July 17, 2019
American Exceptionalism and American Innocence
A People’s History of Fake News from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror
By Roberto Sirvent and Danny Haiphong
New York, Skyhorse Publishing, 2019. 322 pages. ISBN 978-1-5107-4236-9
Reviewed by Joseph Jamison
A vague notion that America is an exceptional country has been in the air a long time. No less a figure than Frederick Engels, the co-founder of scientific socialism, acknowledged something of the kind when he met Americans on a transatlantic journey in 1888, before American exceptionalism assumed its modern form and received a name. Engels wrote in his travel notes:
We usually think of America as a new world, new not merely because of when it was discovered, but new in all its institutions, a world far ahead of us old-fashioned sleepy Europeans, with its disdain for everything traditional handed down from the past, a world entirely built anew on virgin soil by modern people and founded on modern, practical, rational principles. For their part, the Americans strive to confirm us in this opinion. They look down on us with scorn considering us to be sluggish impractical people, with hidebound antiquated prejudices, dreading everything new, while they, the most progressive nation boisterously developing, instantly try out any plan for improvement simply from the standpoint of its practical advantages, and if the plan is found to be good, put it into effect immediately almost the very next day ….
But this splendid new book American Exceptionalism and American Innocence by Roberto Sirvent and Danny Haiphong – a study of a political mythology and its uses — has a completely different target in mind: the modern, reactionary uses of the mythology of American exceptionalism and its twin, American innocence. In modern times, they show, the mythmakers – including Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives – have pressed the concept of American exceptionalism into the service of racism, imperialism, militarism, and capitalism.
Authors Sirvent and Haiphong have done something highly original: to trace the often-subtle interconnection among the many mythologies that sustain an oppressive social order, and the concepts of American exceptionalism and American innocence, which they contend, underlie and link them.
As the title evoking the Howard Zinn classic, A People’s History of the United States, suggests, American Exceptionalism offers an alternative account, a people’s history of a reactionary mythology. History, material conditions, and the conscious work of bourgeois ideologues have embedded the idea of American exceptionalism into the “common sense” of scores of millions of Americans.
Just how topical — and contested — American exceptionalism has become is evident in a recent article announcing a new foreign policy thinktank, the Quincy Institute, which will make the case – unfashionable in Washington DC nowadays — for diplomacy and restraint in US foreign policy.
To voters, however, flying the flag of American exceptionalism isn’t the same as flying the American flag itself. One-third of Americans told EGF [Eurasia Group Foundation] flatly that the United States is “not an exceptional nation.” This was the plurality view among Democrats and people under 30 years old. The rest described America as exceptional, but attributed exceptionalism far more to what the country represents than to the actions it takes for the world. Exceptionalism, in other words, hardly implies a predisposition for military intervention and might well mean the opposite. Increasingly Americans are open to reimagining their country as one nation in the world, not above it. The rising generation is particularly allergic to bromides about virtuous and limitless military deployments. Only 44% of millennials deem it “very important” for the United States to maintain a superior military, according to a Chicago Council on Global Affairs study..
Authors Sirvent and Haiphong note that in August 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton passionately declared to the American Legion, a conservative veterans association:
If there’s one core belief that has guided me and inspired me every step of the way, it is this: The US is the exceptional nation. I believe we are still Lincoln’s last best hope of Earth. We’re still Reagan’s shining city on a hill. We’re still Robert Kennedy’s great, unselfish, compassionate country. And it’s not just that we have the greatest military, or that our economy is larger than any on earth. It’s also the strength of our values, the strength of the American people. Everyone who works hard, dreams bigger and never, ever stops trying to make our country and the world a better place. And part of what makes America an exceptional nation is that we are also an indispensable nation. 
Sirvent and Haiphong choose the following definition of American Exceptionalism:
when we employ the term American exceptionalism we mean the ideological tool used to present and sustain a particular narrative about the US. The narrative… presumes that human history is best understood as a linear progression toward higher stages of civilization, that Western civilization represents the apex of this history, that the United States embodies the best and most advanced stage of Western civilization and therefore human history to date. .
