An Overview of American Exceptionalism and American Innocence
In what was one of the most prolonged reviews I have ever conducted (from July, 2018, through April, 2019), I read a draft of American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror, sent to me by one of its authors, Roberto Sirvent.
I was also familiar with the work of Danny Haiphong, who has written some very valuable articles for Black Agenda Report, one of the most important American news and commentary sites still in existence.
Nine months of reading and note taking—when I had promised a quick review within a couple of weeks. The time spent going through the book slowly was well worth the investment.
(Note: The page numbers cited in this review come from the draft, not from the volume in its published form.)
Roberto Sirvent and Danny Haiphong have produced something that is itself exceptional, and fairly novel, and yet they do not boast of the fact: what they have essentially done is to create a history of US imperialism that is not confined to the sphere of foreign policy and international relations, but is also deeply grounded in US social relations, popular culture, public rituals, and national institutions.
They prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that to study empire you need not go far away, over there, and no one research method will suffice. Their sources come from near and far, ranging from sporting events and video games to novels, songs, and history texts. The dividing line between foreign and domestic, and between politics, the economy, diplomacy, the military, etc., are all productively blurred, erased even—and this is done without creating a confusing mess. Instead, the method produces some particularly clear insights.
On that basis, this could have been a book written for academic audiences, but it is not: it is explicitly intended for members of the general public, and activists in particular. On the other hand, the book does not simply pander to contemporary social movements, many of which are single-issue movements; instead, the book alerts them to their own complicity in upholding American exceptionalism and US interventionism. While the book does not try to pose as either bi-partisan or non-partisan, it has ample criticisms and lessons for Americans on all sides of the imagined political spectrum.
The fabricated partisan divide in the US is a tool essential for the maintenance and reproduction of doctrinal purity, because it helps to ensure that one or the other party will always shoulder the responsibility for empire, and for the continuing mystification of doctrine. The struggle facing the left is about how to detach (momentarily) popular social movements from either an unquestioning commitment to US dominance, or to at least discontinue their silent consent with empire. For some on the right, there is likewise a continuing problem of how to disentangle nationalism from exceptionalism, to rescue the republic and take the US off its imperial path.
While this book is mostly written from the left, and probably for the left, it can sometimes travel over the obstacles put in the path of critical reason and which help to legitimize the partisan divide. This book does not shy away from tackling events, ideas, or personalities popular at one time or another with either the right or the left (and sometimes both). One of the key examples of this approach involves the authors concentrating their critical skills on phenomena such as humanitarian intervention (maintained by both parties in power), and popular American notions about saving the world.
Likewise, Obama is criticized as much as Trump, Broadway as much as the Super Bowl. In fact, the book challenges social justice movements to realize that they cannot be feminist, anti-racist, or pro-peace, while remaining married to ideas of the inherent superiority of the US possessing a unique role as a force for good in the world.
Roberto Sirvent and Danny Haiphong link American exceptionalism with another long-standing supporting myth, which is the myth of eternal American innocence: Americans never commit crimes or atrocities, they are simply the victims of hostile, savage others. (Elsewhere I have referred to this as more than just a guilt-free state of mind, but a mode of operation founded on belief that one’s way of life must always come free of any consequences.) Not just outlining the doctrine, and how it appears in practice, the authors also focus attention on who profits the most from maintenance of the myths of exceptionalism and innocence. As they say, it is the corporate executives, millionaire politicians, and military war-hawks who have most at stake in upholding this ideology.
That is the other strength of this book, that it is not limited to political organization, but is also concerned with economic forces, broad cultural patterns, ideology, symbolism, religion, mass-mediated entertainment, sports, racism, policing, inequality, and more. It is a practical form of holism, where the authors allow their argument to travel where the evidence takes it. As the authors say, their aim is to explain American exceptionalism as it appears in everyday life, and to show what it looks like in contemporary popular discourse.
This book is very deeply researched and conversant with a wide body of literature. Politically, it is revolutionary (not reformist): the authors consistently point to the need for a different world altogether, mere reforms of the system will no longer do.
When Sirvent and Haiphong employ the term “American exceptionalism,” what they mean is “the ideological tool used to present and sustain a particular narrative about the United States”. That narrative is one that, according to legal theorist Natsu Tailor Saito,
“‘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, and that the United States embodies the best and most advanced stage of Western civilization and, therefore, human history to date’”. (p. 4)
This is what on this site we refer to as cultural evolutionism or progressivism, bent to suit an aggressive strain of American nationalism.
