Putin was right, Americans are not exceptional.

I don’t like Vladimir Putin.  At all.  He’s anti-gay and has shown several times that he values self-interest over liberty for his citizens.  However, some people see people they don’t like and immediately assume they make no good points.  I’m not one of those people.

Yesterday Putin published an op ed in the New York Times talking about how to approach the situation in Syria.  I think it was largely disingenuous, since it’s kind of obvious that Syria (which houses a key Russian military base) is an area of great political importance for Russia.  It’s sad, because the reasons Putin gave for opposing America rattling the sabre of war were pretty good.

Ironically, the cause for controversy has largely been the last paragraph of Putin’s piece where he said, contrary to Obama’s claims, Americans were not exceptional.

I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.

Yes, god created us all equal…except for the gay men and women in your own country.

What I don’t get is why Americans are so perturbed about this.  Do we really think we’re all that exceptional?  I mean, it seems we’re a lot better than the rest of the world at feeling entitled (or worse, depending on how you look at it).  But beyond that?  Compared to the rest of the civilized world, we’re kind of getting trounced in wealth inequality, public education, and more.  At best you could cheer that we’re slightly above average in places, but for being the most resource-wealthy nation on earth one would think we could do better.

The idea of American exceptionalism seems to operate like religion, where it seems far more important that people believe it than whether or not it’s actually true.  And I’ll bet if you ran a study you’d find a very high correlation between the two.  Much like religion, I say of American exceptionalism that I don’t want to believe it until the evidence confirms it, and right now that just ain’t the case.  We’ve all known the guy who is average but who walks around boasting of his world-class skill at something.  I don’t want to be that guy, and America shouldn’t want to be that country.  That is why I want us to act as a partner to the global community, not as its parent.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Justin

    Most people who believe in American Exceptionalism are theists. They believe that ‘God’ founded our country by helping us defeat those evil, dirty brits. So they think we must have a ‘destiny’ as God’s new ‘Chosen People’.

    • baal

      Thanks, this was the comment I was going to post. these folks like to use language like, “Of course we’re so awesome that we should be squishing everyone else into what we want them to be.” Politically, these are the same folks (teaparty / neocons) behind the religious nuttery within the US as well.

    • Art_Vandelay

      I love the idea that God created a universe and then waited 14 billion years to pick a team to root for.

  • 23cal

    “Exceptionalism” is one of the cornerstones of nationalism. As George Orwell said, “Nationalism is powerhunger tempered by self-deception.” I think that is pretty good description of those who bluster about American exceptionalism.

  • unbound55

    I think American Exceptionalism is no different from any other country. We want to believe that we live in a good country…or at least one that is better than other countries. I would actually disagree with Justin that this is a predominantly theist issue…my discussions with atheists in other countries indicate that they have the same feelings towards their countries that Americans do about the US (one was off the chart…an atheist German that believed all things German are superior).

    I think Vladimir was being disingenuous with that paragraph in that regard. He likely believes his own country is indeed superior to others.

    Part of this conclusion is based on my own experiences. I remember as a young kid my uncles talking about the USSR and asking the question, “How can people live in that country buy the obvious nonsense that Pravda puts out?”. After watching 1/3 to 1/2 of my own country buy the obvious nonsense from our own version of Pravda (i.e. Fox News), including those same uncles, I have a better understanding of why people buy into the nonsense…and it is that feeling that we just must live in the best country…the same feeling as most people have in their own countries.

    • Compuholic

      I think American Exceptionalism is no different from any other country.

      In a way I agree and in some way I don’t. Pretty much every country has its national pride and the mindset that their way of life is in some respect superior to others.

      While I certainly have no problems with national pride. I think there is nothing wrong with taking pride in someone’s archivements. But they should really be archivements you yourself were part of. It always seems ridiculous to me when people say: “We build X” when they haven’t actually built X but happened to be born into the culture that built X.

      But that is just ridiculous. When it comes to the “we are superior” line. It is straight up obnoxious.

      And American Exceptionalism does manifest itself in many conflicts around the globe. Much more than any other country I am aware of.

      • unbound55

        I disagree that American Exceptionalism and American Hegemony are the same thing.

        • Compuholic

          I never said they were. But one is the cause or more accurately the ideological base for the other.

    • smrnda

      I don’t think people in other countries regularly talk of their nations as if they were the greatest nation on earth or in history, and I have traveled a lot and work with people from outside the US pretty often. I *never hear* anyone else talk about their country being ‘the best’ – they want their countries to be good, and focus on what’s either good or needs to be improved, and are honest about their faults (well, hopefully most of the time.) The sheer level of ‘best country ever’ seems to be an exclusively American thing at this time.

