American exceptionalism: It’s a trust, not a birthright

sprovost@thetribunenews.comSeptember 15, 2013 

Steve Provost

Whatever one thinks of Vladimir Putin’s op-ed piece in The New York Times, he appears to have gotten people’s attention … and touched a nerve. Not just about Syria, but perhaps even more so about the concept of American exceptionalism.

CNN’s headline Thursday on the subject put it succinctly: “Putin to America: You’re not special.”

Of course, that sort of thing is going to raise more bristles than a whole prickle of porcupines. House Speaker John Boehner said he was insulted by Putin’s statements, and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said he “almost wanted to vomit.”

What is it that got them up in arms?

Putin closed his op-ed piece with a plea for equality, stating that “it is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

It’s easy to dismiss Putin because of his own obvious agenda and, in places, self-serving statements. He’s disingenuous at some points and patronizing in others. But he may have a point.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that (as it almost always is). It all hinges on how we view exceptionalism. Is it an inherent quality that gives a certain group of people license to impose its will on others? Or is it the situation that’s exceptional?

In the 2002 film “Spider-Man,” Ben Parker (perhaps paraphrasing Voltaire) told his nephew Peter: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Parker had been made exceptional by the bite of a radioactive spider. He had been given great power, not because of anything he’d done or deserved, but simply because he’d been in a certain place at a certain time. Peter Parker wasn’t exceptional, but the power he received courtesy of that pesky arachnid sure was.

Was it the power that made him truly exceptional, or was it how he chose to use it?

The problem with viewing one’s self as inherently exceptional, or special, is that it leads to the inevitable conclusion that others are inherently inferior. This “chosen people” idea has, historically, led people from a host of nations and cultures to commit crimes and atrocities against people they viewed as second-class citizens. Our landscape is littered with burial grounds that are the product of holy wars, invasions and genocides that were based on the concept of supposed racial, national or religious superiority.

The ancient Hebrews sought to exterminate the Amalekites; the Germans sought to wipe out the Jews, the Roma and others during World War II; the United States pursued a policy of “manifest destiny” that led to the deaths of countless Native Americans; the Hutus of Rwanda massacred the Tutsis; Turks slaughtered Armenians; Western slave traders did to African peoples that same thing Ariel Castro did to three women in Ohio recently — and kept doing it for centuries.

Some Americans protest that they shouldn’t be blamed for the ills of slavery because they weren’t even alive back then. That’s a valid point. But by the same token, we shouldn’t be taking credit for a political system that was designed and implemented long before we came into the world. Like Peter Parker, we certainly find ourselves in an exceptional situation — but not because we are in any sense inherently exceptional.

If our policies are better, as Obama asserted in his speech, they aren’t better because they were made in the U.S.A., they’re better because they work. They’re more effective, efficient, compassionate or reliable. Fill in the blank with the appropriate adjective. If Russia or Israel or Syria or China or Switzerland had come up with the same ideas, they’d be just as impressive.

The United States is a great country. Other nations can learn from us in many ways, but by the same token, there are plenty of things we can learn from them. There’s no shame in that, and it shouldn’t be a threat to our ego, but rather an opportunity to learn and, ultimately, contribute to our own exceptional situation.

It’s OK not to be Superman. To make mistakes. To acknowledge them.

That’s what character is about. We don’t inherit character, we build it through action.

When people find themselves in an exceptional situation, whether as a result of their own actions or random chance, that’s where the “great responsibility” kicks in.

If we view exceptionalism not as a birthright but a trust, we stop looking at ourselves as superior and, consequently, stop looking at others as inferior. We start assessing actions instead of condemning humans.

And we begin to listen.

Steve Provost is a Tribune copy editor.

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