American exceptionalism is also a monopolistic claim on “freedom”. What is meant by “freedom”? The authors explain:
“these ‘ideals’ [of ‘freedom’] we speak of are actually rooted in the modern philosophy of liberalism, which many scholars have shown is deeply tied to—and dependent on—exclusion, dispossession, and slavery. In other words, the right to ‘freedom,’ as understood by many nation-states like our own, has always entailed the ‘unfreedom’ of others and involved complex and violent processes of determining who is and is not ‘human’”. (p. 5)
Sirvent and Haiphong are aware in advance of what some of the common objections to their book will be. One will be that they write “America” and not “United States”—they explain that it is due to the fact that America has been constructed as a grand idea that exceeds the boundaries of the United States. The very notion of America itself commits the US to expansion. The authors also know that some will say that the “founding ideals” of America are themselves exceptional and without parallel anywhere in the world—their answer is that such an assumption is both naïve, and in lines with the classic liberal philosophy of America’s ruling elites.
As for “accusations of being ‘un-American’,” they point out that such accusations, “usually come as a knee-jerk response to criticisms of U.S. domestic and foreign policy. They are themselves a manifestation of American exceptionalism” (p. 5). Nonetheless, I bet there will be critics who ignore these lines, and then set about proving the authors’ very points.
On the subject of “American innocence” the authors make the following observation:
“Popular rhetoric shows that the ideological tool of American innocence ‘kicks in’ or is ‘triggered’ when the supposedly exceptional nation is forced to explain a past, present, or future action that many people deem morally abhorrent. American innocence, then, involves the stories told—to the world and ourselves—to justify or excuse these actions”. (p. 6)
Sirvent and Haiphong are critically aware of how deeply innocence is inscribed even in the words and thoughts of supposed dissenters, leftist activists, and members of today’s self-styled #Resistance:
“It is common nowadays to hear well-intentioned rhetoric about how torture, anti-Black racism, and Muslim immigration bans do not reflect ‘who we really are’ as a country. Yet…this is a paramount example of how ideologies of American exceptionalism and innocence work together to paint a distorted picture of our nation’s history, its current social structures, and what futures remain possible”. (p. 8)
The authors explain that “four interrelated parts form the skeleton” of the ideology of American exceptionalism and innocence. These parts include:
(1) a presumption of American innocence in the ways that genocide, slavery, and war are “remembered”;
(2) the myth of a meritocracy cloaked in the “American Dream”;
(3) the lust for military conquest all around the world; and
(4) the ongoing requirement for imperialism or the rule of monopoly capitalism to expand the United States’ civilizing mission (p. 6).
The authors’ goal is “to show how narratives of American exceptionalism and American innocence work together to serve white supremacy, empire, capitalism, and the U.S. war machine” (p. 3). Thus the authors 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 the former Celebrity TV star-turned-President, Donald Trump” (p. 3). But they also caution,
“readers—especially liberals—who think these are ‘easy targets’ would be wise to brace themselves for what’s ahead. 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 well-meaning college students hoping to ‘change the world’”. (p. 3)
Addressing themselves to activists, the authors write: “we do not think it is possible to be a staunch feminist, anti-racist, or peace activist while maintaining one’s ideological devotion to the United States as an exceptional, superior, civilized, and civilizing force for good in the world” (p. 4).
Some of the Key Points, by Chapter
Given the complexity of the book, and the range of issues it covers, it made the “traditional” sort of book review more of a challenge. Instead of trying to boil down the work to an essence, I instead opted for a summary of each of the 21 essays, and even then it is a selective summary that focuses on key points that were of particular interest to me. Other readers will spot other salient points, and the book will then take on different meanings for different readers. Thus, to be more precise, what follows is not a summary as much as my summary—and a great deal is necessarily left out as a result (which is why you should try to get the book for yourself).
Chapter 1: “Why do They Hate Us?” American Innocence and Historical Memory
“9/11” (September 11, 2001) is the perfect opening for such a book—it is the classic flashpoint that reveals raw assumptions standing cold and naked in the brightest light. American superiority had been assaulted, and most Americans had a desire to feel special and powerful again. “9/11” was also a great opportunity for Americans to paint themselves as both ‘the recognizable victim and inevitable victor’” (quoting Joy James, p. 10). The results were a ramped up militarization, militaristic mass indoctrination, and expansionism—the Global War on Terror, the USA Patriot Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, demonization of Arabs and Muslims, were all set in train. “Counterterrorism” became “a ‘civilizational’ knowledge….The terrorist became the object of scorn and the target of war, with a flexible definition that served a variety of purposes,” and both the media and academia immediately jumped on the study of counterterrorism (p. 13). In this period, America once again proliferated images and ideas of monsters, monstrosity—terrorist monsters. Demonization was cemented deep into the foundations of American discourse.
