Today we got to enjoy Vladimir Putin’s critique of American exceptionalism at the New York Times:
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.
Putin was responding to this passage from Obama’s pointless Syria address on September 10:
America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. 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, who has long postured as a lofty Citizen of the World who finds Americans’ belief in their exceptional status quaint and, well, unexceptional (“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism”) is not the guy you want arguing this point with Vladimir Putin, and so far he has shown no inclination to do so.
He doesn’t understand the concept anyway. He only used the phrase because he wanted to flatter his audience. He’s convinced voters will let him get away with almost anything if he pats them on the head and tells them how special they are. In the lines Putin was responding to, Obama says we can’t be the world’s policeman… and then tells us that we have to be the world’s policemen, because we can keep our own children from being gassed to death by stopping bad guys from doing such things to their own people. It was all just meaningless pabulum designed to make his crusade for war in Syria look like a moral imperative, of such urgency that he completely abandoned it once his idiotic Secretary of State gave the Syrians and Russians the rhetorical opening they needed to shut him down.
What makes America exceptional is not our alleged duty to intervene in certain handpicked foreign crises, where the atrocities were committed with certain particularly unsavory murder weapons. At its root, America is defined by her exceptional faith.
That’s not just religious faith, although we have a rich tradition of religious belief and tolerance as well. It is faith in the individual citizen that illuminates our principles, including religious tolerance. Barack Obama’s nearly complete lack of such faith makes him ill-equipped to debate American exceptionalism with Vladimir Putin. After all, Putin was virtually quoting Obama’s own words back at him. The current President’s entire philosophy is built on a ruling-class worldview of the American population as a collection of sweet victims in need of rescue and callous predators in need of punishment. It would be fascinating if he could be forced to sit down and name one thing he thinks the private sector does better than the government, or does better without government interference. If he were not allowed to rise until he gave an answer, I suspect he would crumble to dust in that chair.
His wife just enlisted NBC News to hector American citizens for not drinking enough water. It’s a mini-crusade with shaky medical justifications, but the important thing is the assertion – with the enthusiastic cooperation of a major media outlet – that many of us aren’t living right, and the First Mother needs to set us straight. There is no aspect of your life the Obamas don’t think they have a right, and a duty, to become involved in.
Faith in the individual is the key to restraining the power of government. If the population is viewed as a mixture of hapless children and dastardly villains, there is no moral argument against unlimited State power. Adults cannot, in good conscience, leave children to their own dangerous devices. C.S. Lewis warned that “tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive,” since “those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their consciences.” Faith is the antidote to that deathless sense of domineering patronage.
Liberty is the province of adults. It comes inevitably with responsibility, long recognized as an adult virtue. Childhood is defined by the whole or partial absence of responsibility; we grow up on the day that we are judged fully accountable for our actions. The burden of responsibility is a gesture of respect. One obviously does not bestow such a burden on someone presumed incapable of handling it.
Respected citizens will, by definition, have a humble government. Freedom is a limited resource, consumed by growing government until the notion of humility becomes ridiculous. Instead, it is the citizens who are expected to be humble and abase themselves before the ruling class, facing stern castigation for their impudence if they resist its demands. How dare you refuse to pay more taxes, or ask the State to spend less money? How dare you insist on the repeal of a failed program which has greatly exceeded its cost projections, while failing to deliver on its promises? The Obama-sized State does not humbly ask permission for the authority and resources to perform essential tasks. Instead, we are expected to prepare a good excuse for why we should retain each scrap of independence, with our skeptical overlords dubious that we can offer any reason beyond blind greed.
We’re always on the defensive against government power these days, fighting desperate actions to hold each last bit of free ground, with no hope of reclaiming what has been taken from us. That’s the exact opposite of true American exceptionalism: the unique faith in the individual as master of his life and commerce, with every test of liberty beginning in his favor, unless the State could make a compelling case for the expansion of its authority to address its vital duties. From that simple, transcendent faith comes every other virtue of the American republic, including capitalism, in which free people are trusted to make the voluntary choices that generate wealth beyond the dreams of central planners. There is no way to have the other exceptional virtues of America without capitalism, and its attendant characteristics of light regulation, modest taxes, and free markets for both labor and goods. A government that doesn’t trust its people to spend their own money, sell their own labor, and invest their own resources does not have adequate faith in them. And if it won’t let the markets run their course, it doesn’t respect people enough to let them take responsibility for their investments.
It would be nice to have a President who could explain that to Vladimir Putin, with passion and eloquence, or even one who could fake it reasonably well.