Arguing that “America was never great” is more than controversial in Trump’s United States: Disputing the idea that the U.S. is the greatest nation on Earth and has done only good has become a dangerous act.
Krystal Lake — a Black woman who wore a hat with the words “America Was Never Great” at the Home Depot where she worked — received death threats on social media in response to her small symbolic act in defiance of Trump’s racist campaign. The online rage was triggered because she dared challenge the myth of American innocence — the idea that the U.S. has been a benevolent force in the world.
In their new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News — From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror, authors Roberto Sirvent and Danny Haiphong map the power of ideology. In 21 essays that span the media’s reaction to 9/11 to the multi-cultural patriotism of the Broadway show “Hamilton,” they show how American exceptionalism and innocence has warped our culture. It is a tour de force of scholarship that takes Karl Marx’s call for a “ruthless criticism of the existing order” and brings it up to the present.
It also is a harrowing read. After the last essay, one sees the massive violence hidden by media. It is like peeling back a Band-Aid with the U.S. flag on it and seeing an ugly wound that never healed. Scraping off ideology leaves one face-to-face with reality and empowers us, the readers, to change it.
Sirvent and Haiphong connect the past to the present. Many chapters dig and find lost history. In doing so, they create a counter narrative that celebrates populist struggle. In this interview, co-author Danny Haiphong discusses the inspiration and process for writing American Exceptionalism and American Innocence, how political groups have tried to use Black Americans as electoral pawns, and what advocates of a truly transformative society must consider.
Nicholas Powers: Your book comes at a risky time. Fascism rises across the globe. Did that inspire you to write it?
Danny Haiphong: While it is important to condemn the rise of the political right and neo-fascist elements, we felt American exceptionalism and innocence have created an even graver problem. Anti-Trump rallies decried the racist, orange billionaire as wholly unrepresentative of what this country was all about. But when has white supremacy not been what the U.S. is about? That we even need to ask this question speaks to the power of American exceptionalism.
American exceptionalism requires an enemy. There has been a deepening alliance between neoliberals with neoconservatives, which can be seen in how the U.S. intelligence community has aligned mainly with the Democratic Party to promote the narrative of Russian meddling in the 2016 election to distract from the very real policy concerns that poor people and workers have in the U.S. In order to keep the status quo, the elite have ignored the endless war, rampant poverty and heightened racism in place of gazing at a scapegoat. Our book attempts to discern who exactly the enemy is; that the enemy sits in official Washington and corporate boardrooms, not in the Kremlin. To think otherwise only gives legitimacy to the political right.
What was the process of writing the book? Did you have a clear vision going in, or did it emerge from the research?
Roberto Sirvent reached out to me in June of 2017 about the idea for the book. We wanted to write about issues relevant to the current period and ensure that history was our guiding framework. We talked for five or so months about critical examples of American exceptionalism and innocence at work.
For example, Chapter 4: “Did the United States Really Save the World? Remembering and Misremembering World War II” came out of a conversation that we had about our frustrations with how even progressive activists talk about World War II. It is discussed as the greatest example of the U.S. “spreading democracy” worldwide. Many Americans really do believe that the U.S. was the principle force that saved the world from fascism. However, the U.S. dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan and helped firebomb Dresden with Britain (both of which historians have deemed as unnecessary) during the war — events that challenge American exceptionalism.
In Chapter 7, you make a case that Black elites are used to buttress the myth of meritocracy. How do the class divisions in minority communities make the working class and poor vulnerable to the myth of American exceptionalism?
The ruling class promoted the myth that the U.S. is designed to become a more perfect union, when in fact, reforms such as “diversity” made the U.S. empire a more effective evil. The election of Barack Obama was seen among broad sections of the Black and white liberal political classes as an extension of the politics of Martin Luther King Jr. It didn’t matter that the Democratic Party possessed control over the House and Senate in 2009 yet failed to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, pass single-payer health care, punish the banks, roll back the Patriot Act and pass the Employee Free Choice Act. Black Americans are the most progressive section of the U.S. population but mounted no challenge to the Obama administration. Black Americans were the most optimistic about their economic prospects despite being devastated by Obama’s failure to address the rapid plunder of Black wealth from the 2007-2008 economic crisis. Furthermore, under Obama, Black Americans supported U.S. intervention in Syria and NSA surveillance more than any other group, including white Americans.
