America, take a look in the mirror

Tuesday, July 14, 2020 - 5:26pm

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Make America Great Again — the motto of our current president, in reference to the distressed economy of the United States during the 2016 election. What if, however, America was never great in the first place? What if America does not need to return to the past, but reach for a new level of greatness? A 2017 survey from the Pew Research Center shows that a good proportion, right around 85 percent, of Americans believe the U.S. either “stands above all other countries in the world” or is “one of the greatest countries, along with others.” The American population is patriotic and proud, but this patriotism blinds us from our faults. 

The idea that we are not great now, but must return to “former glory,” is claiming that America used to be great despite its systemically racist institutions, massive economic inequality, disorganized healthcare system, horrific carbon emissions and more. America must not ignore these failures. It is easy to not feel the real urgency of a crisis until you see it with your own eyes. However, as a nation with a population of over 300 million people, Americans must change this backward way of thinking to address these domestic problems.

Americans seem to have a sense of immunity when it comes to serious threats. We think because we are “above all other countries,” we will do things the best way possible and trust the government to ensure this. However, our government has proven itself extremely flawed and incompetent with respect to the deeply-rooted race problems embedded in our society as a result of slavery and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

In American high schools, we were taught that the United States was portrayed as the savior. When other nations were struggling with corrupt leaders or war, the U.S. would step in and save the day with democracy (even if this meant replacing a just leader with a corrupt one). This teaching instills a sense of superiority in the American population. As the 2017 Pew Research Center survey indicated that only 14 percent of Americans believe there are nations better than the U.S., the people in power have failed at holding the government accountable for our own humanitarian crisis — the systemic and blatant racism that continues to plague this nation. 

This false sense of superiority has also led to the failure of containing COVID-19, as only 56 percent of American adults view COVID-19 as a “real threat” as of March 17, 2020, which shows a drop of 10 percentage points from the previous month. Similar to taking personal action against global warming, many Americans prefer to not inconvenience themselves, often at the expense of others, because they have not seen the threat with their own eyes and therefore feel falsely immune to worldwide threats. It may be inconvenient to shop in person rather than online, eat less meat, recycle, compost and use reusable cups, but these are small everyday changes that would make a difference towards a more sustainable future — just like wearing a mask can lower COVID-19 transmission levels.

According to a PBS Marist poll, the percentage of Americans that view the pandemic as a “real threat” has decreased from February to March, while COVID-19 cases in the United States have continued to increase. Last year, I took a class called Philosophy 183: Critical Reasoning with Professor Anna Edmonds, a LEO Lecturer I. This class focused on the failures our brain makes when reasoning. One failure we studied was how the brain feels more comfortable with risks it has already survived. Once we have survived a risk for a period of time, the risk feels less and less scary, even if the probability of a negative outcome remains the same or increases. As Americans continue to survive this pandemic without contracting COVID, their already heightened sense of immunity will only increase. 

America has done many great things of which its citizens should be proud of. The values of liberty and justice that define our goals in a democracy are great. But these values have not been achieved. The Pledge of Allegiance states, “with liberty and justice for all.” The U.S. has allowed this pledge to only apply to the white and wealthy of this nation for too long, with support for Black Lives Matter maxing at around 40 percent until the current rise of the movement.

It is time for Americans to wake up to reality and acknowledge that although greatness is achievable, we aren’t close. The first step toward progress is acknowledging that we as a nation are flawed. It has taken centuries for white Americans to realize how significant race inequity is throughout our judicial, housing, law enforcement systems and more. Perhaps if students were taught current and historical crises in our own country and not just abroad, white Americans would be more able to reflect and make a change. If we want our nation to function as coherent and equitable and be truly great someday, we must hold our government accountable to protect the rights of ALL Americans, and be willing to sacrifice small inconveniences, like wearing a mask, for the greater good of the world. 

Lizzy Peppercorn can be reached at epepperc@umich.edu.