Icarus: America's wings are melting
Updated: Apr 9
How America's response to the COVID-19 pandemic reveals cracks in the American Dream
Icarus. It’s a story you may be familiar with. It goes like this – in Greek mythology, Icarus and his father, Daedulus, are imprisoned in a tower at the hands of King Minos of Crete. The backstory involves a labyrinth, a half-man, half-bull creature, and a bizarre union between the king’s wife and a bull (Greek mythology, hey? Try not to think about it too much). To escape, Daedulus crafts two huge pairs of wings out of feathers and wax. He warns his son not to fly too high to the sun lest the wax melts. The two jump from the tower, flap their wings furiously, and make like birds across the Aegean Sea. But soon, Icarus forgets his father’s warning. He rises high in the sky, the wax melts, and he plummets to his death.
Arrogance. Hubris. Vanity. It’s a story that quite literally gives meaning to the notion, “a fall from grace.” It’s an allegory that is covered many times in Greek mythology. There’s the tragedy of Phaeton; the entire saga of Odysseus; and then there’s the death of Bellerophron.
Bellerophron’s story is less well known but equally damning. It charts that of a Greek warrior who is sent on a futile mission to kill Chimera - a fire-breathing monster with the body of a goat, the head of a lion, and the tail of a serpent. Along the way, Bellerophron captures Pegasus – a powerful, winged horse – and the two achieve the impossible, killing Chimera. Upon his return, Bellerophron’s fame grows, and so does his arrogance – so much so, that he believes he should live alongside the gods. He mounts Pegasus and flies toward the summit of Mount Olympus, the gods’ home. Zeus, the king of the gods, is so incensed by his hubris that he sends a horsefly to sting Pegasus, causing Bellerophon to fall to his death.
In each of these sagas, the hero is undone by a bloated sense of self-worth. For Icarus, Phaeton, and Bellephron, hubris is deadly. For Odysseus, it’s an unshakeable flaw, one that links one adversity to the next, and adds ten years to his journey home from Troy. (It’s also one that, at one point, turns those closest to him into pigs.)
In the last 3,000 years, not much has changed. The details are a little different; the locations are a little more familiar. Fiction has given way to fact and our villains and heroes are, for better and for worse, a little more human. Nevertheless, the failing remains the same. Too often we’re undone by our own inflated sense of existence; the notion that, while others may suffer or achieve little, we are destined for a more prosperous path.
It’s an almighty mantra. Wars have been won over it, movements have been built from it, and nations have been founded out of it. And there are many times when that conviction has been our greatest resolve. We have seen humanity climb high and higher still because of a simple belief that each one of us, individually, is destined for greatness. And perhaps there is no greater example of that than the story of America.
The United States is a fiercely aspirational place. It wears its hope on its sleeve and its ambition in its heart. It’s where one president regaled, “if your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader” (John Quincy Adams), and another proclaimed that “those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly” (John F Kennedy).
America is built on the notion that one’s personal pursuit of success is demonstrative that others can follow suit. It’s a notion that is at the apex of the American Dream. It’s what drove settlers to the New World, migrants across the Atlantic, and it’s a message that remains as pervasive today in political movements on both sides of the aisle, as it did when the country was founded.
It has allowed us to fly high, high in the sky, and to achieve so much. But we must beware of the wax. It melts for us like it does for any other. And, right now, that message could not be more relevant.
Covid-19 is indiscriminate. It doesn’t care for affluence or ambition. It doesn’t listen to mantra or ideology. It is not moved by emotion, swayed by passion, or curtailed by the notion of one land or one people. It’s an equal opportunity infector – one that will do its worst regardless of the stories we may tell. And that’s what makes it America’s ultimate adversary.
Trump has described himself as a “wartime president” and he is, but he is losing, and losing badly. However he may twist the narrative, however he may call black white and white black, Covid-19 slices through spin, in the words of Andrew Cuomo, “like a bullet train.” And that, unfortunately, is the manner in which this virus is cutting through America, spreading far and wide, impacting those across all corners of the country.
