Unlearning the myth of American innocence

The lengthy read: When she was 30, Suzy Hansen left the united states for Istanbul and started to understand that Americans won’t ever understand their very own country until they view it as all of those other world does

My mother lately found piles of my notebooks from the time I had been a little child which were full of plans in my future. I had been very ambitious. I authored out things i would do at each age: after i would get wed so when I’d have kids so when I’d open dancing studio.

After I left my small hometown for school, this type of planning stopped. The expertise of seeing a significantly new place, as college ended up being to me, upended my sense around the globe and it is options. Exactly the same factor happened after i gone to live in New You are able to after college, along with a couple of years later after i gone to live in Istanbul. All change is dramatic for provincial people. However the last move was the toughest. In Turkey, the upheaval was much more unsettling: before long, I started to believe that the whole first step toward my awareness would be a lie.

For those their patriotism, Americans rarely consider how their national identities relate to their own personal ones. This indifference is particular towards the psychology of white-colored Americans and it has a brief history unique towards the US. Recently, however, this national identity is becoming harder to disregard. Americans can’t travel in foreign countries without realizing the strange weight we feature around. During these years following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also the many wars that adopted, it is harder to gallivant around the globe absorbing its knowledge and sources for your personal use. Americans abroad now don’t have exactly the same swagger, the simple, enormous smiles. You will no longer wish to speak so loud. There’s always the vague chance of breaking something.

Some time once i gone to live in Istanbul, I purchased a notebook, and in contrast to that confident child, I authored lower not plans however a question: that do we become when we dont become Americans? When we uncover our identity once we understood it absolutely was a myth? I requested it because my years being an American abroad these days weren’t a wondrous romp of self-discovery and romance. Mine were much more of a shattering along with a shame, as well as now, I still have no idea myself.


I increased in Wall, an urban area located through the Jersey Shore, two hrs drive from New You are able to. A lot of it had been a landscape of concrete and parking lots, plastic signs and Dunkin Donuts. There wasn’t any center, no Primary Street, because there is at the majority of the enjoyable beach towns nearby, no small old cinema or architecture suggesting some kind of history or memory.

The majority of my buddies parents were teachers, nurses, cops or electricians, aside from the rare father who labored within the City, and a number of Italian families who did less legal things. My parents were descendants of working-class Danish, Italian and Irish immigrants who’d little memory of the European origins, and my relatives ran an affordable public course, where I labored like a hot-dog girl within the summers. The politics I learned about like a kid revolved around taxes and immigrants, and never anything else. Bill Clinton wasn’t famous the house. (In 2016, most of Wall voted Trump.)

I was all loyal, however i cant even conceive of the items else we might have been, because our entire experience was domestic, interior, American. We visited church every sunday, until church there was a time usurped by soccer games. I do not remember a powerful feeling of social engagement. Rather I’d the sensation that individuals might take things of your stuff should you didnt stay vigilant. Our goals continued to be local: homecoming queen, condition champs, a scholarship to Trenton Condition, barbecues outside. The lone Asian kid within our class studied hard and visited Berkeley the Indian visited Yale. Black people never found Wall. The planet was white-colored, Christian the planet was us.

We didn’t study world maps, because worldwide geography, like a subject, have been eliminated of numerous condition curriculums lengthy before. There wasn’t any sense of america being one country on the planet of numerous countries. The Soviet Union appeared some thing such as the Dying Star flying overhead, prepared to laser us to smithereens than the usual country with individuals inside it.

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Boardwalk empire a variety shop in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Photo: Michael S Williamson/The Washington Post

I have TV memories of world events. Even in my mind, they appear on a screen: Oliver North testifying within the Iran-Contra proceedings the damaged, evil-seeming face of Panamas dictator Manuel Noriega the film-like footage, all flashes of sunshine, from the bombing of Baghdad throughout the first Gulf war. Mostly things i remember of this war in Iraq was singing God Bless the united states around the chartered bus I had been 13 putting on little yellow ribbons and achieving teary-eyed when i appreciated the recording from the song I’d seen on MTV.

And Im proud to become a united states

Where a minimum of I understand Im free

That a minimum of is funny. I was free at the minimum i was that. Everybody else would be a chump, simply because they didnt have that apparent factor. Whatever it meant, it had been the factor that people had, and nobody else did. It had been goodness-given gift, our superpower.

When I acquired to highschool, I understood that communism choose to go away, but never learned what communism had really been (bad was enough). Religion, politics, race they washed over me like troubled stuff that clearly meant something to a person somewhere, however that didn’t have relationship in my experience, to Wall, to America. I certainly was clueless that that many people on the planet felt individuals connections deeply. History Americas history, the worlds history would slip interior and exterior my awareness without any resonance whatsoever.