Chapter 2: Conquest, Genocide, and the Formation of America
“Monsters” are quite an antique feature of American conquest demonology—the quasi-theological repertoire of colonial constructions. The authors argue here that the conquest of Indigenous Peoples is the original American sin: it is what lies at the root of political impunity, swollen executive power, and racism, all of which expose the notion of American democracy as a lie. Already this book is almost the exact opposite of what we heard from Dinesh D’Souza. The authors make the point that framing colonization as a “civilizing mission,” where those who support it assert that “the benefits far outweigh whatever consequences” including the destruction of Indigenous societies, is a logic that “has shaped the very essence of American exceptionalist ideology” (p. 17).
Taking radical exception with the standard myth of American nationhood, Sirvent and Haiphong point out that it was colonists’ resentment against the British prohibition of expansion beyond the Allegheny and Appalachian Mountains, according to the Proclamation of 1763, that was at the root of a burgeoning desire for independence (pp. 18, 19). There was then, at its very birth, no contradiction between the rebellion against one empire, in order to build another empire.
In this chapter the authors also go into detail explaining the triplets of evolutionism, progressivism, and liberalism; the emergence of Western notions of liberty, property, and individual rights; and the foundation of “Manifest Destiny” as a key narrative in the discourse of American exceptionalism. Reading this chapter, one can agree with the authors that it was no accident that the U.S. military gave Osama Bin Laden the code name “Geronimo” (p. 20).
Chapter 3: Was the Revolutionary War Revolutionary for Slaves? A Few Thoughts on Slavery and its Afterlives
The authors ask: “How can one speak of the exceptionalism or innocence of the United States when slavery was a driving force in the formation of the very nation-state itself?” (p. 24). This is one of several chapters in which racism is a prominent object of critique. “The dominant narrative of the ‘American Revolution,’” Sirvent and Haiphong argue, “is the first attempt to interpret the American story as one of freedom overcoming slavery rather than freedom rooted in slavery” (p. 25). Then comes the authors’ second radical exception with the standard telling of American liberty: the American “revolution” was a rebellion against the prospective emancipation of slaves, given the incipient trend toward abolition of the slave trade in Britain (p. 28).
Chapter 4: Did the United States Really Save the World? Remembering and Misremembering World War II
Cutting deeply into the American imperialist myths of “liberation” and “rehabilitation,” the authors quote Lisa Yonemaya who explains that, according to these myths, “the losses and damages brought on by U.S. military violence are deemed ‘prepaid debts’ incurred by those liberated by American intervention” (p. 34). They proceed to analyze the ideology of white supremacy in the US legal system, and how it inspired Nazi thinking in Germany—a reversal of the flow of specialists and technologies from Nazi Germany to the US that followed WWII. The presence of such a flow and counter-flow suggests there was a symbiotic relationship. The authors make a claim here that is not just extraordinary, it is well founded: America’s race-based immigration law was praised by Adolf Hitler in his Mein Kampf (p. 34)—and for this we can turn to Mein Kampf itself to see where Hitler wrote the following on p. 658:
“There is at present one State where at least feeble attempts of a better conception are perceptible. This is of course not our German model republic, but the American Union where one endeavors to consult reason at least partially. The American Union, by principally refusing immigration to elements with poor health, and even simply excluding certain races from naturalization, acknowledges by slow beginnings an attitude which is peculiar to the national State conception”.
Expanding on the US-Nazi exchange, and the contempt that both sides had for the Soviet model, the authors detail the powerful American corporate interests that actively supported the Nazis, including: General Motors, Ford, and Standard Oil of New Jersey. As the authors point out: “Prescott Bush, banker and grandfather to George W. Bush, and famed industrialist Henry Ford who provided decisive financial support to Hitler’s rise to power” (p. 35). By the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, US investments in Nazi Germany were estimated to have reached $475 million. TIME magazine expressed its hope that Nazism would be “‘an antidote against Bolshevism’” (p. 35).
Turning to Japan, the authors’ text would meet with key agreement from Stephen Gowans’ recently reviewed book on the Korean peninsula, Patriots, Traitors, and Empires. Tearing up the myth of “the good war,” Sirvent and Haiphong discuss the extent to which US imperialism in the Pacific, the strangling sanctions on Japan and numerous naval provocations, invited the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The war with Japan was a competition to capture valuable East Asian resources (p. 36). As for the US atomic bombing of Japan, the authors explain why it was totally redundant strategically except as a means of impressing the USSR with fear (pp. 36–37).
