The myth of American exceptionalism is just as much a myth about ourselves

I used to have both my father and America on a pedestal. My faith in both has been severely shaken, but I still have hope that it's not too late for one of them.
Illustration: DJANDYW/Flickr

Not long after the 2016 presidential election, I had lunch with my father. He was 71 years old and had recently retired. My mom, who was still working full-time at that point, said he seemed unsure of what to do with himself and suggested we go out to lunch sometime. This was in the Before Times, when my son was in school all day and I had a giant chunk of time available to me every weekday. I agreed it was a great idea.

I was 36 years old in 2016 and more than ready to spend more time with my dad. Growing up, I had been closer to my mom, but around the time I turned 19, things flipped. My mom became overcritical and overbearing, or maybe she had always been that way and I hadn’t noticed. I lost interest in the things we used to do together like shopping or cooking. I was in college and was learning more about myself and where I fit into the world. Things were expanding for me and it felt like my mother wasn’t going to be a useful guide anymore.

On the other hand, my father had always been interested in global affairs, economics, and politics and I considered him an authority on these matters. He spoke often of his days in the Soviet Union where he had read banned books and still knew what was going on even when the government repeatedly lied to the people. I regarded the fact that our family managed to immigrate to the U.S. as a sort of proof that we were smarter than those who stayed behind, whether by choice or for lack of the cunning and effort it was required to get out.

America isn’t perfect, Dad would say, but it’s much better than the USSR. He even had a mathematical approximation for exactly how much better; 80% of American life is better than Soviet life, he would say. That meant that 20% of Soviet life was better than life in America, but he didn’t dwell so much on that part and so, neither did I.

I accepted Dad’s measure of America as gospel, partially because it came from a person who was supposed to know more about the world than me, but also because I had no knowledge or experience of my own that contradicted it.

Thanks to the help of some well-off American relatives, as well as HIAS and other assorted Jewish organizations who helped resettle us in the US, we always lived in middle-class suburbs. My sister and I attended well-resourced public schools and we didn’t want for anything.

There were some leaner years in the very beginning where I was aware that I had less than my American classmates, but it was brief and it wasn’t like I had a lot in the USSR either. No capitalism meant no American-style consumerism and materialism. Soviet children didn’t have piles of toys and clothes and neither did their parents. And this was all normal; it was the way almost everyone lived. I didn’t yet know that not all American families had these things either.


So when my Dad and I sat down at our table in 2016 for lunch at a local deli, replete with thick slices of kosher dill pickles, I wasted no time in asking him the most urgent question I had. What did he think was going to happen now that Trump was president? I had been in mourning for months at that point and I needed reassurance. Like many nice, white liberals at the time, I was horrified and angry and in a state of confusion as to how this could have happened. It’s hard to believe now that this was only five years ago. I feel as though I’ve become an entirely different person since then, someone who could never be that surprised again, never again be so naïve.

Back then though, I was panicked and I searched my dad’s face for answers. To this day, I remember how calm he was, in stark contrast to me. I had been fighting with my husband who didn’t support Trump, but wasn’t as alarmed as I was. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was incredibly depressed about the future, and that was on a good day. On bad days, I was in a state of terror that Trump would start a nuclear war or start rounding up everyone who wasn’t white or Christian and throw them into concentration camps (I wasn’t far off, as it turned out, considering what was happening to migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border).

Dad was clearly not living in the same mental space with me. I didn’t want to be there either. He shrugged as he took a bite of his food and issued a proclamation which I’m sure was meant to placate me, but I’m certain it was also what he believed. “American institutions will withstand Trump,” he said.

I looked at him with skepticism. I told him I wasn’t so sure, that it was already clear that many of the safeguards we depended on were merely “norms” and there was nothing stopping a president from flouting every one of them. I tried to explain the Overton Window concept to him, talked worriedly about all the ghastly things Trump had already done, but he remained nonplussed. I realized, and he might have reminded me that day, that he had lived under the rule of authoritarian strongmen for his entire life in the USSR. Trump wasn’t something new and foreign to him. And this was America. America was different.

Where had my father gotten this idea, that America was special? Who knows, but American exceptionalism is woven into the very fabric of life here and like any good immigrant, he had absorbed it. Indeed, immigrants are some of the most fervent believers in America’s alleged specialness; it is why they come here. I’m reminded of a taxi ride in my first year of college and the conversation I had with the Libyan cab driver. He told me he couldn’t wait to become an American citizen, because America had a model criminal justice system and everyone was equal under the law. That idea seems so quaint now, but at the time, I was ignorant of so many hard truths and so I smiled and nodded along, agreeing with him. It was a nice idea and again, nothing in my life experience pointed to it not being true.

I wonder sometimes how that cabbie fared in the aftermath of 9/11, when anyone who vaguely seemed like they could have been Arab or Muslim was hunted, victimized, surveilled, and sometimes disappeared. I wonder if he was affected by Trump’s disgustingly racist and Islamophobic Muslim Ban. I wonder if he still thought the American criminal punishment system was perfect. This is how I refer to it these days, because the word “justice” clearly doesn’t belong there.


Ihave also wondered what that cabbie thought of Trump’s victory; had he become a citizen by then and been able to vote in the election himself? My dad always voted, because after the mock elections in the USSR, it was a right he didn’t take for granted. I wish I could be prouder of this apparent fealty to democracy. To this day though, I’m afraid to ask who he cast his ballot for in 2016 and with good reason.