It is turning the United States inside out, exposing all levels of government for what they are: ill-prepared, ill-equipped, and cumbersome in adapting to quite simply the greatest public health crisis of our time.
The question is why? Why the lack of response and the lack of agility when other countries have been more adept at managing the crisis? And the answer must run deeper than ineffectual leadership, impotent federal action, and inadequate supplies. The crisis is too great and the response too haphazard to be wrapped up entirely in the moment. There is something underlying here. The United States is only just getting to grips with the fact that it, too, has wings that can melt.
In the last few weeks, too many individuals have been turned away from testing either because they have not knowingly interacted with someone who tested positive for the virus, or because they had not visited a country deemed “at-risk.” For too long, not only our president, but also our country as a whole, deemed this fight as one taking place on other shores. We saw China and South Korea. We saw Italy, and yet the belief was that a disaster of such magnitude was simply not in our DNA. This couldn’t possibly happen on American soil. So we remained reckless, complacent, and cavalier. We pursued our dogged individualism. We cloaked ourselves in protectionism. And, despite seeing our allies and partners around the world suffer, we sought to close our borders, clap our hands clean, and be done with it.
Arrogance. Hubris. Vanity.
Our fate has been exacerbated by those traits and now, as the virus spreads on our shores, those traits will continue to be exposed. We will begin to see the best of who we are and the worst of who we are play out in the stark light of day.
Our healthcare system is the best in the world, but only for those who are loaded; our safety net is robust and resilient, but only for those worth saving; and our lives are valued, but only for those young enough and fit enough to endure. For the rest of us, too many voices too high up in government are calling for our sacrifice in exchange for a revamped economy. It’s Orwellian. It’s Hunger Games-esque. Such thinking is dismissed as the folly of Hollywood villains, the compulsion of the deranged and deluded, and yet it is playing out for all of us to see. The words to describe those actions seem to be escaping the moment, but they are plain and simple.
Arrogance. Hubris. Vanity.
It’s the arrogance in our healthcare system, the hubris in our economy, and the deep-seated sense of vanity in how we perceive our role in the world. We are living under the assumed notion that, no matter the affliction that may pervade others, we will not bear the suffering. That mindset is simply damning.
Let me finish by calling on a quote from another one of our previous presidents.
In the wake of his victory in the 2008 Iowa Caucus, Barack Obama uttered the words, “hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it and to work for it and to fight for it.”
Those words speak to the very foundations of what it means to be American. But in the context of this discussion, I would like to meet those words with a line that is much less heralded and much less sought after. It comes from a little-known, 19th century writer by the name of Michael Rafter. He spent several years of his life alongside a man who was a footnote in humanity’s long history of arrogance, hubris, and vanity, a man by the name of Gregor MacGregor. MacGregor later went on to swindle hundreds of victims into parting with their life-savings in order to travel to a country that didn’t exist. It was one of the greatest con-jobs the world has ever witnessed. Nevertheless, Rafter saw through the veneer. He recognized the folly of those who believed they could fly too high in the sky without consequence.
In reflection, he said, “the human mind is ever on the rack for novelty, for adventure, for an unquestioned path to prosperity and however we may see our comrades suffer, there is a principle, implanted in our breasts; a feeling of self-love which inspires us with the hope that we, at least, may be more fortunate.”
Those two quotes chart a remarkable conflict in the American Dream. We must have hope and reach for the heavens but, at the same time, recognize the fact that we have no right to be more fortunate than the next.
As we plunge further and further into the Covid-19 crisis, I believe that hindsight will show we have leaned too far in one direction at the expense of the other. It has stripped us of our wings; or perhaps, more fittingly, it has been the horsefly to our Pegasus – an equal opportunity infector - stinging us as we sought to reach for the heavens. We are now tumbling back to earth for what will prove to be a horrific and incalculable loss.