Racism, antisemitism and prejudice, however individuals things, on some unconscious level, I have to have known. These were expressed within the anxiety about Asbury Park, that was black within the bitterness from the towns of Marlboro and Deal, that have been referred to as Jewish in the manner Hispanics appeared exotic. A lot of the Jersey Shore was segregated as though it remained as the 1950s, and thus prejudice was expressed through anxiety about anything outdoors Wall, anything outdoors the small white-colored world by which we resided. When there was something which saved us from being outwardly racist, it had been that in small towns for example Wall, specifically for women, it was vital to become nice, or good this pressure tempered habits toward overt cruelty whenever we were youthful.

I had been lucky which i were built with a mother who nourished my early-onset book addiction, a mature brother with mysteriously acquired progressive politics, along with a father who spent his nights studying obscure golf antiques, lost within the pleasures of history. Nowadays from the 1%, I’m nostalgic for Walls middle-class modesty and it is ocean-salt Jersey Shore air. But because a teen, I understood the only factor that may save me in the Wall of fear would be a good college.


I wound up in the College of Pennsylvania. The possible lack of curiosity about the broader world which i had known in Wall found another expression there, although at Penn the kids were wealthy, highly educated and apolitical. During orientation, the company school students were advised that they are the neatest people in the united states, approximately I’d heard. (Jesse Trump Junior was there then, too.) Within the late 1990s, everybody at Penn thought about being a good investment banker, and lots of would will continue to help bring lower the planet economy ten years later. However they were more educated than I had been in American literature class, they’d even heard about William Faulkner.

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TV memories Lt Col Oliver North is sworn in before Congress for the Iran-Contra hearings, July 1987. Photograph: Lana Harris/AP

When my best friend from Wall revealed one night that she hadnt heard of John McEnroe or Jerry Garcia, some boys around the dormitory hall known as us ignorant, and white-colored trash, and chastised us because of not studying magazines. I was hurt, and surprised white-colored trash was something we stated about others in the Jersey Shore. My boyfriend from Wall accused me of likely to Penn exclusively to locate a boyfriend who drove a Ferrari, and also the boys at Penn made fun from the Camaros we drove in senior high school. Class in the usa wasn’t something we understood in almost any structural or intellectual way class would be a constellation of the million little materialistic cultural signifiers, and also the insult, loss or purchase of them could transform ones future entirely.

Within the finish, I selected to pursue the brand new existence Penn proposed. The children I met had parents who have been doctors or academics most of them had already even visited Europe! Penn, for those its superficiality, felt a measure nearer to a bigger world.

Still, I am unable to remember anybody knowing foreign occasions within my 4 years of school. There have been wars in Eritrea, Nepal, Afghanistan, Kosovo, East Timor, Kashmir. US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were bombed. Panama, Nicaragua (I couldnt keep Latin American countries straight), Osama bin Laden, Clinton bombing Iraq not a chance.

I understood Saddam Hussein, which in fact had exactly the same evil resonance as communism. I recall the film Wag the Dog, a satire by which American politicians begin a fake war with foreign terrorists to draw attention away from the electorate throughout a domestic scandal which at that time was what many accused Clinton to do as he purchased a missile strike on Afghanistan throughout the Monica Lewinsky affair. Never imagined about Afghanistan. What country is at Wag your dog? Albania. There is an average American callousness within our response to the nation they chose for that movie, an indifference that stated, Some bumblefuck country, no matter which they choose.

I had been a young child from the 90s, the last decade when, based on Americas foremost intellectuals, history had ended, the united states was triumphant, the cold war won with a landslide. The historian David Schmitz has written that, with that time, the concept that America won due to its values and steadfast adherence towards the promotion of liberalism and democracy was dominating op-erectile dysfunction pages, popular magazines and also the bestseller lists. These ideas were the ambient noise, the elevator music of my most childhood.

However for me there is also an intervention an opportunity experience of the basement of Penns library. I stumbled upon a line inside a book where a historian contended that, lengthy ago, throughout the slavery era, black people and white-colored people had defined their identities towards one another. The thought in my experience wasn’t that black people had created of the identities as a result of ours, however that our white-colored identities have been composed in conscious objection to their own. Id was clueless that that people had ever endured to define our identities whatsoever, because in my experience, white-colored Americans were born fully created, completely detached from any kind of complicated past. Even today, I’m able to keep in mind that shiver of recognition that just comes whenever you learn something which expands, only a small bit, your feeling of reality. What helped me angry was this thought was something about who I was. What did I not learn about myself?

