A blast from my past: The myth of exceptionalism

I was looking at the record of traffic on my blog this week and I saw that this post from five years ago was getting some notice. Why now? I've no idea. But rereading it, it seems just as accurate and important now as I obviously considered it back then. Also quite ironic considering our current circumstances. What do you think?


Friday, September 13, 2013

The myth of exceptionalism

"It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."   - Vladimir Putin in New York Times op-ed

Russia's Vladimir Putin made a big splash this week with his op-ed  piece in the Times in which he lectured the United States and President Obama about the "need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression." Of course, he doesn't mention here the fact that Russia has vetoed any effort by the Security Council to address the two year old crisis and civil war in Syria. 

He goes on to piously discuss democracy as an ideal toward which countries are moving at their own speed, with the implication being that countries must be allowed to work out their destinies without interference from the outside, even, I guess, when those countries enact such undemocratic laws as the recent Russian acts which discriminate against homosexuals.  

It's hard - impossible really - to know if Putin himself actually wrote this op-ed or if it was written by the public relations firm he employs, but perhaps it doesn't really matter. No doubt it fairly represents the opinions of the man himself. As such, the hypocrisy of the piece is truly staggering, coming from a man who has been a chief obstructionist of peaceful negotiations of many conflicts in the world, as well as a man who runs a very illiberal and undemocratic regime in his own country. 

Nevertheless, if one merely takes the op-ed at face value, there are certain statements that make sense and with which a reasonable person can agree. One of those is the quote with which I opened my blog post.

For a long time, it has irked me almost beyond endurance to hear jingoistic American politicians talking about "American exceptionalism," which some of them do at every possible opportunity. Their clear implication is that this is a country which was established by some Outside Power, usually a long-robed, long-bearded, all-powerful Judeo-Christian God, and that the country continues to be watched over and protected by that Outside Power, in a way that is not true of any other country in the world. Indeed, it is an article of faith among certain fundamentalist right-wing politicians and their followers that we stand outside and are immune from the flow of history. All of that is so much hogwash.

In fact, this country was established by human beings, brilliant but flawed human beings, who were willing to put their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor on the line to bring it into being. They were human beings who were acutely aware of the lessons of history and who would never for a moment have presumed to believe that they or the country they were creating were immune from and could not learn from those lessons. 

In short, the idea that the United States of America is exceptional and stands outside of the flow of history is a myth and a dangerous myth at that. We are subject to the same natural laws as any other people, any other government. Our system of government which has worked well enough for over two hundred years inevitably contains the seeds of its own destruction. From time to time, those seeds sprout and grow as they are doing now with the refusal of certain elements in our society to live by the tenets of democracy. 

So, I would agree with Putin's statement that it is dangerous to see ourselves as exceptional. We need to accept that we are a part of history and are not immune to its forces. Perhaps this would give us the dash of humility we need to be effective citizens of the world.    


  1. As an immigrant, I believe that this democracy is perhaps the most vibrant in the world. In no other country any citizen can start a blog and blast the government, its laws, and its leaders without suffering consequences, Russia included (before, during and after Communism). While after 9/11 those rights are no longer as free to practice as they used to be (e.g., blogs and social media are monitored on a regular basis), I believe that the fact that at least half of the U.S. population--including entertainers, influencers, and regular citizens--express disagreement and plain disgust with their President is a sure sign that democracy is alive and well despite signs of suppressing personal opinion by violent displays from certain sectors in our society. In ensuring that our rights are respected is how we keep democracy alive. We are exceptional that way, but I agree that we are, in no way inmune, to the waves of history.

    1. Your background as an immigrant to this country certainly gives you a unique perspective of our history and our present.

  2. You know, our country is so young in the history of the world, at least in its present configuration. Compared to Europe, Russia, Japan, China, we are still in kindergarten at best. Except for one day in 2011, we have never been attacked by a foreign power on our own soil, at least by weapons, and probably have unforeseen troubles in our future. Still we do have the longest running experiment in democracy and the petri dish seems still quite alive and vital, as Carmen mentions. Maybe exceptional is a good way to feel as long as it includes some humility and willingness to learn from history.

    1. Unfortunately, my perception of the "exceptionalists" is that they do not possess that humility or a willingness to learn. Instead they think of our country as having been created by a higher power. They see the country as the "chosen people" standing outside and immune from the flow of history. I reject that notion.


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