During the thick of the crisis over Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own people, when the U.S. was threatening to take unilateral against the Assad regime, Russian president Vladimir Putin chastised his U.S. counterpart for invoking the idea of “American exceptionalism.” In an op-edit article for the New York Times, Putin wrote, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” Putin was referring to a speech by President Obama justifying possible military action against Syria on the grounds that America occupied an exceptional position in the world. Commentators were quick to point out that Putin, a former KGB officer -- whose preferred method of dealing with political opponents was to throw them in jail or worse -- was hardly credible when occupying the moral high ground, particularly while also denying that Assad had used chemical weapons. And yet the message, if not the messenger, is well worth pondering.
As it happens, Putin was not the first Russian leader to take exception to the notion of American exceptionalism. In 1929, Joseph Stalin criticized American Communist Party leader Jay Lovestone for the “heresy” of suggesting that the U.S. capitalism might be immune to historical forces that Marxists believed would inevitably lead to revolution. Stalin may have been the first to use the term “American exceptionalism” in rejecting the idea. However, the concept was hardly new. De Tocqueville touched on it in his classic work Democracy in America, published in two volumes between 1835 and 1840. One of the features that made America exceptional, de Tocqueville wrote, was its “strictly puritanical origins.” The Puritans themselves were convinced they had undertaken something exceptional. Even before landing in the New World on board the Arabella, Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop preached a sermon in which he likened the new venture to a “city upon a hill” – a phrase borrowed from the Sermon on the Mount and later appropriated by various politicos, mostly conservatives. The Puritans strongly identified with God’s chosen people in the Old Testament, who had ventured into the wilderness in search of the Promised Land.
Those who embrace the concept of American exceptionalism point out that, unlike any other country in the world, America is organized around a common idea rather than a common heritage or ethnic origin. The idea, as Lincoln expressed it in the Gettysburg Address, is that we are a nation "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” As a result, the historical forces that normally determine the fate of nations supposedly do not apply. Just as Marxists believed a proletarian revolution was the culmination of history, proponents of American exceptionalism believe in the inevitability of the American experiment.
Why should we expect that a nation that believes the laws of history do not apply to it would behave any better than individuals who believe the laws of humanity do not apply to them? Certainly the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who were brought to America in chains were unlikely to be moved by high-flown rhetoric about freedom and equality, to say nothing of the people who were already here when the Puritans landed. Governor Winthrop wasted little time after arriving in Massachusetts before declaring that Native Americans had no legal claim to their land because they had not “subdued” it. Exceptionalism was the guiding principle behind Manifest Destiny, a concept first articulated during the administration of Andrew Jackson in the 19th century to justify the taking of territory belonging to others. Now that the U.S. operates on a global stage, American exceptionalism is invoked whenever we wish to have our way with other sovereign nations.
The excesses of American exceptionalism should not blind us to the fact that this nation is truly exceptional in many ways, and for millions of immigrants it has, in fact, been a shining city on a hill. But as Governor Winthrop made clear in his sermon en route to the New World, holding yourself up as exceptional means you also are held to a higher standard. Like the ancient Israelites, the Puritans believe they were bound to their Lord by a covenant that gave them God’s favor in return for their obedience. Winthrop quoted the Prophet Amos, who brought God’s judgment down upon the people of Israel: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore will I punish you for your transgressions."
Amos, the earliest of the biblical prophets, confronted the ruling elite in Israel at a time when the kingdom was at the height of its prosperity in the eighth century BCE. He was not a professional prophet (there were schools for such things at the time). He was a simple herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees, who suddenly showed up at the religious center in Bethel and proclaimed, “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion.” He then set about to disabuse the rich and powerful of the notion that their good fortune was a reflection of God’s favor toward them. The kingdoms of Israel (Judah and Samaria) were no better than surrounding nations, which would be punished for their transgressions. Israelites had looked forward to a coming Day of the Lord, when God would requite them against their enemies. But Amos warned that the Lord would also settle accounts with them. Their outward displays of religious devotion could not hide the fact that they were greedy and corrupt, and their worldly success had been achieved by oppressing the poor. “Let judgment roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream,” Amos cried – a refrain that Martin Luther King incorporated into his “I Have a Dream” speech more than 2,700 years later.
Amos, of course, would have known nothing about American exceptionalism per se. And yet his peroration against the ancient Israelites seems to reach across the centuries. There is a common misconception that prophets are in the business of forecasting the future. You can understand why, given Amos’ warning that “an adversary shall surround the land, and bring down your defenses from you, and your strongholds shall be plundered." Within 40 years, Israel had been brought down by the Assyrians. But Assyria was a threat in Amos’ day, and it didn’t require a fortuneteller to see where things were headed. You just had to be able to see clearly.
With those schools for prophets to draw upon, you would think that Amos would have plenty of company in calling Israel to account. But he was quickly isolated and sent back where he came from. What set Amos apart from the professional prophets of his time was his willingness to speak the truth to power. People like him are always few and far between. Certainly, we have many critics now. But not since Martin Luther King have we had anyone who not only spoke the truth to power but who also spoke with such power of truth. It is no surprise that King found inspiration in the Prophet Amos, nor is it surprising that their lives both ended violently. If you dare to shine a light in darkness, don’t be surprised if the forces of darkness try to extinguish the light.