“The United States imposed itself as the hero of the Second World War despite the leading role that the Soviet Union played in defeating Germany at the cost of 27 million Soviet lives. The illusion of American heroism in the Second World War helped prepare the way for a permanent American war agenda against both foreign and domestic challenges to imperialism while at the same time strengthening the notion that America was in fact an exceptional, democratic nation. This is all that the myth of the ‘good war’ has ever been good for”. (p. 37)
Chapter 5: The Korean War—An Endless War Forgotten in the Haze of American Exceptionalism
Looking at the Korean War of 1950–1953, with the vast destruction of the North by US bombing campaigns, the authors hold that American innocence has buried this war altogether, and shrouded it with the virtue of US “defense” of South Korea. Looking at the present, they say:
“The Trump Administration’s hostilities toward Kim Jong-Un are an extension of a longstanding trend in American folklore that has positioned American leaders and leaders of the DPRK on opposite ends of sanity”. (p. 38)
Much of the material presented on the destruction of North Korea by the US has been covered here and elsewhere, so it won’t be repeated. However, striking was the quote in this book from Winston Churchill who, reflecting on the horrific atrocity of the widespread use of napalm by US forces in North Korea, was moved to tell his American counterparts that when napalm had been invented nobody foresaw that it would simply be “splashed” all about a civilian population (p. 40).
In the US, racism was married to anti-communist paranoia when it came to Korea: “anti-Korean sentiment was pervasive in all spheres of American life, especially in the media and the military. Prominent publications such as the New York Times and Marshall Plan officials such as Edgar Johnson described Koreans as ‘fanatics,’ ‘barbarians,’ and ‘wild’” (p. 41). Anti-communist racism “cloaked in American exceptionalist garb united Americans around the American military and the corporate interests it served” (p. 41).
American exceptionalism also allows the creation of a worldwide nuclear apartheid, in which North Korea can never be trusted to have nuclear weapons, while the US—which has used them, and threatened to use them again—is allowed to decide who can be trusted (p. 42). As the authors ask, speaking to the present: “why is the DPRK expected to ‘demilitarize’ but the United States is not? As offensive as these questions might sound to many Americans, such sensitivity only exposes the historical amnesia and sense of moral superiority one must have to find these questions offensive in the first place”. (p. 43)
Chapter 6: Charlottesville and the Real Monuments to White Supremacy
“The ideologies of American exceptionalism and innocence rest on the foundations of white supremacy” (p. 44)—this is one of the central analytical themes of the book. Many times the authors make the point that American exceptionalism is, at its roots, “synonymous with white exceptionalism and white innocence” (p. 44). As for the taking down of statues of Confederate officers, the authors suggest this: “To paint the Confederacy as an aberration, however, turns opposition to white supremacy into a mere clean up crew for the American nation-state”. (p. 45).
Their critique goes beyond symbolism, and touches even on economic history:
“Wall Street itself formed out of the enormous growth of the slave trade experienced in the American nation-state in the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, New York’s first slave market was established on what is now Wall Street in 1711. The founder of what is now Citibank, Moses Taylor, became the richest man of his century through the illegal trade of slaves from New York to Cuba”. (p. 48)
This wide-ranging chapter covers the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, the prison-industrial complex, the impact of NAFTA on African Americans, and returns its critical power to the analysis of the Hamilton Broadway musical and the “Star-Spangled Banner”. The authors’ critique of the Hamilton musical is simply devastating, framing it as another monument to white supremacy: “Hamilton is a pitch perfect example of how practices of diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism often reinforce the ideologies of American exceptionalism and American Innocence” (p. 49). They agree with Alex Nichols that Hamilton is a form of patriotic “blackwashing”: “making something that was heinous seem somehow palatable by retroactively injecting diversity into it” (p. 50). Then comes one of the memorable punches delivered by this book:
“Contemporary progressivism has come to mean papering over material inequality with representational diversity. The president will continue to expand the national security state at the same rate as his predecessor, but at least he will be black. Predatory lending will drain the wealth from African American communities, but the board of Goldman Sachs will have several black members. Inequality will be rampant and worsening, but the 1% will at least ‘look like America’. The actual racial injustices of our time will continue unabated, but the power structure will be diversified so that nobody feels quite so bad about it. Hamilton is simply this tendency’s cultural-historical equivalent; instead of worrying ourselves about the brutal origins of the American state, and the lasting economic effects of those early inequities, we can simply turn the Founding Fathers black and enjoy the show”. (p. 50)
They continue: “As both the domestic and foreign policies of Barack Obama showed us, the office can serve as a monument to and enforcer of white supremacy even with a person of color running it” (p. 51). Finally.
Chapter 7: The American Dream Versus American Reality—Black Wealth and the Myth of Meritocracy
“A core principle of American exceptionalism is the myth of meritocracy,” the authors explain:
“The myth presumes that the United States is the only place in the world where great fortunes can be derived from hard work and perseverance. The achievement of wealth and private property forms the essence of the ‘American Dream’”. (p. 53)
This chapter presents some astounding statistics, like the fact that, “it would take the average Black family 228 years to amass the wealth of the average White American family” (p. 55). In place of profound structural transformation, “America” offers up hero tales of successful American blacks—as we saw in D’Souza’s “documentary”—tales that inspire American innocence because then the belief can take hold that black poverty is the result of black failures. For all the political and economic fraudulence of the American Dream, the authors conclude that they would like a world “without the American Dream” (p. 60).
