Identity Crisis of a Declining, Violent America

If we are no longer the most powerful, no longer the most prosperous, no longer good...who are we? That dislocation is very difficult for a lot of Americans.

Transcribed from the 25 November 2017 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

We Americans have never really taken the time to examine what effects we might have had on foreign citizens, and why they might feel so much resentment and suspicion towards us now.

Chuck Mertz: You probably have no idea how the rest of the world views the United States. Hell, you probably have no idea about the events and history that shapes the way the rest of the world views us. Here to tell us how people overseas see the US, Suzy Hansen is author of Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World.

Welcome to This is Hell!, Suzy.

Suzy Hansen: Thanks for having me.

CM: Great to have you on the show.

You mention Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie having “once observed that there are two Americas: one at home and one abroad. The first is the America of Hollywood, work-in-progress democracy, the civil rights movement, and Ellis Island; the second is the America of coups and occupations, military dictators, CIA plots, economic meddling, and contempt for foreign countries. The rest of the world knows both Americas, but as Shamsie has written, Americans don’t seem to be aware of the second one at all.”

Is the second America mostly the fault of the government? The media? The influence of industry? Or is it mostly the public’s fault? Who is to blame for this second America?

SH: Kamila Shamsie was basically saying that the rest of the world has been living with these two Americas for the last sixty or seventy years, and they’re able to hold both of those Americas in their brains at the same time: they’re able to admire certain things about the American project at home while being very conscious of the more damaging things that the United States has done in their own countries, in foreign countries.

I just don’t think that most Americans are aware of what this second America is, or that there is this entirely different reality that the rest of the world has been living with that we don’t learn about, that we’re not that interested in, and that is much more complicated than even coups and wars and economic policies.

What is the second America? It’s a history; it’s the last seventy years. It goes back even further, but I think it’s mainly post-World War Two, Cold War America, when America became the one of the most powerful countries in the world and really started extending its influence around the globe. When I moved abroad in 2007, to Turkey, I discovered that second America—not for the first time, because of course I had read about various foreign policy endeavors in the past, but I didn’t quite quite understand it. I couldn’t quite feel it, until I moved to Turkey myself.

CM: Do we turn a blind eye to all of the horrible oppressive things that the United States does overseas simply so we can enjoy the riches and wealth here? Do you think this might be part of some sort of subconscious or unconscious bargain?

SH: I do. Though I think that it was one that was created for us, too. I’m forty years old; I was born in 1977, and I came of age mainly in the eighties and nineties, when it was sort of like “Yay, we won the Cold War and our system has defeated all other systems, and everybody knows that the American Way is the best way.” But I needed to go back to the forties and fifties and sixties to really understand the creation of that empire to begin with.

Specifically having to do with foreign policy, there was a very particular way in which the Cold War architects (and I mean intellectuals who were working for the government, were being funded by the CIA, and were engaged in creating America’s post-war foreign policy strategy) realized that they had the post-colonial world at their disposal, essentially. France and Britain were retreating, and suddenly there were all these countries in the so-called Third World that they had to “do something about”—or they decided that they wanted to.

They knew that colonialism was a bad word, and they knew that it was racist, and they knew that they could not do exactly the same things that the Brits and the French had done. And they had this attitude: “Well, we’re America, and we obviously have good intentions, and all we want to do is help these foreign people on their way to becoming a more modern nation and becoming more modern people.”

The difference between Americans and Brits, possibly, was that Americans believed that anyone could be like them (Brits were more prone to thinking that nobody could be like them, but they could rule them). All of these endeavors the Americans were undertaking, in Turkey, in Iran, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere, were all couched in this very benevolent language that served to hide what they were actually doing.

You can see the reflex in a lot of Americans when they talk about American foreign policy. There is this automatic response: “Oh, well, we might have made a mistake there, we might have screwed up, but we were trying our best. We had good intentions, we wanted to make that country a better place.” That is what hides the reality from most Americans. It’s a language that we have been using for sixty-seventy years.

CM: You write, “I left the United States more than a decade ago to live in Istanbul. I spent most of my first year educating myself about Turkish history and politics and trying to learn how to write about them. What continued to surprise me was what I kept learning from foreigners about my country—about America in Turkey, and then about America everywhere else.”

And you write about your pre-college education: “I remember the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine portrayed in my nineties-era education as great international acts of charity, of which Turkey had been among the lucky recipients. I had never questioned whether these Marshall project funds had been anything other than some benevolent American act. In my mind, the scene played out like a rich man in town building a new school: the American president showed up with a sack of money and dropped it on a desk, no strings attached, and the townsfolk cheered with gratitude.”

