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79

Innocence Abroad

The awe and shock of Suzy Hansen

(missing author)

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5
notes

by Ursula Lindsey. a critique of her book, Notes on a Foreign Country

? (2018). Innocence Abroad. The Point, 16, pp. 79-96

81

Hansen argues that her lack of awareness about America’s role in the world was structural, intentional—an ignorance that many Americans, particularly white Americans, wear like mental armor, allowing them to believe, against all evidence, that our political and military interventions abroad are always necessary, successful and well-intentioned. “I would never have admitted it, or thought to say it,” Hansen explains, “but looking back, I know that deep in my consciousness I thought that America was at the end of some evolutionary spectrum of civilization, and everyone else was trying to catch up.” Hence, she assumed that in Istanbul, she would assess how well Turkey was meeting certain U.S. standards (“democratization,” “modernization”); she would also think about “solutions” to Islam, because “that’s what Americans always do.”

Hansen occasionally mentions The Fire Next Time (1963), in which Baldwin describes the willful, violent blindness of white Americans, and their determination not to face “reality—the fact that life is tragic.” Baldwin himself left America for France and Turkey because he found life there false and unbearable, a physical and psychological assault. At least African Americans, he wrote, possess “the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace.” Hansen read this passage long before moving to Turkey, but one of her points is how often we can know something but not really accept it. She writes: “Even when I disagreed with America’s policies, I always believed in our inherent goodness, in my own.”

From Istanbul, Hansen traveled to report from Greece, Egypt and Afghanistan, only to discover from wry, patient locals that the crisis each country is currently undergoing can be explained by a history in which U.S. intervention figures prominently. [...]

—p.81 missing author 2 years, 3 months ago

Hansen argues that her lack of awareness about America’s role in the world was structural, intentional—an ignorance that many Americans, particularly white Americans, wear like mental armor, allowing them to believe, against all evidence, that our political and military interventions abroad are always necessary, successful and well-intentioned. “I would never have admitted it, or thought to say it,” Hansen explains, “but looking back, I know that deep in my consciousness I thought that America was at the end of some evolutionary spectrum of civilization, and everyone else was trying to catch up.” Hence, she assumed that in Istanbul, she would assess how well Turkey was meeting certain U.S. standards (“democratization,” “modernization”); she would also think about “solutions” to Islam, because “that’s what Americans always do.”

Hansen occasionally mentions The Fire Next Time (1963), in which Baldwin describes the willful, violent blindness of white Americans, and their determination not to face “reality—the fact that life is tragic.” Baldwin himself left America for France and Turkey because he found life there false and unbearable, a physical and psychological assault. At least African Americans, he wrote, possess “the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace.” Hansen read this passage long before moving to Turkey, but one of her points is how often we can know something but not really accept it. She writes: “Even when I disagreed with America’s policies, I always believed in our inherent goodness, in my own.”

From Istanbul, Hansen traveled to report from Greece, Egypt and Afghanistan, only to discover from wry, patient locals that the crisis each country is currently undergoing can be explained by a history in which U.S. intervention figures prominently. [...]

—p.81 missing author 2 years, 3 months ago
85

“American innocence never dies,” Hansen writes in the book’s final pages. “That pain in my heart is my innocence. The only difference is that now I know it. If there was anything fully shattered during my years abroad, it was faith in my own objectivity, as a journalist or as a human being.” In the end, for Hansen the relationship between the U.S. and the rest of the world boils down to how one American feels, which may be the most American move of all.

hahaha

—p.85 missing author 2 years, 3 months ago

“American innocence never dies,” Hansen writes in the book’s final pages. “That pain in my heart is my innocence. The only difference is that now I know it. If there was anything fully shattered during my years abroad, it was faith in my own objectivity, as a journalist or as a human being.” In the end, for Hansen the relationship between the U.S. and the rest of the world boils down to how one American feels, which may be the most American move of all.

hahaha

—p.85 missing author 2 years, 3 months ago
89

Hansen argues that American prosperity and identity are based on imperialism abroad as much as on racism at home. I agree, yet I have trouble seeing how most Americans prospered from the invasion of Iraq. Instead, I wonder at how much the fraudulent freedom we export abroad resembles the version we extol at home—a freedom that is undercut by economic bondage, by a barely concealed determination to disenfranchise so many.

At the same time, to explain everything through the lens of American power is to explain less. One ends up reflecting back the mirage of American omnipotence instead of the reality of U.S. blundering, blindness and internal dissent, of our inability to address the most basic needs of our own society (gun control, health care, an end to police brutality, economic inequality), let alone to confront global challenges such as climate change. One also risks turning all non-Americans into pawns, vassals and victims. Conspiracy theories that ascribe everything to American power diminish the responsibility of local regimes and elites, and the autonomy of people who have staked their own claim to the United States’ proclaimed principles, challenging it to live up to its rhetoric.

