WORDS BY WILLOW DEFEBAUGH
PHOTOGRAPH BY Marcel Christ
Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.
“What is truth? What is untruth? It is not in the words that you speak. It is in the way you hold the life within you. It is in the way you are. Whether you are a crawling worm or a big human being, when the sun comes up in the morning, it lights up everybody. Whoever opens his eyes, for him, there is light to see.”
On Wednesday afternoon, a group of radical Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol to interrupt Congress’s certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. There was no shortage of horrors to watch unfold that day, but chief among them was Trump’s response. To an armed militia of domestic terrorists, the current President of the United States said: “We love you; you’re very special.”
Exceptionalism is the belief that an individual or group of individuals is extraordinary and therefore exempt from the rules and laws that apply to all others. When Trump told his following of largely white nationalists that they were very special, he told them what this country has been telling them since it colonized itself into existence. As Rebecca Nagle pointed out on Twitter: “This isn’t the culmination of the past four years. It’s the culmination of the past five centuries.”
What else can it be called but exceptionalism when the world watches as white supremacists parade nazi paraphernalia and confederate flags through our nation’s Capitol building while police officers take selfies with them? The lack of consequences showed a stark contrast to the level of force used against peaceful demonstrators demanding justice for Black lives last summer—not to mention Tuesday’s verdict that no charges would be filed against the police officer who shot Jacob Blake in the back seven times last August, leaving him half-paralyzed.
“America is so much better than what we’re seeing today,” Biden wrote in a tweet following the attack. But is that true? Trump may be the embodiment of American exceptionalism—especially in his belief that the rules of democracy do not apply to him—he may have emblazoned it, but he is by no means the beginning or end of it. Exceptionalism is in the very DNA of this country, evidenced not only by its history of genocide and enslavement, but the history being written today. What else could explain our belief that we can use infinite resources with no consequences for the environment, or that a global pandemic does not apply to us?
Exceptionalism goes against the ways of nature, the laws of which apply to all things. Nature, called by some the Universe, represents the totality of everything—so how could it be anything other than inclusive? White supremacy declares itself in opposition not only to the truth through the lies it perpetuates, but to life itself. It is only fitting that Trump and his followers will be remembered as having wreaked havoc on both our nation and the natural world.
Of course, exceptionalism extends beyond the United States, to our species as a whole. It is an evolution of Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest, and we’ve seen how that mindset has played out; caring only for the survival of our species may lead to the loss of all others, and eventually, our own. In other words, our insistence on being special might just be our downfall.
The Declaration of Independence—the doctrine that birthed this country—claims equality to be a self-evident truth and life an unalienable right. But as Sadhguru says, truth is not in the words we speak, but in the way we hold the life within us. With our recent victory in the Senate and a new administration just weeks away, we have been given the opportunity to make critical changes to the way we hold that life. To stand in the face of nature—our nature—which knows nothing but the truth. To decide who we are and who we want to become.