American innocence and American exceptionalism are “dual fantasies”. “American innocence is a trusted ideological partner; the exceptionalism ethos washes away all guilt and accountability for the project’s massive crimes.”  An exceptional nation is by definition an innocent nation. The speech of President George W. Bush soon after the September 11, 2001 attacks illustrated definitional innocence. Bush asked rhetorically, before Congress, why do the perpetrators of 9/11 hate us?
“They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and to assemble and to disagree with each other.” 
The authors draw on a sizable scholarly literature on American exceptionalism, one not well known to most activists. They seek primarily to show the enduring impact of American exceptionalism on ordinary consciousness and popular discourse. Their approach is topical, not theoretical. Their analysis examines the narratives that lead Americans to think that the U.S. is a force for good in the world, regardless of slavery and subsequent forms of racial inequality, the genocide of indigenous people, and the more than a century’s worth of imperialist war that the U.S. has inflicted on the planet.
American Exceptionalism, while not about theory, is informed by theory, by a familiarity with Marxism and anti-imperialism. As well, the authors draw on a wealth of anti-racist and anti-imperialist radical democratic thought. They mainly want to show what American exceptionalism looks like in everyday life, “in the way we consume media, organize our communities, spend our money, or debate US foreign policy”. They write:
By taking a more topical approach to our study, we look at how narratives of exceptionalism and innocence show up in conversations about slavery, Indigenous genocide, the Super Bowl, comic books, human caging, and even our celebrity TV star turned president, Donald Trump. …Our book also takes full aim at Barack Obama, the Broadway musical Hamilton, romantic narratives of racial progress and the “humanitarian” efforts of Bill Gates, Angelina Jolie, and many well-meaning college students hoping to “change the world.” 
The Argument of the Book
There is an inherent connection, they contend, between the unexamined popular belief in American exceptionalism and empire, colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy, especially anti-Black racism. The authors see evidence of American exceptionalism everywhere; some of it subtle, some crude:
Narratives of exceptionalism and innocence are evident in all spheres of American society. They were embedded in Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral slogan Make America Great Again and Hilary Clinton’s rebuttal that “we don’t need to make America great again. America never stopped being great.” More recently, former candidate for US Senate in Alabama, Roy Moore attempted to defend Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan by wishing we could go back to the good ol’ days “a time when families were united — even though we had slavery. They cared for one another. People were strong in the families. Our families were strong. Our country had a direction.” 
How exactly do American exceptionalism and American innocence sustain other imperialist doctrines? Example: The presumption of American innocence underlies “humanitarian intervention,” a doctrine familiar to US antiwar activists who confront it all the time, lately in the case of Venezuela. Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton promotes US military intervention in Venezuela to deal with an “urgent humanitarian crisis”, all the while denying of course that Venezuela’s economic woes are directly caused by US economic warfare against the Venezuelan economy.
Sirvent and Haiphong write of one enthusiast for humanitarian intervention Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the UN under Obama. In her 2002 book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Power paints the US as an innocent bystander to genocide, that ”the problem from hell“ is US passivity and innocent non-involvement. The authors contend,
…. “[Power] disguises American innocence as guilt, to mask the direct role that US imperialism plays in the most heinous crimes around the world.” Power’s book “invites readers to embrace the seductive myth that Americans should have known better by pressuring their government to live up to what America is really about, namely the business of protecting human rights.”
The Organization of the Book
The first section deals with the role of American exceptionalism in distorting historical memory. A central aim of their book is “to confront the reality that violence, genocide, slavery, dispossession, and white supremacy are not aberrations of the US nation-state but central to its identity and structure.” There are chapters on the distortion of the history of the post-1492 conquest and genocide of indigenous peoples of the Western hemisphere; the Revolutionary War, the Second World War, and the Korean War.
