How to Sell the Narrative of American Greatness

“Millions of people in the U.S. have learned innumerable lessons about American exceptionalism and American innocence from prominent television personalities. Bill O’Reilly, for example, taught us how to defend American “greatness” in his response to Michelle Obama’s public reminder that slaves built the White House. O’Reilly quickly retorted that slaves who built it were “well fed” and provided with “decent” lodging. Millions more learned about the pervasiveness of American exceptionalism from a 60 Minutes interview with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. It was here on national TV where she famously declared the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children by way of U.S. sanctions as a sacrifice that was “worth it.” Albright was subsequently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2012. For O’Reilly and Albright, the inherent superiority and good intentions of the U.S. provide absolution for crimes against humanity.”

– Roberto Sirvent & Danny Haiphong (American Exceptionalism and American Innocence)

“Hillary Clinton personifies the hubris of American exceptionalism. She seems incapable of doubting that America is ‘the last hope of mankind.’ Above all, she certainly believes that the American people believe in American exceptionalism and want to hear it confirmed and celebrated.”

– Diana Johnstone (quoted from Queen of Chaos: The Misadventures of Hillary Clinton )

” …Saidiya Hartman’s observation that “99.5% of U.S. cinema is a totally instrumental pernicious propaganda machine.”

– Roberto Sirvent & Danny Haiphong (ibid)

Roberto Sirvent and Danny Haiphong provide a clear outline for how the public is sold a narrative of American greatness, or exceptionalism, and how the media is complicit in this massive propaganda effort. A manufacturing of propaganda that goes on 24/7, all year and every year. American’s sense of entitlement and their air of anti intellectual superiority, starts in the cradle and even before that. I think there is still a book yet to be written on untangling and tracing back the many strands of religious exclusion, xenophobia, Puritanical rigidity, and rank sentimentality — which are very deeply engrained in the American spirit and psyche.

They (the authors) state their intentions in this book from the first pages…“Ultimately, we want to equip our readers with the tools to locate, critique, and dismantle the twin ideologies of American exceptionalism and American innocence.” Now, one might want to quibble with certain passages (like suggesting..I think its being suggested anyway…. Bernie Sanders’ popularity represented anything positive… because of course Sanders is himself embedded in the propaganda machine. And that young people having a favorable opinion of the word *socialism*. I’m not sure that is a positive if the word is simultaneously associated with Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. I would argue that is simply more disinformation and indoctrination, not a meaningful groundswell of opposition to the status quo.) That said, the providing of tools … meaning the critical thinking and vocabulary to dissect this stuff… is crucial.

And there is great insight in linking the critique of exceptionalism with innocence (is innocence an ideology, though?). As a tool of propaganda, a rhetorical tactic, the idea of innocence is indeed pernicious and ubiquitous.

“To cite just a few examples, American innocence has us remember slavery and settler colonialism as events of the past, not as structures of domination that haunt our present. It has us view our violent overthrows of democratically elected leaders around the globe as mere “aberrations” of what we truly represent as a country, or as “unfortunate transitional developments on the way to full-fledged liberal democracy.”

– Sirvent & Haiphong (ibid)

Or that the Iraq war was a “mistake” (or Vietnam, or Nicaragua, or Afghanistan, et al). Innocence is then the alibi that is always on hand to justify the violence of western capital. Innocence is also the foundation for the *bumbling empire* argument one so often finds (which is periously close to it was a *mistake*). As Sirvent and Haiphong note, innocence allows for the continued belief in honorable intentions. Now the authors quote Carrie Tirado Bramen, from her book American Niceness, and Bramen is kinda au courant at the moment in places like The New Yorker of LA Review of Books. This always makes me feel uncomfortable. I mean its that ‘I wouldn’t want to be a member or any club that would accept me as a member’ logic. But the innocence argument relates to Bramen’s book pretty directly.