      • Stev84

        Or they may be saying that their country is the best in one area (which or may not be backed up by statistics), but acknowledge it flaws in other areas. With America, it’s usually or or nothing. Or it’s blatantly ridiculous claims that America is the only country with freedom or freedom of speech. Many people just lack perspective.

      • DavidMHart

        I remember being on a bus a few months ago and overhearing a guy from Latvia describing his country as ‘nothing special’ :-)

        • smrnda

          That gives me hope for Latvia. If they are nothing special, they can be honest about their problems.

  • Loqi

    Predictions for this thread:
    “The best ______ in the world”
    “Love it or leave it”
    Hulk Hogan’s entrance music

  • KeithCollyer

    If you have to keep boasting about how good your (country, god, …) is, then you are showing deep insecurity. It’s not so much the case now, but at one time Brits didn’t go around boasting that the UK was the best country, we just assumed everyone else knew it so it didn’t need to be said

  • Jim Smith

    I actually think religion and nationalism are the heart of exceptionalism. Being neither, I find that I am happy where I find happiness. I have lived on 3 continents, and all of them had something I have loved and hated. I don’t call myself Australian/British, I call myself human. To me, the only exceptional thing about being our world, is that we are still alive and haven’t triggered a nuclear war.

    Remembering that we are all interconnected, ok, that would be something exceptional, if everyone did it just for a few moments, realized that what one person says can have an impact on another person half way around the world, and then think that they might start holding themselves accountable for thoughts words and deeds, that would be something exceptional.

  • Todd

    “It’s what makes us exceptional.”

    Rather than give this an ungenerous interpretation as Putin did, we can simply practice a little reading comprehension. IT is what makes us exceptional, as in, nothing else does. This is not a statement professing a belief of exceptionalism, but rather a strong opinion in favor of our policy.

    This isn’t to say that Americans don’t consider themselves exceptional, and for many reasons–I’d say by and large we do. But Obama didn’t mean it that way.

    And we can’t ever preclude the very real possibility that one country is in fact exceptional objectively, if we define what we are talking about being exceptional at. If we are talking about establishing environments conducive to positive well-being, dare I say the United States is doing it better than Syria (and other countries are doing it better than the United States.)

  • Stev84

    American exceptionalism is a load of jingoistic BS of course, but Putin is a hypocrite about this. Because he thinks Russia is exceptional too. He and his buddies think that Russia is special and completely distinct from Europe and the western world. So much they don’t have to follow the same human rights laws.

  • Brita Dallmann

    I was raised to believe that America is “the best country in the world.” My belief in America’s exceptionalism went the same way as my belief in God, though, when I was about 14 years old. Most of the people who still hold to the belief that America is the best are those who have never been outside its borders.

    • ZenDruid

      As an Army brat who lived for most of his childhood and adolescence within a leisurely drive of Europe’s iron curtain, my impression is that the typical educated European regards the US as a callow youngster who is too strong and too rich for his own good.

  • Y. A. Warren

    What should make us exceptional is our ability to live in peace with so many different races and creeds. Too bad the “Christian” creeds don’t even vaguely resemble Jesus’ deeds; neither do the deeds of the “exceptional” Americans..

    • smrnda

      This might have been something to brag about a long time ago, but if you say, go to London for example, you will find that other nations are now no longer mono-cultures and many do a fair job of handling inclusion and diversity. We’ve also still got slavery apologists.

      I also don’t think we’ve ‘lived in peace’ with different races at all. There’s an unofficial war on Black America going on via the ‘war on drugs’ and ‘war on crime’ which pretty much just means that due process doesn’t apply to Black people, and given the heavy-handed policing of Black neighborhoods, Black people are being denied the right of self-governance. The same applies to plenty of other groups. The US has only even put up a pretext of caring about racism, diversity or inclusion in the last couple of decades, and even then it’s been mostly half-assed or mostly rhetoric spouted by white politicians ignoring what life was actually like for most minorities.

      So I guess I totally agree – some high ideals, but a horrible lack of reality to most of them.

  • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com/ SC

    How can we argue for the safety of children from chemical attack in another country when (especially among those on the left) we fiercely defend the legal right to abort millions of babies in this country?

    In a country whose laws endorse the torture and dismembering of babies in their mother’s womb, should we expect to be the moral leader of the world in protecting innocent Children?

  • John Alexander Harman

    I think Aaron Sorkin nailed it when he had Will McAvoy answer the question of what makes America the greatest country in the world: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zqOYBabXmA

    Of course, his other answer, aspirational rather than descriptive, was pretty good, too: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzSviqfj5kQ