Chapter 8: Should American Imperialism Matter to Black Lives Matter?
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, the authors maintain, “provided an opportunity to connect police violence against Black Americans in cities across the country to struggles against American imperialism and militarism around the world” (p. 61). But that largely did not happen. Nonetheless, the authors point to some of the crucial developments, such as growing recognition that US police forces displayed many similarities to military occupation forces deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq (p. 61)—that they were in fact engaged in counterinsurgency at home. This chapter also shines a spotlight on Colin Kaepernick and his challenge to “paid patriotism” at NFL games, where the Pentagon engages in recruiting via sports. They point out that it is a recent invention (since 2009) of having teams stand for the national anthem, an invention that occurred as the NFL was being militarized (p. 62).
No wonder that Trump instinctively resorted to denouncing Kaepernick for “disgracing the troops”—as if the flag and the anthem stood only for the military, which is the clearest expression of militarization. Meanwhile, anxious to turn BLM into another single-issue reform project, “corporations such as Google have donated millions to particular Black Lives Matter organizations to make information about ‘racial bias’ more ‘available’” (p. 64).
This chapter also focus on Ella Baker, Paul Robeson, and his wife Eslanda Robeson as champions of black internationalism worthy of emulation (p. 67), along with discussing the Black Panther Party’s extensive internationalism, symbolized by its leader, Huey Newton, getting invited to China before even Nixon (pp. 68–69). The authors close this chapter with a strong endorsement of the Black Alliance for Peace (BAP) (p. 69).
Chapter 9: Protecting Whose Speech? Protecting Whose Assembly?
“Facing immense pressure from labor unrest, the United States began to lay the basis for the development of a secret political police, now known as the ‘intelligence community’” (p. 73). This chapter focuses attention on the historical development of the national security state in the US, starting with WWI, the Russian Revolution, and the formal establishment of the General Intelligence Division (GID) in the US (p. 73). Racism joined anti-Communism in an early instance, as when President Woodrow Wilson wrote in his diary that, “‘the American Negro returning from abroad [WWI] would be our greatest medium for conveying Bolshevism in America’” (p. 73). Similarly, the House of UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) never persecuted the KKK (p. 74).
This chapter moves on discussion of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s domestic war against the Black Freedom Movement in what is known as COINTELPRO. US hegemony long embarrassed by conditions of racial discrimination at home, saw that its preaching freedom and democracy abroad was imperilled, hence the need for a figure like Barack Obama whose presidency, “was a byproduct of the desperate need for the American ruling class to both conceal and intensify the policies that produced such a condition” (p. 76). This chapter is also memorable for its scathing critique of the Obama administration, ranging from surveillance of Occupy Wall Street and BLM, to the crackdown on whistleblowers, mass surveillance, drone strikes even against US citizens abroad, and a record-breaking level of deportation of migrants (pp. 77-78).
Chapter 10: Am I an Ungrateful Son of a Bitch?
Trump manufactured a problem with the NFL in order to distract from his failures and criticisms of his presidency—black disloyalty to the flag was a convenient option. This points to the reality where, “American exceptionalism…becomes common sense in an environment where no other narrative is allowed to thrive” (p. 84). In this moment we can hear arguments about why African Americans should be appreciative of the care they received during slavery, or how undeserving negroes are ungrateful for the privileges they obtained in entertaining white people—example: Laura Ingraham’s infamous command to LeBron James that he “just shut up and dribble”.
Chapter 11: A Rising Tide or a Sinking Ship? American Economic Decline and the rise of the Unexceptional Majority
This heavily packed chapter aims squarely at the elite-propagated myth that a “rising tide lifts all boats” which accompanied the neoliberal dogma of “trickle-down economics” (to which Trump also adheres). On this the authors’ argument is that, “economic decline has left American capitalism vulnerable by exposing the growing fissure between American exceptionalism and the economic reality of the masses” (p. 86). The statistics they furnish in support of their argument that American economic decline is a reality for the majority of Americans is all striking:
“More than half of Americans make under $30,000 per year. A similar percentage can’t pay for a five hundred dollar emergency should it arise. Wages in the American nation have been stagnant for nearly four decades….Around 18.5 million Americans live in ‘deep poverty’” or one-half of the federal poverty line, which itself has historically been seen as an underestimation of poverty. Over 3,000 counties have water systems with lead counts higher than Flint, Michigan…Many impoverished communities [possess] yards filled with sewage because residents could not afford septic systems. Nearly 45,000 Americans die each year from a lack of healthcare…. nearly 18 million vacant homes are scattered across the country waiting to be occupied by the nation’s homeless”. (pp. 90, 91)
Yet, while “Bernie Sanders remains the most popular politician in America because of his economic program for single-payer healthcare, living-wage employment, and student loan forgiveness,” he nevertheless answered the call of American exceptionalism when he “voted for the largest military budget in recorded history in 2017” (p. 93).