“Bramen traces this impulse back to our nation’s origins, when the passive framing of the Declaration of Independence (“it becomes necessary”) presented the Revolution as a grudging act of war instigated by British tyranny. But niceness came into full fruition, she argues, in the nineteenth century, her area of scholarly expertise. This was the period when America became an imperial power, and Bramen demonstrates the ways in which niceness served as a cheery façade pasted over violence and injustice. The culture of “Southern hospitality” perpetuated the belief that American slavery was a kinder, more compassionate variety than that practiced in the Caribbean. Later in the century, the annexation of the Philippines was heralded as a mission of “benevolent assimilation,” a phrase that President William McKinley used in his 1898 speech to the occupied nation to suggest that, unlike the Spanish empire, Americans would be nice. “We come not as invaders or conquerors but as friends,” McKinley proclaimed.”

– Meghan O’Gieblyn (The New Yorker, review of American Niceness)

“Americans … because we have grown up believing that our country is at the end of some evolutionary spectrum of democracy and modernity, and therefore, often unconsciously, we analyze or perceive foreign cultures according to these standards. We also know very little about the history the US has had with each of these places — what sort of economic, military, legislative, social or cultural interventions took place and shaped that country.”

– Suzy Hanson (Interview with Black Agena Report, Nov 2018)

Again, the book is not a work of theory but almost a study guide for the majority (sadly) of Americans who actually still are fully functioning from within the U.S. state propaganda apparatus. A study guide to deprogram the indoctrinated. And, of course, it is a reminder for all of us that the creeping affects and secondary characteristics of propaganda can still infect your thinking, regardless how much you know about how it all works. And Bramen’s cultural examination of “niceness” is pretty sharp if not overly deep. The niceness in the American psyche is tied into sentimentality, a certain kind of salesman mentality that certainly permeated the US directly after WW2. But it is true, and Europeans I know all say this, that when they visit the U.S. they are bewildered by the amount of smiles they get. Its seen as obviously false and insincere. But for Americans, insincerity is just another form of sincere. And sincere is a sort of mythic beast, a unicorn of the American mind. The American version of nice is always, at bottom, a sales device.

One of the virtues here is that its probably as good a companion reader as is available for those wanting to learn the alternative reading of the propaganda machine that they live within. This is not to trivialize the work at all, only to take note of who who needs to read this. And the answer is, most Americans. I have taught at University level and had first year students come to class not having any idea what *colonialism* was. No idea of its history or meaning. And even when some few did know the general meaning of something of U.S. history, say Manifest Destiny, it was almost always from a strictly individualistic perspective. The Puritan and the rugged frontiersman, these merge in the collective unconscious of the U.S. This is what people learn from kindergarten onward.

“Blacks being unable to forget the terrible wrongs done to them would nurse murderous wishes . . . while whites would live in a state of anticipatory fear that urged preemptive violence.”

– Thomas Jefferson (quoted by Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” July 5, 1852)

There was a recent article at VOX about class — representing it as a cultural choice, sort of. A lifestyle decision. And I recall Jacobin (which is only marginally more palatable than VOX) entered the discourse to provide a corrective, but in the usual manner of anything Sunkara touches, it was only half right. Actually it wasn’t right at all, but it was wrong in a microscopically less radioactive way than VOX. But my point here is that American Exceptionalism, American Innocence, IS in fact a corrective to the vast majority of highly reactionary arguments out there. There is a loss of something radical in so much writing today that self identifies as leftist. And the fact that standard bearers for liberalism today (The Guardian, The Atlantic et al) are simply openly fascistic. And I don’t believe that is hyperbole. The liberal attacks on Julian Assange are a case in point. Or the slurs against Maduro. These are the litmus tests for radicalism. I cannot imagine the alternative press of the Vietnam War era publishing hit pieces on a figure such as Assange.

“The liberty, freedom, and democracy that supposedly characterized the formation of the U.S. did not include the Indigenous people whose land made “independence” possible. English settlers spent centuries decimating the Indigenous people of the North American mainland prior to formal independence. Natsu Taylor Saito explains that between 1513 and 1900, an Indigenous population of fifteen million people was reduced to 250,000 in what now belongs to the United States and Canada.”