—p.89 missing author 2 years, 3 months ago

Hansen argues that American prosperity and identity are based on imperialism abroad as much as on racism at home. I agree, yet I have trouble seeing how most Americans prospered from the invasion of Iraq. Instead, I wonder at how much the fraudulent freedom we export abroad resembles the version we extol at home—a freedom that is undercut by economic bondage, by a barely concealed determination to disenfranchise so many.

At the same time, to explain everything through the lens of American power is to explain less. One ends up reflecting back the mirage of American omnipotence instead of the reality of U.S. blundering, blindness and internal dissent, of our inability to address the most basic needs of our own society (gun control, health care, an end to police brutality, economic inequality), let alone to confront global challenges such as climate change. One also risks turning all non-Americans into pawns, vassals and victims. Conspiracy theories that ascribe everything to American power diminish the responsibility of local regimes and elites, and the autonomy of people who have staked their own claim to the United States’ proclaimed principles, challenging it to live up to its rhetoric.

—p.89 missing author 2 years, 3 months ago
91

For all his hard-bitten clarity, Baldwin expressed hope that America could see itself and could change “in order to deal with the untapped and dormant force of the previously subjugated, in order to survive as a human, moving, moral weight in the world.” He argued for what I think of as a sort of useful idealism, one that acknowledges reality as it is but does not accept that it has to remain so. He wagered that people could be better than they are: “We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.”

How do we come to that realization? One way is through books, which can lure us to foreign lands in the first place, and can share with others the wonders and terrors we have discovered abroad. Sometimes they can be as deep of an experience as travel itself, fundamentally rearranging our perspective.

—p.91 missing author 2 years, 3 months ago

For all his hard-bitten clarity, Baldwin expressed hope that America could see itself and could change “in order to deal with the untapped and dormant force of the previously subjugated, in order to survive as a human, moving, moral weight in the world.” He argued for what I think of as a sort of useful idealism, one that acknowledges reality as it is but does not accept that it has to remain so. He wagered that people could be better than they are: “We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.”

How do we come to that realization? One way is through books, which can lure us to foreign lands in the first place, and can share with others the wonders and terrors we have discovered abroad. Sometimes they can be as deep of an experience as travel itself, fundamentally rearranging our perspective.

—p.91 missing author 2 years, 3 months ago
93

For over a century, the United States has wielded extraordinary economic and military power. That power has shaped the world, and us. Abroad, it has often been used in ways that reveal our most undemocratic, exploitative, racist tendencies. But that we have betrayed our principles and hoarded our liberties does not make them empty—they are still worth claiming. Just as there are elements of our national culture worth admiring and cherishing.

But why is it so hard for us to admit that as human beings and moral agents, Americans are just like everyone else? Our lives and desires do not rank higher or lower; our motives and methods are not unique. The insistence on American exceptionalism as a personal birthright is not so much childish as adolescent: the desire to be declared inherently special, regardless of one’s actions, and the nagging fear that one is not.

Perhaps the way for Americans to truly enter the world, as equals and adults, is not to take our power for granted or to renounce it, but to treat it, while we have it, as the historical contingency and the responsibility it is.

At one point, Sarat is asked whether she would take the chance to escape to safety. She declines. “Somewhere in her mind,” writes Akkad, “an idea had begun to fester—perhaps the longing for safety was itself another kind of violence—a violence of cowardice, silence and submission. What was safety, anyway, but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else’s home?”

—p.93 missing author 2 years, 3 months ago

For over a century, the United States has wielded extraordinary economic and military power. That power has shaped the world, and us. Abroad, it has often been used in ways that reveal our most undemocratic, exploitative, racist tendencies. But that we have betrayed our principles and hoarded our liberties does not make them empty—they are still worth claiming. Just as there are elements of our national culture worth admiring and cherishing.

But why is it so hard for us to admit that as human beings and moral agents, Americans are just like everyone else? Our lives and desires do not rank higher or lower; our motives and methods are not unique. The insistence on American exceptionalism as a personal birthright is not so much childish as adolescent: the desire to be declared inherently special, regardless of one’s actions, and the nagging fear that one is not.

Perhaps the way for Americans to truly enter the world, as equals and adults, is not to take our power for granted or to renounce it, but to treat it, while we have it, as the historical contingency and the responsibility it is.

At one point, Sarat is asked whether she would take the chance to escape to safety. She declines. “Somewhere in her mind,” writes Akkad, “an idea had begun to fester—perhaps the longing for safety was itself another kind of violence—a violence of cowardice, silence and submission. What was safety, anyway, but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else’s home?”

—p.93 missing author 2 years, 3 months ago