Jun 30, 2019

American Exceptionalism, American Innocence, and What Comes Next: An Interview With Danny Haiphong

By Colin Jenkins / hamptoninstitution.org
American Exceptionalism, American Innocence, and What Comes Next: An Interview With Danny Haiphong

The following is an email interview with author and activist, Danny Haiphong, regarding the current state of capitalism, US politics, and his new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People's History of Fake News-From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror, which is co-authored with Roberto Sirvent. Danny is a regular contributor to Black Agenda Report. His book may be purchased directly from Skyhorse Publishing .

"The failure of the Western left in general and the U.S. left in particular to understand the inextricable, structural connection between empire, colonization, capitalism, and white supremacy-and that all elements of that oppressive structure must be confronted, dismantled, and defeated-continues to give lifeblood to a system that is ready to sweep into the dustbins of history. This is why American Exceptionalism and American Innocence is nothing more than an abject subversion. It destabilizes the hegemonic assumptions and imposed conceptual frameworks of bourgeois liberalism and points the reader toward the inevitable conclusion that U.S. society in its present form poses an existential threat to global humanity."

- Ajamu Baraka

CJ (bold): I've been a personal fan of your writing on Black Agenda Report for many years, so I was excited to hear of this book when it was in the works. Can you let everyone know how it came to fruition? And how it materialized into a co-authoring project with Roberto Sirvent?

DH: Thank you. I certainly have so much gratitude for the Hampton Institute, which I believe is one of the few truly socialist resources available for both new and veteran activists interested in the science of Marxism. As for the book, the project began when Roberto Sirvent reached out to me in the summer of 2017 with the idea of a book of essays on American exceptionalism. Roberto believed that Black Agenda Report's voice needed to be included in any analysis of the subject. We engaged in a series of discussions over the course of the next several months. The conversations centered on issues such as the U.S.' legacy in World War II, the significance of Colin Kaepernick's demonstration against the national anthem, and the framework of humanitarian imperialism.

We realized that American exceptionalism was a thread that linked these issues to a common struggle, the struggle against imperialism. American exceptionalism protects the system of imperialism by linking the interests of the oppressed with those of the ruling class under the banner of the (white) nation-state. Our purpose in writing the book was to ensure that activists and scholars possessed a tool for challenging American exceptionalism from the left. The left really has no use for American exceptionalism because it is based on myth and white supremacy. American exceptionalism presumes that the U.S. is the principle force for good in the world and that U.S. superiority gives the oligarchy the right to determine the destinies of those deemed inferior, whether in Syria, Venezuela, or for Black Americans right here in the United States. We agreed to make internationalism and anti-war politics a central focus of the book from the introduction to the final chapter.

Can you tell us a little about your personal journey through politicizing? Do you identify with any particular ideology?

Sure. I grew up in a working-class community in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My father was a white union worker for the federal government and my mother was a Vietnamese woman who has consistently struggled with mental health issues and has thus struggled with employment. After the elimination of Glass Steagall, banks and creditors sold my mother the dream of owning land and great wealth. Her pursuit of these endeavors nearly left our family bankrupt and her massive credit card debt (upwards of a quarter million dollars by the 2000 economic crisis) forced my father to work sixty to seventy hours per week for several years to make up the difference. Even then he was forced to refinance the house that we lived in twice in order to pay a small portion of the tuition that my sister and I incurred from undergraduate school.

It was in college that I was exposed to the one percent. Unlike many of my Black, brown, and white peers, I was able to attend an elite college and graduate. During this time, I frolicked in the same institution as our class enemy in the one percent. It drove me into depression. I thought about dropping out more than once. Then an Afro-Dominican friend of mine was racially profiled by the police and community in the town outside of my school and my depression turned to anger. I had lost several Black peers to premature death and was already privy to racism from my experiences with being called a "gook" and a "model minority" throughout my childhood. My organizing efforts around his case led to broader efforts to fight against racism on campus. These efforts were severely limited due to the class orientation of many of the students I was organizing with. It became clear that careerism trumped their principles.

