Sunday, March 11, 2018

Notes on a Foreign Country

Nonfiction is always hit or miss with me; too often the language gets too technical and dry and the concepts too broken down into parts that I lose interest in the issue as a whole. So when I find a good nonfiction that makes me want to block quote whole pages and underline entire paragraphs, I get excited. Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World -- recommended to me by my friend Shannon -- is one such nonfiction book.

Notes on a Foreign Country is written by Suzy Hansen, an American journalist living in Turkey, and explores her evolving perception of the United States, what it means to be an American, and how American history has impacted foreign nations, based on her experiences abroad. In 2007, Hansen won a two-year journalism scholarship and moved to Istanbul, intending to be a foreign correspondent but along the path of learning about Turkey and the Middle East, she also learned about America. Over the next ten years she unlearned many myths Americans believe about their own relationship with the world and learned a great deal more about the American-influenced makings of the Middle East's modern cultures and politics.

Having a bit of my own experience living abroad and exploring the disconnect between how Americans view themselves and their country versus people in other nations, I found Hansen's notes on American influence in the Middle East and Americans' ignorance of their own country's reputation refreshing honest. Hansen interweaves her own experiences and travels with articles, books, and musings from historical and modern day writers to create a book that challenges Americans to dig deeper into their own country's history and influence on the rest of the world.

Hansen's journey is one of what it means to take on the identity of "American"; as a journalist herself, she repeatedly mentions how she believed in the power of the objectivity of the American press as opposed to other countries', but "an objective American mind is first and foremost still an American mind," one shaped by the idea of American exceptionalism. Typically, Americans think of their nation as the best nation in the world -- the most advanced, the most free -- in contrast to every other nation in the world. In the collective American mind, it is unthinkable that the American way is not the ideal for all other nations, that not everyone wants to be America or dislikes America for any reason other than envy. Hansen mentions how easily Americans discredit nationalism in other nations as propaganda, yet continue to believe in the United States' superiority over all others.

Hansen also explores the dichotomy present between Americans' view of their own influence in the world as opposed to other countries' views. Citizens of Middle Eastern countries are so regularly caught in the U.S.'s foreign policy decisions (current war against terrorism) and so influenced by America meddling in their politics throughout the last century (the many dictators and regimes propped up and taken down by American operatives), that they cannot escape America's presence. And because of this, they are incredulous that most Americans are ignorant about the reality of these countries and their histories, never mind their own country's history with those countries. There's a divide between what Americans are ready and willing to impose on others but would never themselves submit to (austerity, occupation, forced acceptance of a different political system). Many of America's ideals are wrapped up in the ideas of freedom and liberty, yet America has, in the last one hundred years, supported military coups and authoritarian governments and toppled democratic ones that it didn't like. Hansen exemplifies a partial manifestation of this by explaining that many in Turkey believe 9/11 was an inside job because several of their own coups were set up by the American operatives.

Hansen's book is not 300+ pages of saying Americans are all wrong all the time. Rather, she explains the influence -- real and perceived -- of America abroad as a way to inform Americans of their inherited history, and to caution against viewing the world as "America" and "everyone else" as if they were completely separate.

The American dream was to create our own destiny, but it's perhaps an ethical duty, as a human being, and as an American, to consider that our American dreams may have come at the expense of a million other destinies. To deny that is to deny the realities of millions of people, and to forever sever ourselves from humanity.
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