Thursday, September 12, 2013

Putin's Op-Ed and the Russian Origins of the Term "American Exceptionalism"

I'm sure by now that you have seen the epic piece of concern trolling that was Vladimir Putin's op-ed in the New York Times.  Although Putin is in no position to talk about human rights, Obama isn't really either, so the op-ed does succeed in showing Americans how other countries must feel when U.S. politicians lecture them on human rights.

Putin's op-ed ended with a critique of Obama's belief in American exceptionalism:
My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
A Russian critiquing an American for his belief in the exceptionalism of his own country? That sounds familiar---because it reflects the origins of the term.

The idea of "American exceptionalism," of course, extends much farther back than the term itself. You see echoes of it in the "City upon a Hill" rhetoric of John Winthrop in Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s. You also see echoes of it in Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America in the 1830s.  The idea of "manifest destiny" has also been dominant throughout the country's history and has factored prominently into political rhetoric. However, the term "American exceptionalism" hails from 1929 and was coined by Joseph Stalin.

Terrence M. McCoy, Gordon Grey Fellow of International Journalism at Columbia University, summarized the origins of the term in The Atlantic last year:
In the 1920s, the lingering specter of World War I and austere German reparations battered Europe's market-based economy, giving rise to class tension and stark inequality. For worn-down workers, socialism and communism started sounding like pretty good ideas. A world revolution -- indeed, the rise of the proletariat -- seemed possible, and the Communist International was stoked.

But the Americans just wouldn't fall into line. The United States had long since passed the United Kingdom as the world's largest industrial power, but hadn't yet plunged into the Great Depression. To members of the U.S. Communist Party, it was a paradox. Why, in the what appeared to be the purest capitalist Western economy wasn't there any desire for egalitarianism? Had Marx been wrong when he wrote socialism would, inexorably and universally, emerge from the ruins of capitalism?

America's radical left considered the national condition, contrasted it with Europe, and concluded leftism would be a hard sell stateside thanks to characteristics forged along the frontier. Americans were different: individualistic, profit-crazed, broadly middle class, and as tolerant of inequality as they were reverent of economic freedom. The nation had "unlimited reserves of American imperialism," lamented Communist propaganda at the time.

In 1929, Communist leader Jay Lovestone informed Stalin in Moscow that the American proletariat wasn't interested in revolution. Stalin responded by demanding that he end this "heresy of American exceptionalism." And just like that, this expression was born. What Lovestone meant, and how Stalin understood it, however, isn't how Gingrich and Romney (or even Obama) frame it. Neither Lovestone or Stalin felt that the United States was superior to other nations -- actually, the opposite. Stalin "ridiculed" America for its abnormalities, which he cast under the banner of "exceptionalism," Daniel Rodgers, a professor of history at Princeton, said in an interview.
Stalin, to say the least, wasn't happy with Lovestone's news. "Who do you think you are?" he shouted, according to Ted Morgan's biography of Lovestone. "(Leon) Trotsky defied me. Where is he? (Grigory) Zinoviev defied me. Where is he? (Nikolai) Bukharin defied me. Where is he? And you! Who are you? Yes, you will go back to America. But when you get back there, nobody will know you except your wives."

As the Great Depression enveloped the United States, Stalin's argument -- if not his bluster -- seemed well grounded. "Exceptionalism was a disease, a chronic disease," wrote communist S. Milgrom of Chicago in 1930. "The storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism," the American Communist Party declared at its convention in April 1930.
(Emphasis added) Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has a good piece up as well on the role and development of the concept of "American exceptionalism" in post-war intellectual thought in the U.S., in which the term gained the positive connotation it has today.

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