It had been due to this text which i selected in the books of James Baldwin, who provided a feeling of finding someone who understood me better, with an even more sophisticated critical arsenal than I’d myself. There is this line:

However I will always be struck, in the usa, by a psychological poverty so bottomless, along with a terror of human existence, of human touch, so deep, that almost no American seems in a position to achieve any viable, organic link between his public stance and the private existence.

Which one:

All the western nations happen to be caught inside a lie, the lie of the pretended humanism which means that their history doesn’t have moral justification, which free airline doesn’t have moral authority.

Which one:

White-colored Americans are most likely the sickest and the most harmful people, associated with a colour, found in the planet today.

I understand why this came like a shock in my experience then, at age 22, also it wasnt always while he stated I had been sick, though which was some of it. It had been while he stored calling me that factor: white-colored American. Within my reaction I justified his accusation. I understood I had been white-colored, and that i understood I had been American, but it wasn’t things i thought as my identity. For me personally, self-definition involved gender, personality, religion, education, dreams. I only considered finding myself, becoming myself, finding myself which, I hadnt known, was probably the most white-colored American factor of.

I still didn’t consider my devote the bigger world, or that possibly a whole history a brief history of white-colored Americans had something related to who I had been. My insufficient awareness permitted me to think I had been innocent, or that white-colored American wasn’t a name like Muslim or Turk.

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White Americans are probably the most dangerous people in the world today author James Baldwin in New York, 1963. Photograph: Dave Pickoff/AP

Of this indifference, Baldwin wrote: White children, in the main, and whether they are rich or poor, grow up with a grasp of reality so feeble that they can very accurately be described as deluded.

Young white Americans of course go through pain, insecurity and heartache. But it is very, very rare that young white Americans come across someone who tells them in harsh, unforgiving terms that they might be merely the easy winners of an ugly game, and indeed that because of their ignorance and misused power, they might be the losers within a greater moral universe.


In 2007, after I had worked for six years as a journalist in New York, I won a writing fellowship that would send me to Turkey for two years. I had applied for it on a whim. No part of me expected to win the thing. Even as my friends wished me congratulations, I detected a look of concern on their faces, as if I was crazy to leave all this, as if 29 was a little too late to be finding myself. I had never even been to Turkey before.

In the weeks before my departure, I spent hours explaining Turkeys international relevance to my bored loved ones, no doubt deploying the cliche that Istanbul was the bridge between east and west. I told everyone that I chose Turkey because I wanted to learn about the Islamic world. The secret reason I wanted to go was that Baldwin had lived in Istanbul in the 1960s, on and off, for almost a decade. I had seen a documentary about Baldwin that said 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 couldnt believe that New York could be more illiberal than a place such as Turkey, because I couldnt 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 Americas race problem, and America itself, in a mysterious and tantalising international context. I took a chance that Istanbul might be the place where the secret workings of history would be revealed.

In Turkey and elsewhere, in fact, I would feel an almost physical sensation of intellectual and emotional discomfort, while trying to grasp a reality of which I had no historical or cultural understanding. I would go, as a journalist, to write a story about Turkey or Greece or Egypt or Afghanistan, and inevitably someone would tell me some part of our shared history theirs with America of which I knew nothing. If I didnt know this history, then what kind of story did I plan to tell?

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City watch US army troops stand guard at a checkpoint in Baghdad, Iraq, in August 2007. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

My learning process abroad was threefold: I was learning about foreign countries; I was learning about Americas role in the world; and I was also slowly understanding my own psychology, temperament and prejudices. No matter how well I knew the predatory aspects of capitalism, I still perceived Turkeys and Greeces economic advances as progress, a type of maturation. Regardless of how deeply I understood the USs manipulation of Egypt because of its own foreign-policy aims, I’d never considered and may not grasp how American policies really affected the lives of person Egyptians, beyond engendering bitterness and anti-Americanism. Regardless of how much I assumed that no American was well-outfitted for nation-building, I figured I saw good intentions for the Americans in Afghanistan. I’d not have accepted it, or considered to express it, but searching back, I understand that deep within my awareness I figured that America what food was in the finish of some transformative spectrum of civilisation, and everybody else was attempting to get caught up.