– Sirvent & Haiphong (ibid)

Saito’s number is a low ball figure by the by.

The land was unoccupied. “We” came to make it profitable (oh, and green. Make the desert green…wait, that’s Israel, but you see how this how this model works). This is the narrative I learned in school- and the genocide of indigenous peoples was not taught. Nor was *class* discussed. Settler colonialism feels close to the soul of North American white folk. Even today you can find *thanksgiving day* parties at grammar schools and pre schools in which racist colonial folk tales are repeated and enacted by the children themselves. And the fables of Christopher Columbus and the *new* world And as Sirvent and Haiphong point out, the Washington Redskins football team is a staple of Thanksgiving Day sport.

The book covers the eugenics work in the U.S. that so inspired Hitler, and has a requisite chapter on 9/11 (and it does occur to me that there is no topic quite so difficult, perhaps, to write about).

A mere fifty years ago, as I first attended Le Conte Junior High School in El Lay, one did not often have black friends come with you to certain places. I had a black girlfriend, and I was naive and hence surprised at the level of invective directed at us. A mere fifty years ago Americans believed in the post war fantasy and dream. And really, Vietnam marked the first really significant rupture in that illusion. And Vietnam marked, also, the consolidation of the intelligence community in response to that rupture. And it signaled the earmarking of *serious* money for military psy-ops.

The Edward Bernays century went into warp speed. (see what I did there? How many cool allusions *packed* into one sentence?) It marked “that”, too. The rise of pop culture. But it marked something else, as well. For while the fifties and early sixties are easy to parody, this was the era of Leave it To Beaver and Ed Sullivan, or hot rods and James Dean — it was also markedly freer and less structured than the pre fab daily existence that followed. The paradox is the conformist fifties were in many ways a less oppressive society then what followed. The genuine cultural eruption of the sixties…the antiwar movement, civil rights, and sexual openness was rightly perceived as a threat. So, what America was sold was *Freedom*….free expression, freedom to find yourself, etc. But in fact ever more laws were being written, more police were being hired, budgets for Intelligence and surveillance increased, and organized recreation became a thing. (Marcuse feels relevant again, here). From the seventies onward the more freedom and self expression were promoted the less there was of either. Today the U.S. feels like a strange exercise in personal self imprisonment, whenever I visit. Nowhere does so much petty meaningless legal paperwork and forms and applications and checks follow one around. Nowhere does one actually have less time to ‘do nothing’. Nowhere am I more aware of being under the gaze of the policing apparatus. When in the States today I am constantly aware that there must be some law I am breaking. The bigger the bureaucracy the easier to suffocate a populace with tedium and required forms. But Americans do remain nice about it..except they don’t. Until recently, maybe even ten years ago, the pathological niceness of American culture was ever present, in some form. Today, not so much. Today, there is too much anxiety, too much desperation. Nice is exclusive to the propaganda wing of the government.

“While radical labor organizers and Black freedom organizers were being labeled communists to justify racist and class-based repression from the FBI or the Ku Klux Klan, Koreans were subject to a similar anticommunist racism. Cumings explains that 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.” American military officials were trained to think of Koreans as “gooks,” giving fertile ground for the mass extermination campaigns that characterized American military policy during the war. Anticommunist racism followed an old formula in new clothes. “

– Sirvent & Haiphong (ibid)

And we see the legacy of this in the worlds of entertainment and the arts (sic). Haiophong and Sirvent have an amusing but accurate critique of the broadway hit Hamilton. And perhaps I feel this to be so insightful because I know many of those involved in the production. And one of the most undeniable and indelible truths of 21st century America (and maybe a good chunk of the 20th, too) is the collaboration of liberalism with White Supremacy and neo fascism. Liberals will always default to collaborator.