I was lucky enough to have a professor who facilitated my transfer to New York City for the fall semester of 2011. While there, I interned for a labor union and participated in Occupy Wall Street. Both the labor movement and Occupy Wall Street, for different reasons, seemed unable to confront the fundamental contradictions of U.S. society. Labor leadership appeared indifferent to militant action out of opportunism and fear of capitalist reprisal. Occupy Wall Street appeared too disorganized to solidify an ideological and strategic direction and thus was vulnerable to state repression. As I participated in these struggles, I began reading corporate mainstream news on the U.S.-NATO invasion of Libya. I questioned why the so-called Black president who I voted for in 2008 would lead an invasion of an African country on what seemed like an Iraq-like pretext. No one in Occupy or the labor movement mentioned Libya.

The invasion of Libya and my frustrations with the struggle on the ground led me to read Black Agenda Report and Huey P. Newton's To Die for the People simultaneously. Each source of information introduced me to the concepts of socialism, anti-imperialism, and internationalism. It was clear from reading Newton and studying Black Agenda Report that I needed a stronger understanding of Marxism and socialist theory. Political education became my new objective. In the years since 2011, I have focused mainly on political education through participation in various mass-based and socialist organizations. I have been writing weekly for Black Agenda Report for the last five years. My ideology is socialist. Not to be confused with democratic socialism or social democracy, I ascribe to Marxism-Leninism as described by Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro and Fred Hampton.

In the Introduction, you explain one of the goals in writing this book: (xix) "we want to equip our readers with the tools to locate, critique, and dismantle the twin ideologies of American exceptionalism and American innocence." Can you expand on this statement a little?

This book is not just meant to tell activists what to think, but how to think. By revealing the central contradictions of American exceptionalism, we believe that this book contributes to the broader struggle for social justice and transformation at the point of ideology. In 7th Congress of the Youth Communist League, Fidel Castro said that

"We must use solid arguments to talk to members and non-members, to speak to those who may be confused or even to discuss and debate with those holding positions contrary to those of the Revolution or who are influenced by imperialist ideology in this great battle of ideas we have been waging for years now, precisely in order to carry out the heroic deed of resisting against the most politically, militarily, economically, technologically and culturally powerful empire that has ever existed. Young cadres must be well prepared for this task."

We feel similarly to Comandante Fidel. American exceptionalism and innocence have shaped the political orientation of every single working class and oppressed person in the United States. While this doesn't mean everyone aligns with the tenets of innocence and exceptionalism, it does mean that their influence surely has an impact on the development of resistance movements against capitalism, white supremacy, and empire. The left in the United States rarely raises the question of war and when the struggle against white supremacy is raised, we find that it is not linked to the questions of power and oppression but rather of representation. This allows U.S. imperialism to render itself innocent of wrongdoing through the division of our struggles into easily containable parts. We believe that if we can identify and demystify American exceptionalism (the belief that the U.S. is a force for good), and American innocence (the belief that the U.S. is "above" the crimes it commits), then we can advance the battle of ideas that is currently being waged in the here and now. For example, instead of arguing that socialism is a project of reform, the rejection of American exceptionalism and innocence helps us realize that socialism requires nothing short of a complete transformation of society. We hope that our book will help others come to this realization through a study of history, ideology, and the reality behind imperialist rhetoric.

A paragraph that struck me as especially important reads, (xxiii) "Many avoid being labeled "un-American" by remaining silent about war, poverty, racism and the many ills that U.S. imperialism inflicts upon the world. Some activists have even suggested that approaching people from "where they are" by appealing to American exceptionalism will help recruit more Americans to the cause of social justice and transformation. If Americans believe "democracy" and "freedom" are worthwhile goals, we are told, then these sentiments should be utilized in service of the development of a more just social order. We believe that this is a monumental error in political thought and action. It not only assumes that the American population, especially the oppressed, primarily identify as "American" and will identify as such for the foreseeable future, but it also assumes that the American nation-state is in fact capable of ever bringing about true freedom, justice, or peace."

