Having read the New York Times daily since I entered graduate school in 1950, I must admit that Vladimir Putin as an Op Ed critic was a surly prize. (Click here.) Especially since his indictment of American exceptionalism has been the basic theme of the courses I taught in American Studies and journalism for the past 60 years— except, unlike Putin, I want Americans to ask forgiveness for our abuse of the Indian, the black and (alas, more and more) the poor.
I had made my students restless as I explained the singular nature of American Literature (false theology in the 17th Century, politics in the 18th, and no belles lettres to speak of until writers like Emerson, Whitman and Mark Twain showed up in the middle of the 19th). The Puritan theology, contending we were God’s special people, was the worse falsehood America ever subscribed to.
What the undereducated Putin doesn’t recognize is that almost all the European powers followed the same shabby faith as they expanded to rule the underdeveloped world: Portugal, Spain, Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium all exploited the Third Worlders. Russia itself was on such a prowl at least since Peter the Great.
Putin has already forgotten the exceptionalism that Karl Marx wished on European culture but only Russia embraced so recklessly for three generations— say, from 1919 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Asian and Eastern Europeans are still trying to follow Putin’s exceptionalism, except that mostly their efforts are a flop, like the horrifying Assad-induced national suicide we’re observing in Syria. Such slow suicides have corrupted the world since its human beginnings, but today’s means are infinitely more damaging.
In such a hectic century— when exceptionalist Israelis bomb Syria because they fear an atom bomb and fantasize about doing the same against Iran— we must congratulate both Russia and America for reducing their atomic hoards. Exceptionally civilized, I’d say.
We need more of such responsible discourse. It makes you want to believe we will survive if exceptionalism finally becomes passé.♦
To read a related commentary by Robert Zaller, click here.
To read responses, click here.