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Struggle Session

Suzy Hansen’s Notes on a Foreign Country asks its American readers to finally recognize their nation’s place in the world.

Istanbul in 2015. Tuncay / Flickr

Suzy Hansen’s Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World begins in 2014 in Soma, western Turkey. That May, a coalmine fire killed 301 workers. The Turkish government handled the situation in typically exemplary fashion; one aide to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan kicked a distraught protester and was subsequently “diagnosed with soft tissue trauma” in that leg, as the Guardian reported.

Hansen, an Istanbul-based regular at the New York Times Magazine, arrived in Soma expecting to write about the catastrophe’s more technical details. Instead, she ended up taking a crash course in American-Turkish relations courtesy of the miners and residents.

Her interlocutors believed that no one could understand such disasters without considering phenomena ranging from the United States’ Cold War machinations, which included its support for labor unions that neither empowered or protected workers, to IMF (read: US) policies Erdoğan embraced, which destroyed traditional livelihoods and drove folks into the mines.

Hansen writes that, of all the things she discovered during her time in Soma, “the resilience of my own innocence was the most terrifying.” This innocence had sustained a superficial and compartmentalized worldview that either failed to acknowledge the United States’ destructive international behavior or excused it on the basis of presumed good intentions. “Americans,” Hansen writes, “are surprised by the direct relationship between their country and foreign ones because we don’t acknowledge that America is an empire.”

While Hansen’s own recognition of this fact may have been a long time coming, her blunt deployment of the e-word offers a welcome respite from most mainstream commentators. Other New York Times writers, it seems, don’t have time to address the United States’ international adventures because they are too busy bleating for war or arguing that McDonald’s will bring about world peace.

Hansen’s journey of self- and national discovery began in 2007, when she moved to Istanbul on a writing fellowship established by Charles Crane, the plumbing-parts magnate who also served as half of the King-Crane Commission.  In 1919, Woodrow Wilson dispatched this duo to ask the inhabitants of post-Ottoman lands what sort of new government they would like.

Of course, indigenous opinion disappeared in accordance with the whims of the United Kingdom and France; after all, Europeans knew best. By the time Hansen staged her own expedition to post-post-Ottoman territory, the United States had long replaced Europe as home of Those Who Know Best.

However, as Hansen is reminded over and over — not only in Turkey but in Greece, Afghanistan, Egypt, and beyond — she has significant gaps in her knowledge of the modern world and the role the United States played in forging it. Her experiences begged the question: just how much do Americans actually know?

Initially, Hansen rails against Turkish nationalism and the country’s obvious crimes against Kurds and Armenians. She cannot see that the United States’ genocidal theft of Native American land and persecution of black people might have impacted the national character or helped authorize its habit of global plunder. As part of her relentless self-critique, Hansen observes:

This was a kind of nationalism so insidious that I had not known to call it nationalism; this was a self-delusion so complete that I could not see where it began and ended, could not root it out, could not destroy it.

Pretensions to American exceptionalism, she notes, depend on an “empire [that had] long ago developed ways of preventing its own citizens from knowing the contours of its existence.” Against this, Hansen sets out to dismantle her ingrained prejudices and to reset the very foundations of her knowledge — which, again, is a lot more than can be said for New York Times writers who opt to opine that Iraq should “suck on this.”

I was particularly drawn to Notes on a Foreign Country because I also left the United States in my twenties and ended up in Turkey. I didn’t have Hansen’s intellectual alibi for my movements. Instead, I left because my own country had long felt foreign to me.

My experiences abroad simply confirmed that my homeland was not — and had never been — up to any good, although I did loudly broadcast my American identity whenever my friend and I were mistaken for Russian prostitutes while hitchhiking along the Turkish coast.

Like Hansen, I would discover that “most Turks, like most of the rest of the world, had long grown accustomed to distinguishing between the American government and American citizens” — an unnecessarily charitable view that provided me with places to stay from south Lebanon to Colombia. People opened their doors to me despite having had family members and property obliterated by US-backed military outfits — in these cases, the Israeli and Colombian armies.

I found other parallels with Hansen’s narrative. I, too, had obsessively made lists as a child, plotting every detail of my future — down to the number of buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken that would need to accompany me on a fully-funded excursion to the Amazon. I, too, remembered Operation Desert Storm as a bunch of flashing lights on a television screen that corresponded little to any sort of processable reality (though I knew thanks to my elementary schoolteachers that Saddam Hussein could bomb me out of my desk at any minute). I, too, had at one point been disproportionately moved by the Lee Greenwood song “God Bless the USA.”

Notes may repeat itself; it may feel excessively preoccupied with the author’s auto-analysis of her former ignorance. But Hansen’s sustained self-criticism indicts the white American system itself and, in the process, does the field of journalism a great service with her humility, introspection, and willingness to defy the establishment line.

There aren’t many mainstream writers who would compose the following description of waiting for a flight to Kabul with a bunch of white American security contractors:

The whole room was littered with people who made money off the war, which, I couldn’t help but acknowledge — as I smiled widely back at them in some automatic species-response signal — included me as well. We were all contractors now.

Nor would many admit that they arrived in Greece to cover the financial crisis without knowing the history of American intervention: “[W]hatever I wrote would to Greeks inevitably be read as if the magazine had dispatched an alien from another planet.” To be sure, with its impressive alienation from the reality it has created for the rest of the world, the United States often feels not just like a foreign country but like a different realm altogether.

Throughout the book, Hansen asks, “Who do we become if we don’t become Americans?” Characterizing her years abroad as “not a joyous romp of self-discovery and romance” but rather “a shattering and a shame,” she speculates that it’s an American citizen’s “ethical duty as a human being . . . to consider that our American dreams may have come at the expense of a million other destinies.”

While her description of the present as a “post-American world” doesn’t fit in with the United States’ continuing military and economic escapades, we can hope that more of Hansen’s fellow citizens will use this pre-post-American moment to become a bit more human.