Can you talk about why this approach is a "monumental error" and why the underlying assumptions to it are wrongheaded?

The U.S. was never a democracy in the first place. This is difficult to swallow for many, including Bernie Sanders, who still believes that the West is the beacon and standard bearer of "democracy." In this era of neoliberalism, we find that pandering to the so-called values of the U.S. is very common, even among those who claim to be progressive or on the left. Take the example of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. In speech after speech on climate change, Ocasio Cortez continues to insist that the best way to mobilize a fight against tide of environmental catastrophe is to rise to occasion like the U.S. did in World War II. This reinforces the myth that the U.S. saved the world in World War II and that the U.S. is going to save the world again.

Our struggles for liberation and revolution will fail if they intend to make U.S. imperialism a more perfect system. We can't improve upon what doesn't exist. We can't rise to the occasion like in World War II. Real socialists should not whitewash a legacy rife with criminality including the use of two nuclear bombs on Japan, the firebombing a defenseless Dresden at the expense of over thirty thousand civilians, and the corporate financing of Hitler and fascism prior to the U.S. entrance in the war. We discuss the U.S.' participation in WWII in Chapter 4.

We should also remember that American exceptionalism is a white exceptionalism. If we are attempting to reform or perfect the architectures of the U.S. imperial state, then we are perfecting a racist regime whose primary interest is in the mass incarceration, elimination, and erasure of native people and Black people in the United States. Our conceptions of liberty, freedom, and democracy will have to be based on a different model all together, if they are to be useful at all.

Chapter 1 sets the tone for the entire book, dissecting the underlying psychology that stems from dominant culture (culture from above). In it, you hit on the events of 9/11/01 and its aftermath, illustrating how the capitalist ruling class took advantage of this to perpetuate a backs-against-the-wall mythology that continues to prop up the empire. You write, (p 3) "The idea of the United States as a perpetual "victim" of enemy aggression that is compelled to "play defense" on the international stage is a quintessential example of American exceptionalism and American innocence working together."

Can you talk about what you mean here, especially in terms of how exceptionalism and innocence interplay in this scenario?

The Bush administration declared after 9/11 that terrorists hated the United States for its "freedoms." By invoking American exceptionalism and the myth that people all over the world fawn over the achievements of the U.S., the U.S. imperial state was able to simultaneously present itself as a victim of foreign aggression. This aggression was stateless and thus anyone could be blamed for its occurrence. The lies kept coming and coming. First came the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 based on the false allegation that the Taliban were behind the attacks. Then there was the Weapons of Mass Destruction debacle that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Throughout it all, the U.S. justified the destruction of far weaker nations by playing the innocent victim.

Innocence and exceptionalism often go hand in hand. Innocence requires an aggressor, a rapist, a subject devoid of humanity. The cruelty of the beast allows the U.S. ruling class to do whatever it wants in the name of profit. Enslaved Africans and displaced natives were depicted as savage creatures who were blessed by the civilized settler colonialist. In the War on Terror, the terrorist became synonymous with Muslim or Arab. Ironically, plenty of actual terrorists, or who are more appropriately named mercenaries, are created by U.S. foreign policy and its staunch ally, Saudi Arabia. But the War on Terror has always been less a crusade against these forces than it was a war to justify endless war abroad and state repression at home.

In Chapter 3 you address the interconnectedness of American imperialism, Black oppression (from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration), and the genocide of Native Americans at the hand of European colonizers. Can you tell readers why this is such an important connection to understand?

In this era of Trump, there appears to be an ever-growing awareness of the race-based foundations of the United States. Missing from this awareness is how the U.S. never grew out of its white supremacist roots. We hear a lot that Trump "isn't what the U.S. is all about." We are often told, especially by white liberals, that the U.S. is proud of diversity and inclusion. Yet the plight of indigenous people and Black people in the United States tell a different story. Not many people know that indigenous people face higher rates of police homicide than Black Americans. Or that Black wealth in the U.S. is set to be zero by year 2053 if current trends persist. Inclusion and diversity ignore these realities. Even more disturbing is how anti-Russian racism fuels much of the white liberal resistance to Trump.