Today when someone suggests a “Marshall Plan” as the solution to some problem, it’s seen as a massive, coordinated, charitable, benevolent act that quickly turns around circumstances on the ground and returns them to some sort of normalcy—and as you say, with no strings attached.

If the term “a Marshall Plan” was used for addressing a problem in, say, Turkey, what would that mean to the people of Turkey?

SH: It’s funny: I was reporting a story once in a fairly working class neighborhood where most of the people were very conservative. They were religious; they were followers of Tayyip Erdoğan. And one of these young guys, about 21 years old, brought up the Marshall Plan. I was really shocked. This was in 2016. He said, “You know, they teach us in school that the Marshall Plan was this great thing. Let me tell you, the Marshall Plan was the beginning of the end for Turkey, because we lost control over our own future and our own fate.”

The rise of Trump is in part due to this specter of decline; a lot of white conservative American men are very freaked out by this notion, so a strongman—someone like Trump, who is super “patriotic”—appeals to them. But this goes for liberals as well. We don’t know how liberals are going to react to this loss of power, because they are just as much invested in it.

That’s a really interesting point, and it gets to the heart of the issue here, which is that whereas the Marshall Plan did help Turkey in a lot of ways, we really have to think about what this means. It’s helping, but it’s also interfering in the direction and the development of a country as well as its ability to determine its own fate and its ability to determine its own identity. I found some academic papers that had done this research, and it comes all the way down to the roads that the Americans were building being built in the way that the Americans wanted to build them. The Turks had other ideas about how they wanted to build their roads. It’s complicated and technical, but it’s just one example.

What happens here, psychologically, is that a people feels they didn’t get a chance to direct themselves. We could be talking about mundane things, but we could also be talking about much more serious things, as when the Americans might be pushing or advising the Turkish military to stage a coup. Of course there are many examples in history like that.

We Americans have never really taken the time to examine what effects we might have had on foreign citizens, and why they might feel so much resentment and suspicion towards us now.

CM: How much do you think that was on display in the attempted coup of Erdoğan? Here in the United States, people acted very surprised that the Erdoğan government or their supporters would say that the United States was somehow involved in that coup attempt from Incirlik airbase.

SH: I was really frustrated during that period. I’ve been living here for ten years, and I know that when Erdoğan and his government and his people say things like that, they are trying to whip up nationalist sentiment. A really easy way to whip up patriotism, nationalism, and support for the government is to say, “Look what the Americans have done.” But when I saw so many American pundits and journalists and even friends of mine being so terribly dismissive of the idea that the Americans could be involved, that also seemed ridiculous to me.

First of all, the United States has been involved in lots of coups, and the people in the Middle East are very well aware of that. To most people in this part of the world especially, twenty years ago or even fifty years ago is not that long ago. To us it’s ancient history even if we know about it. But to a lot of people in this region that’s simply not the case because it’s had such an enormous impact on them. That’s one thing, just the general history.

Then you take Turkish history. There have been four coups in Turkey’s recent history, and the most devastating one was in 1980. Most Turks believe that the Americans were involved in that one. Why would they believe that? Turkey is in NATO, of course, and there is evidence that the Americans were pushing, suggesting, hinting to the Turkish generals: “You need to do this now.” And it was very much in line with the American policy at the time, which was anti-communist, and in Turkey there had been a leftist uprising and a lot of anti-American sentiment. Even if Americans didn’t have direct involvement in that coup, after the coup they greatly shaped the future of Turkey, and by that I mean the Americans encouraged the Turks to create a policy that opened markets, that was pro-capitalist, and that actually also increased the amount of moderate, state-controlled Islam in the country, in order to counter the “threat” from the left. People really associate these coups with the United States.

The third major thing, of course, is that most Turks believe this coup was done by Fethullah Gülen, who is an Islamic preacher who lives in the United States. It’s not really that strange that they would have thought this, or that they still do.

CM: How much do you find the Democratic Party’s level of offense at any potential Russian meddling in the US election as hypocritical when you consider the history of the “other America,” the America of coups and meddling in other countries?

SH: People do note this, and I certainly had that reaction as well. Look, of course anyone has the right to be unhappy if another country meddles in their election, and Americans do too. But it’s the level of outrage and its emotional pitch that is so over the top: as if this has never been done before, and as if we were not in fact the ones doing it.

It’s a scary thing, because it all adds to this growing uncertainty around American decline and the question of how Americans and how the United States will deal with that decline. How will they deal with this loss of power? I believe that the rise of Trump is in part due to this specter of decline, that a lot of white American conservative men are very freaked out by this notion, so a strongman—someone like Trump, who is super “patriotic”—appeals to them.