Chapter 12: “We can’t have the inmates running the prison”—Black Labor, White Enjoyment, and the Billionaire Capitalist Class
This chapter discussed Black labour for white pleasure and profit, focusing on the NFL. This is a continuation of the book’s exposition of the “after-lives of slavery”. A special focus of this chapter is the soaring rate of imprisonment of African Americans.
Chapter 13: Is American “Aid” Assistance or Theft? The Case of Africa
“The United States spends its annual 600 billion dollar war budget on weapons of mass destruction and military operations that have cost the lives of millions and left dozens of countries in near total ruin. It seems unlikely that the U.S. could possess such a record and simultaneously project itself not only as an innocent bystander to the evils of other countries, but also as the world’s humanitarian saving grace”. (p. 103)
“For many,” the authors write, “‘aid’ is the same as help and the distributor of aid—in this case the U.S. —the same as the helper” (p. 104). What help? The authors present a considerable amount of material detailing how US foreign aid maximizes the profit, scale, and influence of US-based multinational corporations and even military industries (p. 105). They then turn their attention to the work of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, in spreading privatization through foreign lending, under its various “structural adjustment programs” (pp. 105, 106). As they point out, the net result of all this “aid” and lending, is a net outflow of capital from Africa. More than that, they expand on the role of international humanitarian NGOs, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the collaboration of some humanitarian NGOs with the US military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM). It’s a great chapter, that could have been a book in its own right.
Chapter 14: Does the U.S. Really Care About Human Rights?
As contemporary incarnations of the “White Man’s Burden,” humanitarian interventionism and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) are subjected to a relentless critique in this chapter, particularly focusing on the motivations behind calls to “prevent genocide” and the added motivation of inventing “genocide” as a pretext for military intervention. The case of Libya is central to this chapter. The authors’ overall argument is that,
“American expansionism has become buried by a ‘human rights’ discourse which assumes the well-being of people around the world is the primary concern of American foreign policy. Exceptionalist assumptions about human rights have rendered the U.S. not only an innocent global actor, but a benevolent and just one as well. After all, how many times have we heard politicians call the U.S. the ‘leader of the free world’ with special responsibilities to protect it?” (p. 113)
Another special focus of this chapter is the ideological writing of Samantha Power: “Power’s logic describes the U.S. as a nation-state showing too much restraint in the realm of foreign policy—we did nothing when we should have done something” (p. 116). To this, the authors respond:
“The U.S. is constantly playing the role of aggressor. Its war-apparatus is constantly ‘doing something.’ But Power would have us all believe that the U.S. is in the habit of not acting and only acts when acted upon. This narrative is incredibly convenient for the U.S. war machine. After all, it becomes much easier for the U.S. to dismiss charges of imperialism if it is perceived as a mere passive bystander to global events” (p. 116)
Chapter 15: Humanitarian Impulses—The American Corporate Media and the White Savior Mentality
The White Saviour Industrial Complex is also the focus of this dense chapter, which begins with memorable words from T.S. Eliot’s play The Cocktail Party:
“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm; but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves” (quoted on p. 123).
The authors examine certain humanitarian aid movements led by exceptional citizens that “represent some of the ‘worst attempts at helping others since colonialism’” (p. 123), including: Jason Sadler’s vision of sending T-shirts to Africa and the Kony 2012 campaign. Using “education” to counter “Islamization,” while placing little girls on the frontlines of US counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, was the special work of Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea (p. 125). The authors point to recent revelations that exposed fraudulent practices in Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute, as well as its collaboration with the US military.
“The White Savior Industrial Complex is the shovel that buries American imperial warfare in the graveyard of popular consciousness. Acts of charity help sooth the craving for Americans, especially white Americans, to feel exceptional and innocent in their relationship with the historical ‘other,’ the targets of imperialism”. (p. 126)
“The U.S. and its ‘humanitarian’ backers cause the very humanitarian disasters they purport to fix,” as the authors explain in this chapter (p. 130). As “exceptional citizens,” many Americans believe that, “simply by being born in the U.S. or by being white, or by attending an American university, that they have a unique, God’s-eye perspective as to how other countries should be governed” (p. 131).
Chapter 16: If It’s Bad, Blame Russia
This chapter opens with an interesting quote from K.J. Holsti: “Governments and societies of exceptionalist states develop a need to have external enemies; for this reason, threats are often concocted or, where minor, are inflated to extreme proportions”. Sirvent and Haiphong show their dedication to fully acknowledging reality in their unsparing criticisms of the politicians, media, and social movements opposed to Trump, who chose to “resist” him by way of an exceptionalist conspiracy theory, that of false “Russia collusion”. The immediate target may have been Donald Trump, but the larger target was a Russia that had revived as an independent power capable of countering US foreign policy in a number of strategic areas.