Without the enslavement of Africans and colonization of indigenous peoples, the U.S. would not have been able to develop the capitalist infrastructure necessary to become a global imperial terror in the world. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, who we cite extensively in Chapter 2, explains that the U.S. military's very formation lies in the hiring of mercenaries by the War Department to rob and loot indigenous communities. There is a deep misconception that the struggle for Black liberation or against settler colonialism is a domestic dispute. Nothing could be further from the truth. If we don't internationalize the struggle against racism at home, then we can't follow in the footsteps of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party, both of whom sought redress and recognition from the United Nations. American exceptionalism helps us forget these struggles and keeps us interested only in making the U.S. a more "diverse" society at the expense of any real struggle for power.

As someone who has gone from once being restrained by the thought parameters of dominant culture to now being deeply involved in revolutionary thought, I've noticed that one of the most difficult tasks when dealing with folks who are stuck in that former stage is reorienting their thought from individualistic to systemic. Angela Davis talked about this type of individualistic worldview being solidified in the neoliberal era, to the point where it even negatively affects activism and organizing. One of the reasons I've always loved your writing, as well as most content on Black Agenda Report, is because it is firmly embedded in a structural/systemic understanding. Not surprisingly, this book carries that analysis forward. For example, in talking about the systemic effects of white supremacy in the United States, you write, (p 54) "If American society itself is a monument to white supremacy, then the economic, cultural, and legal manifestations of white supremacy must take precedence over individual attitudes." Can you explain to our readers why it is so crucial that systemic effects must take precedence over individual attitudes?

Individualism is a bedrock ideology of American capitalism and imperialism. It is a powerful force that has a wide array of effects on the consciousness of the masses. Our book centers individualism not only in the neoliberal stage of capitalism but also in the formation of the United States as an empire that privileges the god-like image of the white citizen. The U.S. ruling class has been comprised of these whte citizens from the very beginning. White citizens of the ruling elite have attempted to instill the same values, principles, and behaviors in the entire white American population with great success. Citizenship here is key. Citizenship gives white America something to mobilize around. That was the basis of the entire Jim Crow period. The end of slavery was depicted as the end of white citizenship and organizations such as the KKK emerged to ensure that freedom for Black Americans would be nominal rather than universal in character.

Individualism not only mobilizes the political right but also infects the so-called left as well. We saw this inn the recent struggles against Confederate monuments in the United States. We also saw this in the confrontations of figures such as Richard Spencer. The focus tends to be on individual symbols and leaders rather than on the material conditions that allow people like Spencer or monuments of the Confederacy to exist at all. Such a focus allows real monuments to white supremacy such as the prison-state and finance capital to remain undisturbed and unchallenged. Individualism thus inevitably leads us toward projects to improve the image of the U.S. rather than the conditions of the masses. While some may see this as a defense of the political right, it is really a call for us to move our energies toward the structures of power that give the political right a foundation to stand on. If we cut that foundation, we cut out their existence as well.

An ongoing topic of importance is how white folks fit into modern revolutionary politics. This is especially important in the United States because of our long history of racial divide, both within the working class itself and as used as an effective tool by the capitalist class. It continues to be a crucial question. One product of liberalism and "white guilt" has been this manifestation of white saviorism.

You touch on this phenomenon in the book, writing on page 161, "The White Savior Industrial Complex is a modernized expression of American individualism and thus a direct product of the United States' racist and capitalist roots. In an article in the Atlantic, Teju Cole describes the White Savior Industrial Complex as "a valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage." White saviorism recruits Americans-and white Americans in particular-to resolve the guilt inevitably produced by the unbearable conditions that U.S. imperialism has wrought on the world with individual acts of charity funded and sponsored by the very agents responsible for the destruction. Acts of "charity" not only focus on individualized action over collective response but also tend to reinforce the United States' obsessive fear of racialized "others." The White Savior Industrial Complex uses charity to absolve the U.S. of responsibility for the conditions produced by this obsession. White guilt is the escape valve. "We can participate in the economic destruction of Haiti over long years," Cole writes, 'but when the earthquake strikes it feels good to send $10 each to the rescue fund.'"

