Thursday, September 18, 2014
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The unexceptional Vladimir V. Putin

Putin tries to lecture America -- and comes up unbelievably small.

The unexceptional Vladimir V. Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)

There's an old saying that great minds think alike. But what can you say when newly minted New York Times op-ed star Vladimir V. Putin, who moonlights as the president of Russia, and I both write on the same night on the same topic: American exceptionalism. In case you've been in a Chip Kelly-induced catatonic state the last 24 hours, here's what Syria's Newest Top Peacemaker had to say:

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.

As I mentrioned yesterday, there are different ways to be exceptional. Putin's view of exceptionalism is the 180-degree opposite of the Sarah Palin wing of the Republican Party -- and yet both manage to be 100 percent wrong. In the Tea Party view, America is more exceptional because....um, God. It's a comforting notion for millions of people who so desperately want to believe that the United States is not great because of the things we do but because of who we are -- for folks who don't want to think much deeper about international affairs than their neighborhood Chinese takeout menu.

In Putin's view, there's no such thing as American exceptionalism because...well, hey, no one's really exceptional. The Russia president who launched his career as a secret agent for a nation that officially endorsed atheism is here now to tell us that "we must not forget that God created us equal." That part, I agree with. But life is all about the 99.999 percent that comes after that. You've been born equal, but are you going to be like everyone else? Or are you going to be....you know. Exceptional.

Let's look at the equally-born author of this piece, Vladimir V. Putin. In 2000, at the dawn of a new millennium, Putin was given an opportunity that men have killed for, literally. He was elected president of one of the world's most powerful nations, which had been experimenting with democracy for eight years after centuries of czars, totalitarian dictators, and some of the worst rulers that humankind has known. It was a chance to make a long-closed society more open, more free, more egalitarian.

That would have been exceptional.

Instead, it's taken Putin just 13 years to send Russia hurtling backwards. Human rights groups say Putin's Russia is one of the worst countries in the world for freedom of the press, with scores of journalists detained or beaten or even murdered under mysterious circumstances. Russian authorities have clamped down on the right of legitimate protest, as the members of the band Pussy Riot who were sentenced to prison for protesting Putin could tell you. At a time when much of the rest of the world in embracing gay rights, Putin's government has criminalized pro-gay activism. And so his op-ed today is chock full of hypocrisy. Criticizing the United States for violating international law is a nervy move from a man who invaded the nation of Georgia five years ago, in violation of international law, and who still has troops there today.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Putin has shown himself to be no different from the czars or from totalitarian despots like Josef Stalin. In other words, a completely unexceptional man.

God, or whatever cosmic force you believe in, challenges us at birth to do great things. And we have been blessed, to borrow Putin's terminology, by so many people who have done exactly that, who've endured jail or even death to fight for the liberties of others. America has had such exceptional citizens -- we just honored one the other day in Martin Luther King. And so has Russia, with its jailed dissidents like the late Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov. Putin knows this because it was his KGB that locked them up. Putin is, to use a phrase I heard somewhere recently, unbelievably small.

If Putin truly wants to work toward peace in Syria, God bless him. As for America's problems, he didn't exactly tell us anything we didn't already know. We are working on them, so spare us the lectures. To modify the words of a much better essayist named Ronnie Van Zandt, I hope Vladimir V. Putin will remember, that an exceptional American don't need him around, anyhow.

William B. Bunch is the president of Attytood.

About this blog
Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, blogs about his obsessions, including national and local politics and world affairs, the media, pop music, the Philadelphia Phillies, soccer and other sports, not necessarily in that order.

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