“Hamilton is a pitch perfect example of how practices of diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism often reinforce the ideologies of American exceptionalism and American innocence. Consider how Lin-Manuel Miranda explained his rationale for casting black actors in the roles of people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Such casting, he said, “allow[s] you to leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door.” Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theatre that hosted Hamilton added his take. “It has liberated a lot of people who might feel ambivalent about the American experiment to feel patriotic,” he said. “I can feel it in myself— it makes me cheer to be reminded of everything great about America and to have the story reappropriated for the immigrant population.”

– Sirvent & Haiphong (ibid)

Now I happen to think American theatre is the ultimate example of what has happened to culture. (the Eustis quote is simply priceless). Of course I was involved in theatre and I knew firsthand the ascension of the beancounter, or rather the Ivy League beancounter, and the gradual but inexorable erasure of the working class from the stages of America. And I’ve seen the professionalization of the writer and artist. The rise of the University and its diploma system to further manage cultural outlaws. But I digress. The book rightly emphasizes again and again the inherent and caustic racism that operates at every level in the U.S. society. It targets very accurately the pieties of the white liberal class.

This is a book I would suggest people buy next Xmas, or for someone’s birthday, a nephew or niece, whoever. Those whose coats need pulling. Those heading off to college. Those heading off to high school. Those not heading off to high school. Shit, buy the book for the 60% of Americans who believe in angels and ghosts. Buy it for everyone who loved Eastwood’s film American Sniper.

“It is important to note that the U.S. has historically held disproportionate influence over the IMF and World Bank. The U.S. has by far the largest vote at nearly 18 percent in both institutions. U.S. influence is reflected in IMF and World Bank policy, especially in the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP) that have ravaged nations in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. These programs began in 1980 as measures of assistance to relieve poor and formerly colonized countries from debts imposed on them from their colonizers during the post-war period. Instead of lending assistance, however, SAPs have only increased the economic burden imposed by U.S. imperialism by forcing indebted countries to privatize state industries, open up their economies for corporate investment, and restructure their political systems to benefit American and Western monopolies. ( ) The IMF is the American-led face of what Ghanian revolutionary leader Kwame Nkrumah called “neocolonialism.” Neocolonialism accurately describes the continued foreign plunder of African nations despite formal recognition of their independence. American imperial dominance on the world stage has facilitated the conditions of neocolonialism.”
Sirvent & Haiphong (ibid)

In one sense this is the most important chapter in the book. For this is the ruling class alibi that blankets all of its crimes. We meant well. We had the best of intentions.

And it was liberal Obama who initiated the pivot toward Africa. And he was only intensifying the policies of his predecessors. AFRICOM grew exponentially under Obama, and military ‘actions’ rose 300% in 2015 (per Sirvent & Haiphong). The rise of global fascism is a dire concern today. But not if you read mainstream media news. The U.S. backing of a fascist opposition in Venezuela speaks to the U.S.complicity in this global rise. Anyone who does not defend Maduro and legitimate government of Venezuela is most likely a liberal, or a fascist themselves. That is where things stand now. The radical voices of opposition have to defend sovereignty wherever it exists. Just as anti death penalty advocates must try to stop Ted Bundy being executed, so must socialists and anti-imperialists defend the targets of U.S. aggression. From Maduro to Assad to the DPRK, to Iran — and personally the hardest part these days is making sense of how China fits into all this analysis. The cult of Xi is growing. And yes, while I am happy China serves as a bulwark against U.S. hegemony, I still worry China is itself gradually becoming another form of the U.S.

The racism that built America is expressed today is myriad ways. But lets take Haiti (since Haiphong and Sirvent do). And because Wikileaks played a critical role in exposing the criminality and sociopathy of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s plundering of that island.

“Following the earthquake, Haiti was known as the “NGO republic” due to the presence of anywhere between 3,000 and 10,000 NGOs operating within the country. NGOs were ostensibly present in Haiti to facilitate the distribution of “foreign aid” but instead reinforced the United States’ historically imperial relationship with Haiti. Aid monies donated from the U.S. for emergency and reconstruction relief were funneled into American military and corporate investments.”