American exceptionalism didn’t only define the united states like a special nation among lesser nations additionally, it required that Americans believe they, too, were in some way better than others. How could I, being an American, understand an overseas people, when subconsciously I didn’t extend probably the most fundamental belief with other people who I extended to myself? It was a limitation which was beyond racism, beyond prejudice and beyond ignorance. It was a type of nationalism so insidious that I never recognized to refer to it as nationalism it was a self-delusion so complete which i couldn’t see where it started and ended, couldn’t root it, couldn’t destroy it.


In my first couple of several weeks in Istanbul, I resided a formless type of existence, days dissolving in to the nights. I’d no office to visit, no job to help keep, and that i was 3 decades old, a time where people either decide to develop or remain stuck within the exploratory, idle phase recently-late youth. Beginning once again abroad making buddies, learning a brand new language, looking for the right path via a city meant probably selecting the second. I spent many nights out before the wee hrs like the evening I drank beer having a youthful Turkish person called Emre, who’d attended college having a friend in the US.

A buddy had explained that Emre was probably the most brilliant people he’d ever met. Because the evening passed, I had been gaining so much from his analysis of Turkish politics, particularly when I requested him whether he voted for Erdoans Justice and Development party (AKP), and that he spat back, outraged, Have you election for George W Bush? Until that time I never realized the 2 may be equivalent.

Then, three beers in, Emre pointed out the US decided the September 11 attacks. I’d heard this before. Conspiracy theories were common in Poultry for instance, once the military claimed that the PKK, the Kurdish militant group, had attacked a police station, some Turks believed the military itself tried it they deemed it also in instances where Turkish civilians passed away. Quite simply, the concept was that rightwing forces, like the military, bombed neutral targets, or perhaps rightwing targets, so that they could then blame it around the leftwing groups, like the PKK. To Turks, bombing any country appeared like possible.

Seriously, you do not think that, I stated.

Why don’t you? he clicked. I actually do.

Nevertheless its a conspiracy theory.

He chuckled. Americans always dismiss this stuff as conspiracy theories. Its all of those other world who’ve had to cope with your conspiracies.

I overlooked him. I suppose I’ve belief in American journalism, I stated. Another person might have figured this out whether it were true.

He smiled. Im sorry, there is no way they didnt have something related to it. And today this war? he stated, talking about world war 2 in Iraq. Its impossible the U . s . States couldnt stop this type of factor, and impossible the Muslims could accomplish it.

Some days later, a bomb went off within the Istanbul neighborhood of Gngren. Another explosive device exploded from a garbage bin nearby after 10pm, killing 17 people and injuring 150. Nobody understood who made it happen. Everything week, Turks debated: could it have been al-Qaida? The PKK? The DHKP/C, a radical leftist group? Or possibly: the deep condition?

The deep condition a method of mafia-like paramilitary organisations operating outdoors from the law, sometimes in the behest from the official military would be a whole other story. Turks described the deep condition have been created throughout the cold war as a means of countering communism, after which mutated right into a pressure for destroying all threats towards the Turkish condition. The ability that some Turks related to this entity sometimes strained credulity. However the point was that Turks have been living for a long time with the concept that some secret pressure controlled the fate of the nation.

Actually, aspects of the deep condition were rumoured to possess had ties towards the CIA throughout the cold war, despite the fact that this too smacked of the conspiracy theory, it was the matter that Turkish people resided in. The sheer number of international interventions the united states launched in individuals decades is astonishing, especially individuals during years when American power was considered comparatively innocent. There have been the effective assassinations: Patrice Lumumba, pm from the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1961 General Rafael Trujillo of tobago, and in 1961 Ngo Dinh Diem, president of South Vietnam, in 1963. There have been the unsuccessful assassinations: Castro, Castro, and Castro. There have been balance wished-for assassinations: Nasser, Nasser, Nasser. And, obviously, US-backed, -supported or -staged regime changes: Iran, Guatemala, Iraq, Congo, Syria, Dominican Republic, South Vietnam, Indonesia, South america, Chile, Bolivia, Uruguay and Argentina. The Americans trained or supported secret police forces everywhere from Cambodia to Colombia, the Philippines to Peru, Iran to Vietnam. Many Turks thought that the united states a minimum of encouraged the 1971 and 1980 military coups in Poultry, though I possibly could find little about these occasions in almost any conventional histories anywhere.

What I saw could be that the results of such meddling were similar to individuals of September 11 just like huge, existence-altering and disruptive towards the country and also to peoples lives. Possibly Emre didn’t think that September 11 would be a straightforward affair of evidence and proof because his experience his reality trained him that hardly ever were these surreally monumental occasions easily explainable. I didn’t think Emres theory concerning the attacks was plausible. However I started to question whether there is much web site people from other countries paranoia the Americans planned September 11 and also the Americans paranoia that the world should purchase September 11 by having an endless global fight against terror.


