'I recounted this story at the charity dinner simply to make the point that American exceptionalism in the world had as much to do with the largesse of our character as with our great wealth and power, and that causes like the one at hand only enhanced our reputation in the world as a fundamentally decent nation — a beacon, as it were, of human possibility. I thought this would be the easiest of points to make. And things were in fact going smoothly until I uttered the words "American exceptionalism." Instantly — almost before I could get the words out of my mouth — quiet boos erupted from one side of the banquet room. Not loud ugly boos, but polite remonstrative boos, the kind that respectfully censure you for an impropriety. I was shocked. This was a young, bright, prosperous American audience reproaching me for mentioning the exceptionalism of our nation. It was as if they were saying, "Don't you understand that even the phrase 'American exceptionalism' is a hubris that evokes the evils of white supremacy? It is an indecency that we won't be associated with."
In booing, these audience members were acting out an irony: They were good Americans precisely because they were skeptical of American greatness. Their skepticism was a badge of innocence because it dissociated them from America's history of evil. To unreservedly buy into American exceptionalism was, for them, to turn a blind eye on this evil, and they wanted to make the point that they were far too evolved for that. They would never be like those head-in-the-sand Americans who didn't understand that American greatness was tainted by evil. And you could hear — in the spontaneity of their alarm, like a knee jerking at the tap of a rubber hammer — that their innocence of this evil was now a central part of their identity. It was reflex now; they didn't have to think about it anymore.