American Exceptionalism and American Innocence*

Beware of Loss of Innocence if You Read this Book

This book was not quite what I had imagined it to be. In much of my nonfiction reading lately, I’ve been wanting to read about the concepts of fake news and truth as these are often topics of discussion in these modern times of the Trump Administration. While this book mentioned fake news on the cover, it goes far deeper than to expose current media. In fact, it looks at the course of all of American history through the lens of American exceptionalism and American innocence. The authors posit that these two concepts have created atrocities that the average American cannot appreciate.

First, let’s define the terms. American exceptionalism is the idea that we, as Americans, believe that we are the pinnacle of what democracy represents; how we create democracy, therefore, must be the right way. We believe we are exceptional and right. The concept of American innocence follows from this. According to the authors, this is what kicks in when we try to resolve the cognitive dissonance of seeing our sometimes morally abhorrent actions as laudable. We see these actions as such either because we believe the ends justify the means or we no longer see former reprehensible actions as relevant.

The book of explorers a variety of topics through these twin lenses, everything from Trump to slavery to Broadway’s Hamilton to global-reaching humanitarian efforts by celebrities. The book is always harsh in its appraisal of our past and present actions. This is not an easy read. In fact, I would say once it has been read, it cannot be unread. You may very well find yourself starting to see current issues and statements made by the government and the press through the eyes of exceptionalism and innocence. I think it is good to have an awareness all these issues, but I think the message could have been delivered in a less we suck way. A more kind and forgiving presentation—rather than a strident, shaming one—might be more apt to persuade and empower.