The the next time a Turktold me she believed the united states had bombed itself on September 11 (I heard this with a few regularity this time around it had been from the youthful student at Istanbuls Boazii College), I repeated my claim about believing within the integrity of yankee journalism. She responded, a little sheepishly, Well, right, we cant trust our journalism. We cant take that as a given.

The language take that as a given provided pause. Getting resided in Poultry for over a year, witnessing how nationalistic propaganda had inspired peoples views around the globe as well as themselves, I wondered where the idea within our objectivity and rigour in journalism came. Why would Americans be objective and everybody else subjective?

I figured that because Poultry had poorly functioning institutions they didnt possess a reliable justice system, when compared with a united states system I thought to be functional it frequently felt as though there wasn’t any truth. Turks were always sceptical of official histories, and blithely dismissive from the governments line. But could it have been rather the Turks, using their beautiful scepticism, were really just less nationalistic than me?

American exceptionalism had declared my country unique on the planet, the main one truly free and modern country, and rather of ever thinking about that that exceptionalism was just like every other countrys nationalistic propaganda, I’d internalised this belief. Wasnt that indeed what effective propaganda was designed to do? I never asked the institution of yankee journalism outdoors from the standards it looking for itself which, in the end, was the only method I’d discern its flaws and prejudices rather, I recognized individuals standards because the best standards any country would have.

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Red state Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoan attends a rally following a failed coup attempt last year. Photograph: Osman Orsal/Reuters

By the end of my first year abroad, I read US newspapers differently. I could see how alienating they were to foreigners, the way articles spoke always from a position of American power, treating foreign countries as if they were Americas misbehaving children. I listened to my compatriots with critical ears: the way our discussion of foreign policy had become infused since September 11 with these officious, official words, bureaucratic corporate military language: collateral damage, imminent threat, freedom, freedom, freedom.

Even so, I was conscious that if I had long ago succumbed to the pathology of American nationalism, I wouldnt 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.

I came to notice that a community of activists and intellectuals in Turkey the liberal ones were indeed questioning what Turkishness meant in new ways. Many of them had been brainwashed in their schools about their own history; about Atatrk, Turkeys first president concerning the supposed evil from the Armenians and also the Kurds and also the Arabs concerning the fragility of the borders and also the rapaciousness of outsiders contributing to the historic and eternal goodness from the Turkish republic.

It’s different within the U . s . States, I remember when i stated, not entirely realising things i was saying before the words arrived on the scene. I’d never been known as upon to describe this. We’re told it’s the finest country on the planet. The factor is, we can’t reconsider that narrative how you do at the moment, because to all of us, that isnt propaganda, that’s truth. And also to us, that isnt nationalism, its patriotism. And also the factor is, we can’t question any one of it because simultaneously, all we’re being told is when free-thinking we’re, that we’re free. Therefore we have no idea there’s anything wrong in believing our country may be the finest on the planet. The entire factor kind of convinces you that the collective awareness on the planet found that very conclusion.

Wow, a buddy once responded. How strange. That’s a very quiet type of fascism, is it not?

It had been a basic type of fascism that will mean I’d always see Poultry as underneath the country I originated from, and that means I assumed my distinctively benevolent country to possess distinctively benevolent intentions for the peoples around the globe.

In that nights conspiracy theories, Emre had alleged, as people from other countries frequently did, which i would be a spy. The data which i was collecting like a journalist, Emre stated, really was getting used for another thing. Being an American emissary within the wider world, covering people from other countries, governments, economies partaking in certain bigger system and plan of products, I had been a real estate agent in some way. Emre resided within the American world like a foreigner, as someone less effective, as someone to whom one newspaper article can often mean war, a treadmill misplaced opinion can often mean an intervention through the Worldwide Financial Fund. My attitude, my prejudice, my insufficient generosity might be entirely false, inaccurate or damaging, but could be taken for truth through the magazines and newspapers I authored for, thus shaping perceptions of Poultry for good.

Years later, a united states journalist explained he loved employed by a significant newspaper since the White-colored House see clearly, while he could influence policy. Emre had explained how likely it had been I’d screw this up. He was telling me: first, spy, don’ harm.

Primary photograph: Burak Kara/Getty Images for that Protector

Adapted from Notes on overseas: A United States Abroad inside a Publish-American World by Suzy Hansen, which is printed by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on 15 August

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Find out more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/aug/08/unlearning-the-myth-of-american-innocence

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