When Indian-American Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America on Sunday night, minutes after performing a traditional Bollywood dance, Vladimir Putin along with the rest of the world got a good long look at American Exceptionalism.
Just days after Russia's President, likely with the help of a crafty PR firm, penned a column for the New York Times dismissing American Exceptionalism, we proved undeniably exceptional once again on the most unusual of stages, at the Miss America Pageant.
Watching from the crowd was Davuluri's father, an Indian immigrant and OBYN at St. Joseph's Hospital in New York. His rise to success through hard work and education, as opposed to a restrictive caste system, is exceptional. The fact that his Miss America daughter, a University of Michigan grad, also wants to be a physician is exceptional.
As Davuluri's parents, who both immigrated to the U.S. in 1981, celebrated their daughter's fantastic accomplishment on national television for all the world to see, Putin's claim that it is "extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional" was affirmed. Indeed, when a country collectively believes it is exceptional and challenges itself to the highest standards generation after generation, dangerously beautiful things are possible.
Mr. Putin has it all wrong, we are not exceptional because we think we are better than other countries. We are exceptional because of who we aspire to be. For generations it has been our self-fulfilling prophecy. We aspire to be the freest country in the world, to give opportunity to individuals to shine and to err on the side of good as often as possible.
We are not exceptional because we are perfect, we certainly are not. We are exceptional because we have proven willing to fix ourselves when we are broken. To right a wrong and move forward stronger for it.
We are not exceptional because our Congress is the most productive in the world, in fact, it is far from productive at all. But we are exceptional because we know that in time our Congress will be replaced with more reasonable people who will take care of business.
We are exceptional because we are never satisfied with mediocrity. Until now every generation of Americans has labored and sacrificed in order to hand a stronger, more prosperous country down to their children. But unfortunately Mr. Putin's attitude about American Exceptionalism is shared by cynical American apologists and some disgruntled young Americans who have allowed political dysfunction to jade their perspective on the greatness of our country.
I would encourage them to reconsider the exceptionality of the standard we have set the next time they use a microwave, fly in an airplane, watch television, talk on an iPhone, read Faulkner, listen to Beyonce, play football or apply a Band-Aid.
But even our economic and military might don't reveal how exceptional we really are. Our aspirations to create a better world do that. We have never taken more land from another country than we needed to bury our dead. We have given billions upon billions to see a world with clean water and without AIDs. And in the last two decades Americans have adopted 60,000 children out of hopelessness in Russia. That is, until Mr. Putin barred U.S. citizens from adopting Russian orphans in March of this year to make a political statement.
When we do entertain a debate on whether or not America is in fact exceptional, we should not forget the intentions of those who see the world so differently than we do. Mr. Putin does not endorse American Exceptionalism because it undermines everything he stands for. Nationalism is to him what individualism is to us. The KGB still runs in his blood. And the blood of 300,000 Chechens is still on his hands. He simply lacks the credibility to lecture us.
But as long as we aspire to be the diverse, forward thinking country where Nina Davuluri, the daughter of Indian immigrants, can be crowned our foremost beauty queen, it will be tough to argue against how exceptional we really are.
Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...