The dramatic shift to the right on the part of the Black polity demonstrates that the politics of inclusion are a form of counterinsurgency warfare which utilizes American exceptionalism and innocence as their primary weapon to subdue left political alternatives.
Your evocation of Black internationalism is rare, brilliant and needed. What role can it play in the emerging left coalition to counter the international white nationalism rising in the West?
Black internationalism is the antithesis of American exceptionalism and innocence. It does not presume that the U.S. is a force for good in the world. It is rooted in the principles of socialism. Black liberation cannot occur without the overthrow of the capitalist class, which derives its profits from the super exploitation of poor Black Americans in the mainland and oppressed nations abroad. For example, the Black Panther Party espoused Black internationalism through concrete solidarity with Vietnam at the height of that war. In fact, Huey P. Newton offered Black Panther Party members to fight for the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam.
The political vacuum that has been created by the repression of Black internationalism and the myths of American exceptionalism has allowed the politics of white power to thrive. We believe that Black internationalism and its current iterations, like the Black Alliance for Peace, must be emulated and strengthened for any broad-based left movement to be successful.
In Chapter 9, you map the history of the United States unleashing violence to suppress free speech when it comes from the poor and the left. Recently, an active force is the Intellectual Dark Web, a hodgepodge network of academics who cast progressive activists as the ones using violence to shut down free speech. Its members cite the turmoil at Evergreen State College or the de-platforming of Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos. How do you respond to their claim?
We are in a moment where the left and the right are being constantly equated by the ruling class to justify heightened surveillance online and in the streets. We need to move the debate away from “free speech” and ask the question of whose speech is protected and whose is not.
If we want to defend “free speech” and fight the far right, we must understand how the system of U.S. imperialism operates. It has reserved the harshest treatment for radical social movements. The U.S. waged a coordinated war on the Communist Party from the early to mid-20th century, which included the harassment, deportation, and imprisonment of freedom fighters such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Cyril Briggs. Today, veterans from the Black liberation movement of the 1960s such as Mumia Abu-Jamal remain in prison for their participation in radical political activity.
The history of our military is a nightmare, yet it is celebrated in popular culture from Hollywood blockbusters to sport games. One dimension that is overlooked is how the military was a path of integration for racial and sexual minorities. How does this complicate the goal of achieving a critical view of the military?
Black GIs have always led the way in resistance efforts against U.S. wars. There are a lot of reasons for that, one of which was the persistence of Jim Crow even after many Black Americans were drafted to fight in the U.S. wars from World War I onward. Many Black GIs refused to suppress Black rebellions in U.S. cities beginning in the mid-1960s. Black Americans have never been reliable mercenaries of the war machine. Integration was a hard-fought struggle, but ultimately something that the U.S. ruling class could accept so long as it was able to continue exploiting the labor and plundering the wealth of oppressed people.
In a period of endless austerity and war, the military’s “inclusive” character allows it to pose as an opportunity to achieve the “American Dream” in a society that has nothing to offer the vast majority of Black Americans. The Democratic Party promotes diversity as its prime objective because it has nothing to offer its constituents, Black America being the most important one. So, it must continue to pose as the party of civil rights and labor in order to win elections while constantly equating military superiority with American greatness to satisfy its donors. This is what has led to the steady decline of the antiwar movement in the United States. Our greatest challenge is to find a way to release the stranglehold of the Democratic Party over workers and oppressed people in the United States, and that means challenging the politics of inclusion and diversity as weapons of the War Party.
If you were to write a sequel, what other ideologies would you call in for analysis?
A follow-up book may consider how the “White Man’s Burden” and Manifest Destiny shaped early conceptions of U.S. warfare. It would analyze how U.S. imperial ambitions have been framed in a civilizing colonial logic. That “uniqueness” would help us understand the current way of warfare that the U.S. is engaged in around the world today.
Second, the popularity of the word “socialism” is on the rise. American exceptionalism and innocence are designed to protect private property and the rule of the rich by making them “common sense.” This has profoundly shaped how people in the United States view socialism. To me, socialism is a revolutionary transition of power from the capitalist class to the workers and oppressed classes. But socialism is defined by many in the U.S. today as another New Deal, whereby someone like Bernie Sanders is elected to institute single-payer health care, living wage jobs and student debt relief. I support these demands for reform, but winning requires not a more “exceptional” U.S. imperialism, but a new system all together. That is a project worth undertaking.