– Sirvent & Haiphong (ibid)

In fact nearly all the foreign aid and all the donations monies went into the pockets of U.S. organizations and businesses. And allow me to quote Haiphong & and Sirvent again…

“American corporate media outlets have struggled to maintain the legitimacy of white saviorism in Haiti, mainly due to the exposure of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s role in the looting of the country. The Clinton’s record in Haiti hurt Hillary Clinton’s popularity in the 2016 presidential election. WikiLeaks found that it was Hillary Clinton’s State Department that prevented a minimum wage increase in Haiti. As president, her husband Bill supported right-wing death squads that helped engineer the second coup of Haitian President Jean Paul Aristide in 2004. Through the Clinton Foundation, Bill and Hillary Clinton accumulated billions of dollars worth in donations that were then siphoned to billionaire investors who built hotels and other profitable ventures at the expense of poor Haitians. The exposure of the Clinton Foundation produced a rupture in the legitimacy of the White Savior Industrial Complex in Haiti. Even Oxfam has come under recent fire for allowing aid workers to commit sexual acts in exchange for participation in the organization’s food program.”

One would hope that information such as that above, in a chapter on *White Saviorism*, would help to politically (and culturally) educate people to recognize the narratives of white goodness that are manufactured by the propaganda system of the state. And by Hollywood. I’m not holding my breath but I’d like to think books like this will help.

Of course the U.S. has done similar things in even European countries, such as the former Yugoslavia. After dismantling the FRY the U.S. aid agencies and mercenaries trafficked in both humans and drugs. And of course the U.S. support was on the side of the fascists during the assault on the former socialist state. But then the U.S. is only too happy to create new dependent client states (see Kosovo), too. I mention this because as exhaustive as this book is, in many respects, it still but scratches the surface of the crimes that can be laid at the feet of the Imperialist West.

“U.S. humanitarianism is therefore not part of the solution to the world’s problems. It is part of the problem. Thus, true revolutionary social change will not come from the generous donations of former presidents, poverty awareness campaigns by Hollywood celebrities, or American university graduates with a degree in international economics. As Maximiliam Forte tells his students, “It is important not to assume that others are simply waiting for a stranger to come and lead them, like a Hollywood tale of the usual white messiah who is always the hero of other people’s stories.” In fact, true change will not come from the U.S. ruling class at all.”

– Sirvent & Haiphong (ibid)

And that is the final word in a sense. Class. And the delusions of the ruling class.

“I say that the United States of America is a unique experiment in history. I believe in American exceptionalism. I wasn’t for sending ground forces into Libya. It would have been counterproductive, but we are an inspiration to these people. I know because I’ve looked them in the eyes, and they looked at me. They look to America for inspiration and leadership.”

– John McCain

There is more, including a cogent take on the LGBT community, drawing on work from Dean Spade and others. And a chapter on immigration and the wall. And a final chapter on the military titled Conclusion: Who Exactly Does the Military Serve? Starting with Rory Fanning’s now somewhat famous article (which I read, at least, at Tom Dispatch) titled “Why Do We Keep Thanking the Troops?” Its an appropriate ending.

I’d also suggest reading Max Forte’s entire book Good Intentions…a telling extract is here.

Aesthetic resistance means learning to read the codes. Learning what propaganda does, and how it does it. All resistance requires de-coding the propaganda apparatus. America’s hubris and arrogance inflicts untold suffering on mankind. The U.S. state is run on a strict hierarchy of class and race. This book is a concise catalogue of how capitalism manufactures inequality, sustains it, and profits from it.

John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwriting. Plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. Taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. A collection of plays, Sea of Cortez & Other Plays was published in 1999, and his book on aesthetics, Aesthetic Resistance and Dis-Interest was published by Mimesis International in 2016.