The authors make a persuasive argument: “A calculated decision was made to rid of the embarrassment by portraying Trump as a dupe of Russia, first to exonerate Clinton of accountability in her electoral loss and then to achieve broader bipartisan objectives with Trump in office” (p. 135).
The authors produce a devastating, detailed critique of the Democrats’ demonization of Russia, WikiLeaks, and left-wing groups, aided by the national security state, discredited intelligence “assessments,” and the censorship imposed by major Internet firms (pp. 138–139). Those allegedly “opposing” Trump in the so-called #Resistance, have shown themselves for the most part to be the same as or even worse than Trump when it comes to perpetuating exceptionalist ideology and a pro-imperialist foreign policy—and the authors detail numerous facts to support that contention.
Sirvent and Haiphong also underline how the Democratic Party, having become the party of austerity, free trade, and dismissal of the working-class and the poor, has nothing left except the tools of the Cold War to try to shore up its declining legitimacy.
Then there is the issue of “what-about-ism”—the favourite retort of American exceptionalists when confronted by arguments that the US has no right to complain about any real or (mostly) imagined foreign meddling in US elections, given the US’ long and ongoing history of intervention in other countries’ politics. As the authors explain,
“the nation’s long history of meddling in other countries’ elections is justified in a number of ways. The U.S. meddled for that country’s own good, they say. Or, if the devastating conditions produced by U.S. meddling become public, then the operation was nothing but a mistake made with the best of intentions”. (p. 140)
Chapter 17: Saving American Exceptionalism—Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the Politics of Inclusion
This chapter begins with a very important insight:
“The United States’ obsession with Russia may signal the beginning of the end for American exceptionalism. That the U.S. and the corporate media have relied so heavily on fears of Russian subversion says very little about the so-called strength of American ‘democracy’ in the current period”. (p. 143)
This chapter presents a scorching critique of the Democrats, the Clintons, Obama, and so-called “inclusivity” which serves to rope in “more Black, Latino, and other oppressed groups to co-manage the American imperialist project alongside the largely white ruling class” (p. 144). They rightly call Obama a Trojan Horse of the American imperial system (p. 145).
Obama was also a Wall Street candidate if there ever was one, with a record-breaking level of campaign contributions from the biggest financial firms. It came as no surprise then that his presidency did nothing to prosecute those responsible for the 2008 financial disaster, while bailing them out, and then instituting some indisputably lame “reforms”. The range of ways that Obama actually escalated the worst aspects of the Bush administration is laid out in extensive detail, too great to even summarize here.
What stood out for me as unexpected, as I had not known of it before, came with the authors revealing that though, “Black Americans lost significant economic ground and remained the most incarcerated segment of the American population under Obama,” nevertheless, “studies have shown that the same demographic was the most optimistic about its economic prospects” (p. 146). In addition, “a 2013 poll revealed that Black Americans supported the proposed bombing of Syria that summer more than white Americans or Latinos. Another poll showed that Black Americans favored NSA spying more than any other racial group” (p. 147). If correct, it would seem that Obama was at least successful in blackwashing US imperialism.
This chapter also offers a deservedly severe critique of Hillary Clinton as the personification of American exceptionalism. The author quote a part of her 2016 speech to the American Legion, which I reproduce here:
“If there’s one core belief that has guided and inspired me every step of the way, it is this. The United States is an 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 harder, 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”. (Hillary Clinton, p. 149)
The conclusion to this chapter is just as much on the nose as the opening: “to make Trump an exceptional blunder in an otherwise exceptional America is to intentionally ignore the crisis set into motion not by Trump, but the entire class that he is a part of” (p. 151).
Chapter 18: The Violence of Inclusion
Here the authors argue that the politics of “inclusion”—the promotion of diversity, acts of legal recognition—have taken precedence over structural change in the US, in an attempt to restore legitimacy to the system (p. 153). They criticize “inclusion in the atrocious,” which signals a failure to question participation in violent and unjust institutions (p. 153). This chapter thus addresses much of the pinkwashing of US imperialism that has developed over the past decade, placing “LGBT” issues on the frontline of US interventionism:
“Allegedly exclusionary policies toward LGBTQ people have been used as signifiers that reinforce a targeted nation’s backwardness and barbarity….The American nation-state, and indeed the American military, is thus painted as a legitimate force of progress in the realm of LGBTQ liberation”. (p. 155)
The authors end with a valuable cautionary note: “A diversified empire, however, is still a dangerous empire” (p. 158).