The next section focuses on a specific pillar of US imperialism “white supremacy which has taken center stage in mainstream political conversation since the election of Trump,” with chapters on the 2017 struggle over the Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, the destruction of Black wealth, imperialism and the Black Lives Matter movement, the politics of National Football League sports, US “aid imperialism” in Africa and the African-continent-spanning Pentagon spider web AFRICOM, and the hypocrisy of the claim that US foreign policy is centered on human rights.
The final two sections center on American militarism and American capitalism, with chapters, for example, on the corporate media obsession with “Russiagate”, and a fascinating chapter on “the complexity” of trends in the Democratic Party which has shifted to the right on most domestic issues and all foreign policy issues, while somehow maintaining political appeal to women, Blacks, gays, and many union voters.
Roberto Sirvente is a professor of political and social ethics at Hope University in Fullerton, California and a student of liberation theology. Danny Haiphong is an activist and a regular contributor to Black Agenda Report. They have both been clearly enriched by their association with Black Agenda Report, which over the last number of years has become the leading on-line journal of the US Black Left.
The book, written in accessible prose, is meant not for professors and scholars but for a non-specialist, popular, younger readership, for example, community organizers and activists. Among its goals is to develop “a new antiwar consciousness as more young people become conscious of about alternatives to the conditions before them” and “to help inject radical consciousness into the discontent of our times.”
In examining these self-exculpating mythologies of US imperialism, the authors are perhaps on to a wider phenomenon. Do other imperialisms — British, French, Japanese, and so forth — have their own special apologetic mythologies? For example, what about the mightiest of them all until 1945, the British empire, whose defenders employed an arsenal of sophistries to justify its existence to the British people, one even claiming that the empire was acquired “in a fit of absentmindedness.” What about French imperialism whose haughty promoters proclaimed a cultural mission of “la civilisation”?
The great strength of American Exceptionalism is its clarity on how racist US society remains, how deeply infected the consciousness of US whites is by racism, how insidious racism is in the narratives of everyday life and in mythologies used to justify inequality and empire. American exceptionalism and American innocence are used to maintain a racist social order. These mythologies help to manufacture majority consent to that order. “The narrative of American exceptionalism and American innocence views the US as a gradual project in perfecting democracy and equality. The structural roots of white supremacy are effectively erased.”
Compared to whites, oppressed communities, often on the receiving end of state violence, are less susceptible to illusions about American exceptionalism and American innocence. The book’s goal is to amplify the voice of these communities “to share with others what these victims of US imperialism have been saying all along but have not been heard due to the intentional and ruthless suppression of their narratives.”
American Exceptionalism is thoroughly footnoted and indexed.
 In 1888 Engels went on a coach holiday in New York’s State’s Adirondack Mountains. He drafted travel notes for a German socialist publication on the sea voyage back to Britain. The notes were not published in his lifetime. See Letters to Americans, 1848-1995 By Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, New York, International Publishers, 1969, 291-292.
American exceptionalism has had a long and winding etymological journey. The notion can be detected as far back as the 19th century expansionist slogan “Manifest Destiny.” More recently, there was President Reagan’s paean to the US as “a shining city on a hill.” Ironically, the first use of the exact phrase American exceptionalism seemingly occurred in the Communist movement. In debates in the late 1920s, as the US economy boomed, some leaders of the Communist international argued that US capitalism was exempt from the laws of the capitalist system as a whole. Their Comintern opponents rejected this idea as “American Exceptionalism.” The Wall Street stock market crash in October 1929 and the subsequent decade of mass US unemployment settled that ideological dispute, at least for a while.
 “Here’s One Way Democrats Can Defeat Trump: Be Radically Anti-war” by Mark Hannah and Stephen Wertheim, The Guardian (UK) July 1, 2019. The new thinktank reportedly will receive initial funding from unlikely allies, one of the Koch brothers and George Soros. A more hopeful sign is that intervention-opposing historian Andrew Bacevich is a co-founder.
 American Exceptionalism, 196-197.
 Ibid., 4
 Ibid., 172.
 Ibid., xix
 Ibid., xvi.
 Ibid., xxvii.
 Ibid., 53.