In an extraordinary op-ed in today's New York Times, Russian President Vladimir Putin – a former KGB agent – lectures our country and our president about many things, finishing with rather patronizing remarks about American exceptionalism and the equality of men.Writes Putin:
"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."
First, although his own record deviates profoundly from his stated belief that "God created us equal," his assertion is itself correct. However, it is noteworthy that last year, the same New York Times that today published the ultimate oligarch's exhortation to the land of the free detailed his wealthy lifestyle, which makes that of multiple czars combined seem minor. Consider:
"Among the 20 residences available to the Russian president are Constantine Palace, a Czarist-era estate on the Gulf of Finland restored at the cost of tens of millions of dollars, a ski lodge in the Caucasus Mountains and a Gothic revival palace in the Moscow region. The president also has at his disposal 15 helicopters, 4 spacious yachts and 43 aircraft, including the main presidential jet, an Ilyushin whose interior is furnished with gold inlay by artisans from the city of Sergiyev Posad, an Airbus and a Dassault Falcon. The 43 aircraft alone are worth an estimated $1 billion".
Some animals truly are more equal than others.
Second, the assertion of human equality is made uniquely in America's founding document, the Declaration of Independence. It is a claim at once so extraordinary and so vigorous that no other nation had previously made it or sought to live by it. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln argued, "Every nation has a central idea from which all its minor thoughts radiate." Lincoln said that this idea of human equality as articulated in the Declaration has an obvious, world-changing meaning: All human beings have equal value before God, and thus should have equal standing in the polity and before the law.
No other nation had ever been consciously founded on such an assertion. It is both a theological and a political claim, encapsulating the integrating and elevating belief that human rights and dignity are grounded in a moral decision and purposeful act of God, not the beneficence of the state or even the consensus of the people.
This single assertion is the foundation of American exceptionalism. In asserting we are exceptional, we are not claiming we are better than anyone else. Instead, we are claiming that everyone, everywhere, has intrinsic and equal worth because he or she has been so created by the Lord of the universe. That claim, and the way in which we imperfectly but steadily have sought to live it out, makes America so exceptional as to be the blazing star of liberty and justice in a world of caste, racism, oppression, and oligarchism. Even someone of Putin's modest perspicacity should be able to grasp that.