Chapter 19: Flags, Flyovers, and Rituals—On Giving Your Body to the State
This chapter focuses on the militarization of citizenship: the military occupation of nationalism, and the appropriation of bodies of citizens to bring the exceptional state into reality (pp. 159–160). Sirvent and Haiphong address in detail the phenomenon of “militainment”—of the marriage between the Pentagon, Hollywood, and major sporting events. Their focus is also on rituals, celebrations, holidays, entertainment, sports, movies—revealing a public culture of militarized nationalism that supports American exceptionalism. With ritualization, normalization follows, and Americans thus feel invited to participate and to take ownership of war and exceptionalism (p. 162).
While exploitation of the symbolism of the US flag can be used to counter resistance to US imperialism, it is not just “alt-right” or “conservative” bigots who do so. Sirvent and Haiphong observe that after Trump’s election, liberal elites began to publicly critique Islamophobia (after supporting it until almost literally the day before). They couched this critique of Islamophobia within appeals to American exceptionalism—what made America exceptional was that it “welcomed” and “embraced” all people, regardless of race, religion, or gender (p. 165). The authors then critically examine the “We the People” series of photos that reproduced Muslim-American photographer Ridwan Adhami’s photograph of a woman wearing a hijab. The remastered version of the hijab depicted it as an American flag—the same flag that some anti-racism activists had strongly denounced as emblematic of white racism (p. 165). Thus an Arab woman, and a Muslim photographer, were both recruited into solidifying support for American exceptionalism.
Chapter 20: Questioning Borders, Belonging, and the Nation-state
This is a complicated chapter, a nest of interconnected issues and critiques. On the one hand, the authors note why migration happens, and that it is largely a consequence of “globalization” plus the turmoil and poverty caused by US intervention. On the other hand, it’s not that a rise in the US Latino population heralds an end to “white supremacy,” the authors argue, to the extent that much of the pro-Latin immigration advocacy carries a sub-text of anti-Blackness: Latino immigrants are not criminals (i.e., “not Black”), and will thus not be “another Black problem” (p. 169).
Sirvent and Haiphong then tackle the criminalization of immigrants in the US, as an extension of the criminalization of Blacks and the poor. However, as they point, it was American imperial warfare and intervention that generated waves of migrants, such as the recent rise in migration at the southern border:
“American military warfare has also played a large role in migration. When Central American migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador came in the tens of thousands in 2014, few commentators connected the development to U.S. foreign policy”. (p. 174)
The chapter concludes with an argument for abolishing American borders.
Chapter 21: Conclusion—Who Exactly Does the Military Serve?
“Perhaps at no other moment,” say Sirvent and Haiphong, “has it become more important for progressive and radical scholars, activists, and organizers to come together and oppose the endless wars waged by the U.S. military” (p. 178). They stress that social movements cannot afford to be of the single-issue kind that emerge like successive fads—and those that neglect to fight US empire will inevitably fall short in achieving social change (p. 187). Whether it’s the environment, prison reform, increasing the minimum wage, health care, or education—if movements engaged in these issues neglect to see their connections with the practice or outcome of US imperialism, then they will logically not succeed. Having analyzed the problem incorrectly in the first place, the solution can be nothing but a failure.
The book ends with a detailed series of suggestions spanning options for dismantling US militarism, to unlearning the ideology of American exceptionalism, to effectively undoing the American nation-state as such. They conclude: “Breaking such ties would almost demand a rupture of the soul, an apostasy of sorts” (p. 189).
Sirvent and Haiphong’s American Exceptionalism and American Innocence is a new approach to the study of imperialism (specifically US imperialism) that bridges the domestic–foreign divide, that marries the sociology of race and class in the US with the international relations of US empire. It is a study of the everyday, of empire at home and abroad. No other book like it has been produced in recent times.
The 21 essays, and the four major themes of the book result in a text that is certainly very timely, and it is absolutely saturated with references to current topics of debate, key moments and events, and processes whose nature has come to light in recent struggles. The authors are perceptive, and have clearly deliberated a great deal about an enormous mass of material, both from the experience of living as Americans in the contemporary US, and from a large and diverse literature. Yet, the book that results is neither abstract, nor typical academic theorizing, and it should therefore be attractive to a wider range of readers—it is explicitly intended for activists and public intellectuals.
It shows the rest of us, outside of the US, how it is possible that persons immersed within a system can think beyond it, and develop a critical awareness of the system they inhabit. In return, the authors hope to help their readers, especially fellow Americans, to “let go” of the ideologies of exceptionalism and innocence. We cannot know if this book will help, but we can certainly hope it will.
Maximilian C. Forte has an educational background in Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Spanish, International Relations, and Anthropology. He lived and studied for seven years in Trinidad & Tobago, for four years in Australia, and for three years in the U.S. He is a dual Italian-Canadian citizen, and had previously achieved Permanent Resident status in Trinidad & Tobago. His primary website is that of the Zero Anthropology Project.