“I was an American history major in college, back in the 1980s.
I’ll be honest with you. I thrilled to the way the American story was told back then. To immigrate to America was to join the luckiest and greatest nation in history. “Nothing in all history had ever succeeded like America, and every American knew it,” Henry Steele Commager wrote 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 mankind. “Have the elder races halted?” Walt Whitman asked, “Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas? We take up the task eternal.”
To be born American was to be born boldly individual, daring and self-sufficient. “Trust thyself: Every heart vibrates to that iron string,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in an essay called, very Americanly, “Self-Reliance.”
Today, of course, we understand what was wrong with that version of American history. It didn’t include everybody. It left out the full horrors of slavery and genocide.
But here’s what has struck me forcefully, especially during the pandemic: That whole version of the American creed was all based on an assumption of existential security. Americans had the luxury of thinking and living the way they did because they had two whopping great oceans on either side. The United States was immune to foreign invasion, the corruptions of the old world. It was often spared the plagues that swept over so many other parts of the globe.”
Brooks ends with, “Something lovely is being lost. America’s old idea of itself unleashed a torrent of energy. But the American identity that grows up in the shadow of the plague can have the humanity of shared vulnerability, the humility that comes with an understanding of the precariousness of life and a fierce solidarity that emerges during a long struggle against an invading force.”