and a fervent rejection of hierarchy: "The essence of egalitarianism is the rejection of the idea that one person has the right to exercise power over another."
I found it all very energizing. Being an American was not just a citizenship. It was a vocation, a call to serve a great national mission.
Today, of course, we understand what was wrong with that version of American history. It did not include everyone. The horrors of slavery and genocide were omitted.
But this is what hit me hard, especially during the pandemic: This entire version of the American creed was based on an assumption of existential security. Americans had the luxury of thinking and living the way they did because they had two incredible oceans on each side. The United States was immune to foreign invasion, the corruptions of the old world. It was often spared the pests that spread to so many other parts of the world.
We could be individualistic, anti-authority, daring and self-sufficient because at the elementary level we feel very safe.
University of Maryland academic Michele Gelfand has spent her career comparing national cultures. Some nations grow relatively safe from foreign invasion and the frequent devastation of infectious diseases. Gelfand discovers that these are loose nations: individualistic, creative but also disorderly, uncoordinated and reckless.
Other nations have not been so lucky. Harsh need has turned them into tight nations. Difficulties have taught them to unite, to be more conformist, but also to improve social order and self-control.
Gelfand wrote a book called "Rule Makers, Break Rules." Americans have been the ones to break the rules, the classic nation on the loose.
But what happens to a loose nation when the feeling of existential security disappears? During the first two decades of the 21st century, the United States has lost its sense of security, the quiet confidence that the future is ours, that our institutions are strong or even minimally competent.
And if any hint of existential security remained, the pandemic had surely taken it away: around 100,000 dead so far, a devastated economy. We have had threats before, some foreign incursions like in 1812, even pandemics when the United States was less fair than it is today. But we have never hit them in the middle of a crisis of confidence, a crisis of authority, more social and spiritual crises at the same time.
So, in that sense, this is the first invasion of America. This is the first time that a threat has crossed our borders, has disrupted the daily lives of all Americans, and has shaken our old sense of security. Welcome to life in the rest of the world.
In addition to a few protesters and a depraved president, most of us have understood that we need to suspend the old American individualist creed. In the midst of a complex epidemiological disaster, to be anti-authority is to be ignorant. In the midst of a contagion, acting as if you were self-sufficient is simply selfish.
But something deeper is happening. We are experiencing a more permanent change in national consciousness, a reconstruction of meanings, symbols, values, and narratives. If the old American creed grew up in an atmosphere of assumed security and freedom, the new one is growing up in an atmosphere of vulnerability and precariousness.
In this environment, economic resilience will be valued more than maximized efficiency. We will spend more time minimizing downside risks than maximizing upside gains. The local and the rooted will be valued more than the distant networked. We will value community over individualism, integration over autonomy.
Something lovely is missing. America's old idea of itself unleashed a torrent of energy. But the American identity that grows in the shadow of the plague may have humanity in a shared vulnerability, the humility that comes with understanding the precariousness of life, and a fierce solidarity that arises during a long struggle against an invading force.
David Brooks has been a columnist for The Times since 2003. He is the author of "The Road to Character,quot; and, more recently, "The Second Mountain,quot;.
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