White saviorism is usually reserved for liberal circles; however, like most products of whiteness, it can certainly infect radical and revolutionary circles as well. That being said, what are your thoughts on more recent notions like "allies" and "accomplices?" How do such roles square up within a proletarian movement in the vein of Fred Hampton's Rainbow Coalition? How do you see the divides working out between so-called "class reductionists" (who are often white, and thus more likely to underestimate other forms of oppression) and hyper-marginalized members of the working class (Black, Brown, Women, etc) who experience these compounded forms of oppression every day?

Those are great questions. The United States is an imperialist nightmare with no shortage of internal contradictions that pose serious problems in developing a class-conscious revolutionary movement. White leftists in the United States are divided into two general categories (although they are far from exhaustive). These categories are the New Left, which emerged from anti-war and other political movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and a new generation of younger leftists who were inspired by Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and now the Sanders phenomenon. What is interesting is that while the New Left is often thought of as class reductionist, the politics of white saviorism often instills feelings of guilt about their white privileges and render them attracted to liberal discourses on race and identity largely emanating from the bourgeois academy and university system. I find that class analysis is what is reduced when class analysis is ignored, while class reductionists in the white left are reacting to this development in a negative way. Both often lead to irreconcilable issues and weak movements.

The younger white leftists are more amenable to radical interpretations of society. What is lacking is political organization, a real vehicle that can drive younger activists toward revolutionary politics and strategies. Occupy Wall Street was unable to become an organized, discipline force capable of developing long-term alliances and fending off state repression. Right now, everything is confined within the Democratic Party and Bernie Sanders. On the surface, it appears that Sanders supporters tend to take a class reductionist point of view. Many of the demands of Sanders supporters revolve around economic necessity. Corporate Democrats have taken such a surface level analysis very seriously and have attempted to make what is a pretty diverse group of people who are aligned to Sanders look like a bunch of angry white men.

It is important to realize, however, is that the only effective way that class reductionism or white saviorism have ever been countered is through the self-determined political organization of Black Americans and the racially oppressed. Your example of the Rainbow Coalition is a good one. Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party were able to forge alliances with white radical organizations such as the Young Patriots because there was a significant Black left-leaning presence in the struggle of that time. Even if the Black Panther Party was numerically small, Black Americans in large numbers opposed wars, favored economic transformation, and (especially young Black Americans of the period) were attracted to political demands that sought to rectify the failures of integration and Civil Rights. Furthermore, there was a large global socialist movement led by a bloc of nations such as China and the USSR which helped challenge U.S. imperial domination worldwide. In the absence of these conditions, we have seen white saviorism and class reductionism battle for the hearts and minds of the white left.

In summary, Black workers and working people of oppressed nationalities must be the ones to lead the conversation and organization around their self-determination. This is the best antidote to the contradictions white left, which has always needed direction. But the answer for white leftists is not to sit on their hands or give up demands for economic and political change. It also isn't to become "white allies" with the oppressed in the way that it has been defined by the academy. White American leftists need to be challenging the ideologies of exceptionalism and saviorism, as well as the far-right political trend occurring throughout the Western world. They must ask: when has being an "ally" transformed the material conditions of anyone? No movement has ever been based on elitist grand-standing, which is what I believe the politics of diversity and inclusion promotes in the final analysis. White leftists must bring an anti-imperialist, anti-war orientation into their communities and find ways to promote solidarity with their comrades in Black communities and other oppressed communities. That is the only way forward.

In Chapter 21, you tackle the question, "who exactly does the military serve?" As a military veteran who has written about such questions, this spoke to me. In answering, you write (page 239), "Consciousness of who and what is behind the dominant narratives of American exceptionalism and American innocence is a prerequisite for the development of an alternative narrative that can be popularized widely." Can you elaborate on what you mean here?

