COVID-19 and The Death of American Exceptionalism

Arlene Goldbard
4 min readMar 26, 2020

As a longtime cultural policy wonk, I’ve been perpetually frustrated at the persistence of American exceptionalism, our stubborn insistence on our own unique superiority, our stubborn refusal to look beyond our own borders for inspiring examples and new ways of seeing. This is usually accompanied by some type of smug assertion about the superiority of the American way of doing things. You can see it starkly in other realms: how many times have you heard we have “the best healthcare system in the world?” We ranked 27th a few years ago, and surely lower now. We are worse than 43 other nations in infant and under-five deaths.

I’ve often thought that part of this willful blindness stems from the relative privilege and protection of this country, which hasn’t been invaded or occupied. From our collective vantage-point — as is proven by the endless and nauseating declarations of right-wing preachers and their allies that we hold a special place of protection by the Divine — no matter what happens to others, we’ll be okay.

The rapid spread of the novel coronavirus and the appalling response of the current administration are quickly removing that certainty of special protection. The forecasts are dire. There may soon be many reasons to grasp the truth that other countries often do better jobs than the U.S. of protecting the well-being and commonwealth of their citizens. It is nice to imagine that realization being followed by a new willingness to learn from others.

Today I want to talk about what might be learned with respect to support for culture: artists, culture-bearers, the infrastructure that sustains their often precarious existence.

The U.S. population currently stands at about 329 million. Germany is at about 83 million. England’s current population is around 56 million. For the non-math wizards among us, the ratio is as follows: the U.S. population is four times that of Germany and close to six times that of England.

U.S. mainstream arts advocates are touting the section of the new stimulus bill supporting arts organizations, adding up to $300 million (not much of which will go directly to artists). This is from yesterday’s bulletin from Americans for the Arts’ Arts Action Fund:

$75 million for the National Endowment for the Arts to quickly award “general operating grants with no match requirements” to nonprofit and governmental arts agencies across the country, with 40% going to state arts agencies for regranting in their states.

$75 million for the National Endowment for the Humanities (similar directives as NEA).

$75 million for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

$50 million for the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

$25 million for the Kennedy Center, which President Trump did a good job of defending during his nightly press conference tonight.

Germany has already passed a $54 billion aid package of grants, loans, and benefits for cultural workers.

“We know the hardships, we know the desperation,” said culture minister Monika Grütters in a statement. “The cultural sector in particular is characterized by a high proportion of self-employed people who now have problems with their livelihoods.” She said that the federal government is ‘wholly aware’ of the importance of the creative industries, adding that ‘[h]elp is coming as quickly and with as little bureaucracy as possible!’”

Foundational to seeing “the cultural sector” as a meaningful contributor to society is understanding what artists do to nurture belonging and community; express social aspirations, fears, and desires; tell the stories essential to survival and social healing; and much more. Sadly, in the annals of American exceptionalism, we are almost alone among the nations of the world in seeing this critical work as nothing more than a frill.

Arts Council England has announced a $192 million dollar package of support for cultural organizations and individual artists. Here’s the reliable and astute Francois Matarasso on the speed and responsiveness of this action:

Last night, Arts Council England announced a £160 million package of support for cultural organisations and the freelance workers on which they depend. It took ACE 10 days. Ten days to understand that everything had changed, to assess where dangers might lie and how to mitigate them, to set aside legal processes and precedents established over decades, to negotiate with government, and plan how to communicate proposals to thousands of people with different needs and expectations. Ten days, much of it working from home, with children and vulnerable loved ones to care for. I’ve known the Arts Council for decades, mostly from outside, but also through years as a trustee (2005–13). I’ve often argued against its ideas, processes and decisions, but I have also admired many of those who work there and I’ve seen it transformed in recent years into a much better organisation.

At one of Francois’ sites, you’ll also find an excellent compilation of artists’ needs and desires in response to the epidemic.

For the non-math wizards among us, the ratio is as follows: that’s about 91 cents for each U.S. resident; about $3.42 per resident of England (just under four times as much per capita); and about $964 per resident of Germany (more than a thousand times the U.S. per capita).

American exceptionalism is an illusion. It’s been expensively and relentlessly shored up by propaganda from those who benefit from the rising inequality of wealth in this country. The facts of the pandemic — including how it will disproportionately kill those with least social and economic power — expose what a lie American exceptionalism is, and how badly mistaken we have been to believe it.

As the federal government doles out its 91 cents per capita (much of it going to major institutions, no doubt, in line with our overall cultural policy of feeding the privileged), I ask you: please don’t even inadvertently support the fantasy that our policymakers care about the legions of artists who work on spec every day to create belonging and promote equity. Please don’t even inadvertently support the assertion that this paltry effort is anything but too little, too late. And please join me whenever you can in striking at the myth of American exceptionalism while the iron is hot.

Where Should I Go” by Aneguria. “Where should I go if I don’t belong?”

Arlene Goldbard

Writer, painter, speaker, consultant activist. Learn more about