No Exceptions: or the End of a Mythology

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One of the key principles of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. is the critical role that cultural mythologies play in shaping human consciousness and the way we experience our world. So, as we face a pandemic disease that is disrupting, and will, for the foreseeable future, disrupt our lives in ways that are likely to confront us with new and unexpected challenges in the months and years to come, an understanding of how cultural mythologies work has become more important than ever before. This is because one of America's most fundamental mythologies—the belief known as "American exceptionalism"—is now being starkly challenged by the realities of living in the shadow of COVID-19. This belief is that America has always been the exception to human history—that America, alone among the nations, is immune from tragedy, from unmitigated disaster, from decline. A corollary to this belief is the conviction that America has always been, and will continue to be, at the forefront of history, a City on a Hill that will lead the rest of the world to freedom and prosperity. The pandemic, and America's response to it, is challenging that confidence.

So, amid the profound distractions to life and learning that COVID-19 is presenting to your classroom, focusing on the ways in which cultural mythologies—especially American exceptionalism—not only shapes our consciousness but can also present barriers to a clear understanding of the challenges that face us as a society, is something you may want to do if you are using, or plan to use, Signs of Life in the U.S.A. in your class. You could begin this by assigning the introduction to the book, concentrating especially on the discussion of cultural mythologies, along with
the introduction to chapter 7, "American Paradox: Culture, Conflict and Interpretation in the U.S.A." (this will be Chapter 1 in the 10th edition), which goes into greater depth about American mythologies. After the principles explored in these introductions are clear to your students, assign Barbara Ehrenreich's reading selection, "Bright Sided," which explores in depth the effects of American exceptionalism in shaping America's fundamental optimism as a society and its concomitant tendency to be unprepared for disaster.

Take as much time as you need, for once these readings are mastered, your students will be ready for an essay assignment on how Ehrenreich's essay, generally, and the mythology of American exceptionalism, more particularly, pertain to America's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Your assignment could direct your students to support, refute, or qualify the argument that American "bright-sidedness" left it unprepared for the full brunt of the disease and that our unenviable status as having the world's most cases of COVID-19, as well as deaths, is a sign that American exceptionalism is indeed a myth rather than a reality.

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 1149896 by Free-Photos, used under Pixabay License

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.