Suzy Hansen won a writing fellowship in 2007 from Charles Crane, “a Russophile and scion of a plumbing-parts fortune,” and it allowed her to go abroad for 2 years. She went to Turkey, much to the dismay of her family and friends. This grant was rumored to have been reserved for spies but Suzy was in Turkey as a journalist. The book she wrote is called Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World. Hansen goes off to Turkey believing that America is the exceptional nation that it claims to be. She had been taught, as we all have, to feel a certain smugness about being American, brought up in a can-do nation where freedom reigns. But the people of Turkey had not been indoctrinated in the American version of American history. They experienced the Turkish version of American interaction and they were not as enamored of America as some of us, in all our innocence, tend to be.
America has had a sort of missionary zeal about spreading the wonders of our Democracy to nations it has deemed might be tending towards Communism. The period after WWII was all about a sort of contest between Russia and America to divide the world’s nations like so many spoils of war, much the way England and Spain, in all their pride, divided up the world (something the world did not necessarily know about or agree to). We tend to think of America as being different from those early imperialists, but what Hansen learned in Turkey, and then in Greece, and Afghanistan is that imperialism was still practiced by America, but in different forms.
America went on a tear after the Marshall Plan went into effect in the post-world war II years and aggressively wooed any nation that it thought might be susceptible to Communism. It offered “modernization” in the form of convincing nations to develop their resources and to welcome industry and business (Capitalism). It tempted citizens with luxury goods and pricey comforts. Before nations even realized what was happening they began to lose their individuality, their unique culture, even in some cases their language.
America tempted governments with weapons and military accessories like planes and ships and if they were reluctant America would even support political turmoil and install a new leader. All these meddlesome things were done in the arrogant belief that people wanted to live like everyone lived in America. If they even had to modify their Muslim faith to fit in these new tastes that it would turn out well for them (or for America anyway) in the end. According to Ms. Hansen, America, in its extreme hubris has wreaked havoc with cultures all over the world and we have a lot to answer for. She is not alone in this belief.
I was torn as I read this book. I have always respected the idea of democratic governance. I also knew that America had never, from its very beginnings, lived up to its creed. Our forefathers said that all men are created equal and they wrote it down for all to see, even though they kept slaves who were also human beings, and some of them even admitted that these slaves were human beings. The very fact that our Constitution was based on a lie may have doomed American democracy from its inception. That may be why we see ourselves in one rather glittery way and why others think that luster is quite tarnished.
I understand what Suzy’s European friends felt and I understand that they experienced America from a different perspective than we often do. I am rather ashamed of the America she describes in this nonfiction book based on her first-hand observations. Probably, although you may resist the message that Ms. Hansen brings us from our neighbors on this planet, you should still give this book your careful attention. She and her favorite author, James Baldwin, can help you readjust America’s halo.
I want America to face up to its flaws and do better. Although that seems quite impossible right now, I want America to eventually succeed in finding a balance between power and humility. If we cannot mend our ways in the world it is possible that the American culture, as many claim, will truly be in decline. I would hate to see the idealistic aims of our democracy disappear because we cannot contain our rapaciousness, which is often a sin that comes with power.
In the Epilogue Suzy Hansen talks about America after Trump:
“But I did believe that in at least one way Trump voters were little different from anyone else in the country. They, like all Americans, had been told a lie: that they were the best, that America was the best, that their very birthright was progress and prosperity and the envy and admiration of the world. I did not blame those voters for Trump’s election…I blamed the country for Trump’s election because it was a country built on the rhetoric and actions of American supremacy or ‘greatness,’ or ‘exceptionalism,’ … it had been built on the presupposition that America was and should be, the most powerful country on the planet.”
I have not given up on my country yet, despite all its flaws, although I have never been more tempted to become an American in exile, a lifestyle I cannot afford. It never hurts an individual to do some introspection and it never hurts a nation (made of individuals) to turn critical and honest eyes inward. Suzy Hansen’s book Notes on a Foreign Country was an emotional and an intellectual journey.