So now we are treated to a squabble between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin about the nature of exceptionalism.
Obama says the USA is an exceptional nation, with exceptional people, because of our willingness to consider military action against Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons against insurgent forces.
Putin replies that it’s dangerous for any nation or its people to consider themselves exceptional.
So there we go, as if what the world needs now – in addition to our very real troubles – is a high-level dialogue about a word and its relationship to foreign policy.
As I read about these two politicians and their exchanges, my mind slipped back many years to the time when the term “exceptional” was applied to persons – notably children – who had Down syndrome or other afflictions that placed them outside that catchall zone called “normal.” As I remember it, you used “exceptional” to avoid calling someone “retarded” or even “handicapped.” Society has often searched for euphemisms; these softer, circular words should be welcomed, I believe, if they help ease the pain that is associated with a physical, intellectual or developmental misfortune. Today, I believe, the adjective “challenged” is used to describe those persons who – for whatever reason – are not fully equipped to join the front ranks of the combatants on some of life’s battlefields.
My point is this: “exceptional” is inherently a neutral term. Many people, apparently including Obama and Putin, choose to assign meanings such as “superior,” “outstanding” or “far above average.” A couple of other sources do likewise, but the majority of them list as acceptable synonyms the words uncommon, unusual, extraordinary, abnormal, aberrant, bizarre, remarkable, strange or simply “forming an exception.” None of these are indisputably positive or necessarily negative.
It’s fun to imagine the reactions that might pop up if the above-listed alternatives were offered in lieu of the term “exceptional”: “My wife is bizarre.” “My husband is abnormal.” “My boy friend’s face is uncommon.” “Maude, your chocolate cake was aberrant.” “I read your research paper, and found it strange.”
Okay, okay – enough of this semantic quibbling. I hope you’ll agree that what Obama and Putin were really talking about was the tendency of the USA, or any nation, to regard itself as special, or superior, or really hot stuff. Putin feels that such an attitude could be dangerous, and I can see his point.
A person who feels that he (or she) is exceptional may be absolutely correct in his estimation of his abilities or qualities. He may believe, quite rightly, that he is somehow above the herd and therefore capable of operating outside the established guidelines. But that belief, in and of itself, does not (and should not) entitle him to wander off the reservation and enact his own policies.
Why not? Reason No. 1: Assuming he is exceptional – even in a beneficial way – he is still a member of a team, whether the team be a football squad, a city commission, a family, a nation of voters or the entire human race. His actions will have consequences for those other members. A personal sense of exceptionalism should not be the sole, or principal, motive for moving forward.
Reason No. 2: He may be mistaken in his self-judgment. He could be wrong. He might not be nearly as hot a ticket as he thinks he is. Like alcohol, caffeine and flattery, exceptionalism can be a heady brew once it starts rattling around the brain. It can easily lead to arrogance and the deadly, destructive sin of self-righteousness.
Let’s look at two exceptional persons. The physicist Albert Einstein is a splendid example. As a young clerk, using few tools besides his own brain, he arrived at conclusions that changed world history. At the opposite end of the “exceptional” scale we find Lee Harvey Oswald. He was exceptionally skilled at using a rifle to hit a moving target, and at outwitting the U.S. Secret Service as he chose his vantage point on that terrible day in Dallas.
Any grab bag listing of exceptional humans would probably include the names of Shakespeare, Hitler, Mohammed Ali, Genghis Khan, Meryl Streep, Charlemagne, Michael Jackson, Michelangelo, Madame Curie, Stalin, Moses, ad infinitum. History is replete with exceptional humans, ranging from bums to saints. By acknowledging that rather obvious fact, I hope we can lay to rest the notion that personal or national exceptionalism, whether real or imagined, should be a springboard for undertaking any course of action.
If President Obama finally intervenes with military action against the Syrian government, he may very well have justifiable reasons for doing so. But I hope American exceptionalism is not one of them. It just won’t hold water.
Bob Driver is a former columnist with the Clearwater Sun. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.