Hansen has captured the nigh-ineffable spirit of U.S. exceptionalism as it operates in the world today.
In her crucial and powerful Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World, Suzy Hansen has captured the nigh-ineffable spirit of U.S. exceptionalism as it operates in the world today. The book is a keen and penetrating meditation on the decline of the United States, which, as Hansen states, has been slowly rotting from the inside out for a couple of decades. In the era of Trump, this book reads as downright prophetic, but that misses that the book’s central message has nothing to do with who is president. Notes on a Foreign Country argues instead that at the core of the U.S.-American sensibility is a wanton lack of curiosity about and understanding of global affairs.
The book traces Hansen’s life trajectory, from growing up in an anonymous New Jersey coastal town through her Ivy League education, early writing career in Manhattan and decision to take a fellowship requiring a move to Istanbul. While living abroad, she came to see the United States in a way that is impossible for someone who lives here. The insidiousness of American identity, particularly white American identity, is invisible from New York, but lights up like a neon sign when standing in Istanbul, surrounded by an entirely different culture and way of thinking and being in the world. Hansen embeds her reflections in the work of another U.S. citizen who ventured to Turkey to get perspective on his homeland: novelist and social critic James Baldwin. She makes excellent use of Baldwin’s concepts of tragedy, whiteness and ignorance to make her own arguments much more convincing.
While much of Notes on a Foreign Country consists of Hansen describing Turkish society and politics or explaining the history of U.S. involvement abroad—she sticks mostly to U.S. incursions into the Islamic world but mentions Latin America and other places as well—she does find ample room to lambast her countrypeople. These are the book’s strongest sections, where she channels Baldwin and unearths that hard-to-pin-down “something” about U.S.-Americans going abroad to save the world that so annoys people from other countries (for a brief introduction to this “something,” read Ivan Illich’s delightfully mean-spirited speech “To Hell with Good Intentions”).
Hansen’s smartest choice is her targeting. Her sharpest and most accurate critiques are not directed at white supremacists or the over-written-about “Red State man”; rather, Hansen puts “liberal” Democrats in her crosshairs instead. Her observations about the U.S. from abroad were made mainly during Obama’s time in office, when self-styled champions of humanity—Hansen’s own former co-workers and college classmates—ignored “their” President’s vile record of human rights violations, economic exploitation and imperial maneuvers. These same people, supposedly the most educated members of the self-proclaimed “Greatest Country on Earth,” have no understanding that the U.S. has been an empire since the 1890s. They cannot see that North Korean officials want a nuclear weapon to deter the U.S. and its modus operandi of regime change when confronted with disagreement abroad. They do not know that Turkey has been, at times, a virtual satellite state of the U.S. They make fun of Islamists for hating modernity without acknowledging that modernization, in the Middle East, looks like a strong-man dictator brutalizing the population with U.S. support keeping him in power. They forget that there will be kids graduating high school this spring whose entire lifetimes have seen the U.S. as an occupation force in Afghanistan.
Most damning, for Hansen (and for Baldwin, too), is that these people do not know that they are ignorant. They have no idea that they are perpetuating empire. She is trying to wake them up to reality. She captures the difficulty of this in the epilogue when she writes, “From abroad, when I used to hear President Obama say that America is the greatest country on earth, I never felt contempt. I felt like I did as a child, not wanting to admit to my parents I knew there was no Santa Claus.” The game is up, or at least it should be. But how does one address what Hansen terms “the ignorance of the complacently powerful?” This is not, as Baldwin puts it, the ignorance of an illiterate peasant, who simply does not know. No, the U.S.-American knows and reads and goes abroad to “help” others, but what he knows is wrong, a self-delusion of his own superiority borne from his rock-solid confidence in the greatness of the United States.
Hansen does not solve the problem of ignorance in any definitive way. Neither could Baldwin or Illich or any of the dozens of other thinkers in whose footsteps she is following. She merely offers up a highly-engaging, deeply-convincing meditation on the issue and hopefully a good few U.S.-Americans will stumble across it and see in her account a mirror that leads them to challenge their own ideas.