Having read the New York Times daily since I entered graduate school in 1950, I must admit that Vladimir Putin as a (h)Op (h)Ed) critic was a surly prize. Especially since his indictment of American Exceptionalism has been the basic theme of my courses in American Studies and journalism for the past sixty years. Except, unlike Putin, I want us to ask forgiveness for our abuse of the Indian, the black, and (alas, more and more) the poor.
The uppity 1% astonishes itself (and US) by rewarding itself 500 X’s the rest of US. Exceptionally greedy I would call it! And of course Putin is correct in deploring how that “hot” money has been scooped up in Hawaii, the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, and God knows where next. And most of the world’s armaments are made in America, a dilemma that Dwight Eisenhower warned US about—after winning the Good War he led against Germany and Japan.
I had made my students restless as I explained the singular nature of American Lit (false theology in the 17th century, politics in the eighteenth, and no belles lettres to speak of until writers like Emerson, Whitman and Mark Twain showed up in the middle of the nineteenth.) The false 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 all exploited the Third Worlders. Russia itself was on such a prowl at least since Peter the Great.
In America this Exceptionalism foolishly “legitimized” our destruction of the indigenous Indians, doomed if they survived to the incarceration of the evil innovation of the reservation. The same foul foolishness “justified” the enslavement of four million African slaves so we could create a Cotton Kingdom in the South to supply the factories of the North (i.e. when they weren’t busy shipping slaves to Southern ports. Most of those slowly “liberated” slaves remain at the bottom of the allegedly open ladder to American success. And after a brief blooming of white families into the middle class, the robber bankers were federally bailed out to the 1% that now rides roughshod over the 99%, 500 to 1. How pathetic. Three centuries of internal exploitation!
Putin has already forgotten the Exceptionalism that Karl Marx wished on European culture that only Russia followed recklessly for three generations, say, 1919 to the Falling of the Berlin Wall. Asian and Eastern Europeans are still trying to follow Putin’s Exceptionalism, except that mostly their efforts are a flop, like the horrifying Assad suicide we’re observing in Syria. These slow suicides have been corrupting the world since its human beginnings. Only today’s means are infinitely more damaging.
Think. In 1492, Spanish Catholics were killing Jews if they wouldn’t fake Christianization. Now the Jews regard themselves as the most Exceptionalist of all God’s creature. So much so that they once released a thousand Palestinian prisoners when a single Israeli was released. Could any non-Jew ever be so arrogant? Now Netanyahoo violates their two state agreement by building Jewish settlement after settlement on Palestinian land. They bombed Syria when they feared an atom bomb. They fantasize about doing the same against Iran.
In such a hectic century 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 is finally passé.
Another version of this essay is published by Broad Street Review.