President Barack Obama addresses the UN General Assembly, Tuesday, September 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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“But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”
— Barack Obama, address to the nation on Syria, September 10, 2013
Let’s be Americans, which means being exceptional, which also means being honest in ways inconceivable to the rest of humanity. So here’s the truth of it: the American exceptionalism sweepstakes really do matter. Here. A lot.
Barack Obama is only the latest in a jostling crowd of presidential candidates, presidential wannabes, major politicians and minor figures of every sort, not to speak of a raging horde of neocons and pundits galore, who have felt compelled in recent years to tell us and the world just how exceptional the last superpower really is. They tend to emphasize our ability to use this country’s overwhelming power, especially the military variety, for the global good—to save children and other deserving innocents. This particularly American aptitude for doing good forcibly, by killing others, is considered an incontestable fact of earthly life needing no proof. It is well known, especially among our leading politicians, that Washington has the ability to wield its military strength in ways that are unimaginably superior to any other power on the planet.
The well-deserved bragging rights to American exceptionalism are no small matter in this country. It should hardly be surprising, then, how visceral is the distaste when any foreigner—say, Russian President Vladimir Putin—decides to appropriate the term and use it to criticize us. How visceral? Well, the sort of visceral that, as Democratic Senator Bob Menendez put it recently, leaves us barely repressing the urge to “vomit.”
Now, it’s not that we can’t take a little self-criticism. If you imagine an over-muscled, over-armed guy walking into a room and promptly telling you and anyone else in earshot how exceptionally good he is when it comes to targeting his weapons, and you notice a certain threatening quality about him, and maybe a hectoring, lecturing tone in his voice, it’s just possible that you might be intimidated or irritated by him. You might think: narcissist, braggart or blowhard. If you were the president of Russia, you might say, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”