We must know the enemy. American exceptionalism and innocence make us believe that the enemy is ourselves. Or, that the enemy is the "other"-a racialized threat created to justify the original sin of slavery through the dehumanization of the African or Black person. Alternative political narratives emerge only when the veil has been lifted off those who cause the suffering. The Black Lives Matter movement initially pointed to the police and prison-state as the enemy that was not only killing Black Americans but also reinforcing narratives of criminality so important to the conditions of premature death that plague Black communities across the country. We believe that lifting the veil from the peddlers of American exceptionalism and innocence gives us an even broader understanding of who and what is behind the oppression and exploitation of Black America and the working class more broadly. Corporate media outlets, education systems, corporate executives, military officials, and politicians; these are the stakeholders of the ideologies of American exceptionalism and innocence. Being able to identify them and begin an investigation into their interconnectedness helps us realize how power in the form of the profit-motive is at the heart of U.S. imperialism. Perhaps even more critical is that we can then see that this system is not an amorphous or abstract project. It is a product of class rule in a specific historical epoch and thus a temporary condition which can be destroyed and replaced by a new system with the help of a peoples' revolution. This is no easy feat, and I don't pretend have the answers as to how this will happen but getting more struggling people in the U.S. to realize this is an important step.

That is what our book is all about. And we feel that ending on the note of the U.S. military is appropriate since there is perhaps no institution more destructive and obviously controlled by the capitalist class. The U.S. military is also one of the most venerated institution in U.S. society for this exact reason. Few people, except the ruling class themselves, would support wars if they believed the only reason for them was to expand the profits of a small number of capitalist oligarchs. Thus, the military has been depicted as an engine of democracy, freedom, and an opportunity to get an education and a job in a society that provides neither as a human right. Prior to that, the U.S. military was heralded as an engine of white prosperity and employment. Its targets on the other hand have been turned into sub-human creatures worthy of annihilation. Who can forget when, in 2011, the U.S. military-state and its media accomplices claimed that the Gaddafi government was using Viagra in the U.S.-NATO invasion of Libya to rape women and children? Or when the U.S. military trained its soldiers to view Koreans as wild savages and "gooks" during the Korean War? Unfortunately, many Americans have, and that's because American exceptionalism has infected the political discourse from top to bottom.

As a society, we seem to be on a precipice of sorts. Or at least find ourselves in a significant moment in history, with neoliberalism intensifying inequality, environmental disaster looming, extreme wealth taking ownership of our public agenda, never-ending militarism, creeping fascism, etc. Where do you see things heading in the next five years? And how should we as radicals respond from within the belly of the beast?

In the next five years, I see three developments of significance that will have a profound impact on the trajectory of the U.S. left.

First, the ruling class will continue its assault on the social democratic tendencies of the Democratic Party base. This will exacerbate the political crisis of legitimacy occurring in the United States generally, strengthen the figures such as Trump, and lead hopefully to new opportunities to develop a viable independent left political party.

Second, the U.S. is due for a capitalist economic crisis. This crisis is likely to be even more devastating than the 2007-08 crisis. The proletarianization of U.S. society will reach a breaking point. Where workers and oppressed people in the U.S. go from here is anyone's guess, but we can expect that they won't take the suffering quietly.

Third, Russia and China are eclipsing the United States on the world stage. U.S. imperialism wants nothing more than to weaken its rivals to the East. This means that in the next five years, the threat of war with Syria, Iran, Russia, and China will escalate. The threat will increase amid political and economic crisis.

We must respond through political organization and education. There is a progressive tide occurring in the United States. But the tide is not organized outside of the Democratic Party and there is no Black liberation movement to lead it. Thus, we must be vigilant in creating the conditions for the organization of the working class and popularizing the politics of solidarity and anti-imperialism.

The conditions for organizing on a socialist and communist basis are becoming more favorable. Large portions of the United States want universal healthcare and are more amenable to the term socialism. Of course, many still think socialism is the New Deal and a reform project. But the sentiment against unfettered capitalism and imperialism is there and it will be up to us to harness it and push the contradictions forward to their logical conclusion: social revolution.

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