“We cannot go abroad as Americans in the 21st century and not realize that the main thing that has been terrorizing us … is our own ignorance — our blindness and subsequent discovery of all the people on whom the empire-that-was-not-an-empire had been constructed without our attention or concern.”
This book is well-planned and well-paced although it covers both the histories of America’s interventions in other countries ranging back 80+ years, and the author’s personal journey of awareness. It is deeply heartfelt without being egocentric. It is both angry and thoughtful. I have never read another book like it.
It’s hard for me to articulate exactly what it was about it that made it so unusual. Maybe her tone—an almost exotic mix of pride and embarrassment and professionalism. That, combined with the thorough, unapologetic examination of what American empire has wrought.
Jersey native and Ivy-league educated journalist Suzy Hansen spent a few years in New York before 9/11. In 2007, she won the Charles Crane award to work in Turkey for a while. She obviously took it. As she figured out how to live in Turkey, little things—friends’ offhand comments, moments that didn’t fit her narrative of how the world works–started nagging at her. They jived, almost, with the discomfort she felt in New York, that even her progressive, liberal, journalist circles were somehow missing … something. That they were failing somehow to engage with the reality of the world, of the war on terror, of Islamism. In Istanbul, she felt that there was something about this place, and her identity as an American, that she just wasn’t getting. She is a journalist; she started digging and piecing the story together.
As the evening passed, I was gaining a lot from his analysis of Turkish politics, especially when I asked him whether he voted for Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party (AKP), and he spat back, outraged, “Did you vote for George W Bush?” Until that point I had not realised the two might be equivalent.
The book is the story of her awakening to America’s place in the wider world, her realization of the dark, violent foundation of American identity. It’s the story of the American empire, and how we (Americans writ large) refuse to truly engage with our own history, choosing instead to perennially believe in our own innocence. She builds her case with the help of James Baldwin and Orhan Pamuk, extensive research in America’s own public records, and regular doses of self-reflection, which, as an American abroad, I deeply related to: how the hell did I not know this? She examines the myths of American exceptionalism, American “modernity,” and American innocence. She unravels the appeal of and the historical foundations for the Erdogans and the Trumps, the nuances of various interpretations of nationalism and Islamism. She even answers the question that I have asked myself many times, why are there so many conspiracy theories abroad that assume absurd levels of power on the part of the US?! (think: the US created that earthquake, the US and Israel orchestrated that plane crash, etc.)
The secret reason I wanted to go was that Baldwin had lived in Istanbul in the 1960s…he felt more comfortable as a black, gay man in Istanbul than in Paris or New York. When I heard that, it made so little sense to me, sitting in my Brooklyn apartment, that a space opened in the universe. I couldn’t believe that New York could be more illiberal than a place such as Turkey, because I couldn’t conceive of how prejudiced New York and Paris had been in that era; and because I thought that as you went east, life degraded into the past, the opposite of progress. The idea of Baldwin in Turkey somehow placed America’s race problem, and America itself, in a mysterious and tantalising international context.
Of the few critical reviews I’ve read, one main complaint seems to be that her story is not representative of the majority of Americans, which I think is being way too generous to the majority of Americans. Her journey is so similar to my own, and she articulates so many realizations that I have myself come to, so many moments of “… how did I not know that?” when talking to non-Americans about what should be common knowledge (I did not know the name Mossadegh until my late 20s.) Perhaps I identify too strongly to be a good judge, but I find her conclusions extremely convincing.
Another common complaints is that her critique is too harsh, and I agree, it does come across as harsh (for instance, at one point she wonders why Americans always speak as if to children, as in, “My boss will be very mad at me if I am late!” I would argue is not a trait unique to Americans, but point taken anyway, especially when the person speaking is representing the empire.) And yes, perhaps it is asking too much that the average American learn about every country America has interfered in – but I don’t think it’s asking too much to be taught a less sanitized version of history. A lot of reviews say something like “well maybe she didn’t learn this in school, but I did, so she’s got a lot of nerve thinking she’s speaking for all Americans?!” Which, imo, misses the entire point. The point is that we’re all blind to parts of our own identity, which is founded in good part on darkness – figurative for both evil (the genocide of the Native Americans, slavery, etc) and an unwillingness to see (or, the belief we’re always the good guys). It’s systemic, and it’s deep. And it’s not something that can be solved by taking American History 101.
I was conscious that if I had long ago succumbed to the pathology of American nationalism, I wouldn’t know it – even if I understood the history of injustice in America, even if I was furious about the invasion of Iraq. I was a white American. I still had this fundamental faith in my country in a way that suddenly, in comparison to the Turks, made me feel immature and naive.
In any case, the harshness is part of the reason the book so compelling. How else are you supposed to feel when you discover that your identity is not what you thought, on an almost existential level? This book is meticulously harsh and heartbroken, proud, embarrassed, searching, scornful, and hopeful. I recommend it.
PS I picked this up after reading this excerpt in The Guardian