In 2020, I know for a fact that both he and my mom voted for Joe Biden and the reason I know is that we discussed it. He had come over to try to fix our dishwasher and I decided to heed the warnings of progressive organizers and ask every single person in my life if they were voting, if they needed help registering, if they had a voting plan, etc. Ever a fan of percentages, Dad said he had made up his mind 90% of the way that he would vote for Biden. I stared at him in horror. Why was he not 100% sure?

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, because some years earlier, also in the Before Times, I was at my parents’ house and the topic of Trump somehow came up. Dad, it turned out, didn’t agree that Trump was a fascist. He allowed that he was a bad leader, that he was incompetent, but not a fascist. My father, born in the USSR in 1945, only mere weeks after Hitler’s forces unconditionally surrendered, didn’t see the parallels that were pointed out by some far in advance of the 2016 election. It was then I realized that my father wasn’t an expert on politics and global affairs after all; that he was just a man who had lived under autocracy for most of his life and it had become normalized for him.

He didn’t think Trump was a fascist, not because there wasn’t abundant proof that he was, but because it really didn’t matter either way. Dad’s Overton Window had shifted long ago.


It’s fitting that around the time that the myth of American exceptionalism was shattered for me, that the myth of my father’s exceptionalism had also fallen away. Even after I had accepted that perhaps he wasn’t the man I thought he was, I was still shaken by a recent conversation we had about current events in Russia. We had all been vaccinated and finally able to see each other again, unmasked and carefree. We chose Mother’s Day and gathered at my parents’ house for a weekend meal. It was then I asked my dad what he thought about the situation with Alexei Navalny, the imprisoned Kremlin opposition leader who has been imprisoned by Putin and currently being tortured with sleep deprivation.

Dad shrugged in a similar way to our lunch in 2016. He said Navalny didn’t have many supporters, a curious observation to make about a country where protest and any kind of opposition to Putin can get you killed and there is vanishingly little press freedom. He said Putin wasn’t that bad really, so there was no way the Russian people would rise up against him.

Putin lets you make a living, Dad said, and it was then I understood that we hadn’t come to America for the democracy. We had come for the capitalism. I had known this for a long time on some level, but now there was truly no doubt.

Besides the fact that Soviet Jewish refugees to the US were a highly self-selected group which virulently hated socialism, it was evident that my father learned the lessons of America well. Capitalism is, after all, practically the national religion here, as is the scarcity mindset it engenders which leads to hoarding of resources and many other ills.

That day in the fall of 2020, as he noodled around with my dishwasher, he told me he was likely voting for Biden, because Trump had tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He knew that this would have directly affected our family. My son is autistic and has two insurance policies to pay for all the costs of his therapies. If we suddenly lost that second policy, it would mean paying thousands of dollars out of pocket over the course of a year. We would make it work somehow if we had to, but it would be a big hit. I asked if he cared about all the millions of other people who would lose their coverage if the ACA was repealed, people for whom it was their sole policy, people with pre-existing conditions, disabled people. Not even blinking, he said he didn’t. He only cared about our family. It was a very American response.


Why do we believe in myths like America being a shining city on a hill or our parents being morally and intellectually infallible? I think we do it partly because it makes the world feel safer and less chaotic. As finite beings, it’s natural to long for order in a disordered universe. We tend to bristle at gray areas, preferring absolutes. We are uncomfortable with people, things, or ideas which cannot be easily classified or labeled. We are uneasy with anything which is difficult to understand or explain. We like simplicity and easy solutions.

I often think of what the famous Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön wrote in her bestselling book “When Things Fall Apart.” She repeats over and over that this type of thinking is a path to unhappiness. “Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all” is what she has to say about absolutes and easy solutions. As to chaos, Chödrön counsels us to welcome it in and offer it a cup of tea. I don’t think you have to be a Buddhist to appreciate this wisdom, especially in today’s rapidly shifting world. Impermanence is inevitable, Chödrön says and so it is.

I think, too, that for many of us who are privileged, to contemplate alternatives to the enduring myths of America is simply too painful. Just like my father, many of my Black friends seemed quite sanguine following the 2016 election, albeit for different reasons. They had seen this movie before and what was a plot twist for me was old hat for them.

I met up with one of these friends after the 2016 election. By then, I understood that the current moment wasn’t an aberration, but yet another chapter in America’s sordid history, much of which wasn’t taught to me in school. I asked my friend how he continued to survive and thrive in a country that was so intent on White supremacy, deepening inequality, and so much more. Reminiscent of my Dad, he shrugged. Shit’s fucked up, he said, but Black people keep going no matter what. How right he is.

These days, I’m ultimately happier to be living a life free of myths, no matter how comforting they might have been. And though my eyes are now fully opened when it comes to the United States, I continue to believe that we can be better, that we simply must. These days, if ever I begin to feel anxious and afraid once more, I think of how Pema Chödrön would tell me to look at it. “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”

As for my father, we still talk about politics sometimes, but I don’t look to him for reassurance anymore. I get that from within now. I also draw strength from the activists and organizers who work tirelessly to make real, lasting change. They are the people I look to for an understanding of the world that is rooted in the belief that things don’t have to be as they are now.

I’m not sure my Dad has ever believed that, but I realize now that this isn’t a moral failing on his part. His life was much harder than mine and he worked extremely hard to make mine considerably easier. Maybe if I have the space now to dream bigger, I owe some of that to him.