But this goes for liberals as well. We don’t know how liberals are going to react to this loss of power, because they are just as much invested in it. We see that with their reaction to Russian meddling, which at times seems over the top. Also, this resurgence of the belief in American exceptionalism in response to Trump is itself quite interesting. People are saying, “Well, he’s not really America, and we are really exceptional.” That reassertion of exceptionalism to me is really scary.

CM: You write, “The debate about how the United States elected an irresponsible nationalist like Trump has focused on why the first America (the supposedly beautiful one) failed as opposed to why the second America (the ugly one, the one of coups and occupations, military dictators, CIA plots, economic meddling, and contempt for foreign cultures) triumphed. But from abroad, Trump makes a lot more sense and has much more in common with his predecessors and his countrymen than many Americans realize.”

In your opinion, is the rest of the world, then, less surprised by the rise to power of Trump than the US is? And what does that say about the way in which the outside world views America?

SH: This is an interesting question, and the answer is mixed. I can only speak for what I have heard in Turkey and from some other foreign friends who I have spoken to about this. But one thing that I hear from Turks is indeed surprise that this kind of leader can come to power in the US. I think this speaks to a belief that the system works better there. A lot of people in Turkey don’t have a lot of faith in their own system, so everybody wants to believe that there is at least the possibility of a system that works better.

A lot of foreigners who haven’t been to the United States—a lot of the Turks who I’ve been talking to haven’t—and who don’t know very many Americans themselves are surprised that someone could be as ignorant as Trump. They didn’t realize that people are that ignorant in the US. But foreigners who are more internationally well-traveled do realize that a large number of Americans do not know where foreign countries are and are not interested in foreign politics. Someone like Trump does not surprise them at all. It really depends on the level of familiarity with the United States.

But there is something somewhat heartbreaking sometimes when I hear people say things like, “Wow, I never thought that such a thing could happen in America.” Because that means that they still had a dream of America that they’d been holding onto.

A lot of our self-confidence and our self-esteem and our belief in ourselves comes from this idea that we are the most powerful country, the most prosperous country, the most successful—and “the best,” and “good.” When we start to lose that, it’s going to do strange and painful things to our insides.

CM: You write, “Greeks and Turks were fully aware of the history of relations with the United States. Americans, meanwhile, did not realize that who we were as a nation and a people had also been shaped by these abuses of power over the course of a century.”

What do you think it does to a citizenry when they do not know, as you put it, “who they are”?

SH: From writing this book I’ve had an identity crisis of my own. I thought of myself as a lefty when I embarked on this whole process. But I think that these things go so deep that it’s an unending quest to figure out.

I would go to Greece and I would interview Greek citizens—I was there to write about the financial crisis—and I would ask them, “What happened here? What happened in your country? How did you guys end up in this mess?” This was in 2010. Greeks would say to me, “Well, if we really want to talk about how we ended up in this mess, we need to back to 1946, 1949, we need to talk about the Greek civil war, and we need to talk about the American intervention. You know.” They would say to me, “You know. You know what I’m talking about.” And I didn’t know what they were talking about.

I’ve asked many other Americans, and many of those I’ve spoken to have not known what the Greeks are talking about either. So there I am. I realized, as a journalist asking my arrogant questions about what happened here and “what you guys did,” that I don’t know the history of this place. I don’t know America’s history with this country. And that means that I am writing about a country with which I have a relationship that I’m not conscious of. My country is the powerful one in that relationship; it’s a relationship of power. And now I am going to write about them for a magazine that’s going to be read by thousands of people, without being conscious of this relationship of power. I realized that meant that I was looking at them in a way I was not conscious of: I was looking down on them, essentially, because I was coming from that place in our power relationship.

This suddenly seemed immoral to me. I was actually ashamed, and very torn up about how irresponsible this entire endeavor was. That was as a journalist. But as a citizen…Look, we have to recognize that a lot of our self-confidence and our self-esteem and our belief in ourselves comes from this idea that we are the most powerful country, the most prosperous country, the most successful—and “the best,” and “good.” When we start to lose that, it’s going to do strange and painful things to our insides.

It’s going to cause an identity crisis. And then we have to redefine ourselves. I don’t mean this for the fifty million people in the United States who are living in poverty. They don’t bear responsibility for these things. But the people who are running the media, who are running the universities, and who are in Washington—this is very important to grapple with.

CM: What does it reveal to you about the United States, about Americanism, when we embrace this feeling that our country is greater than all countries, and—as you were saying—approach other countries in such a condescending way?

SH: It makes American exceptionalism into a dangerous nationalism. The Trump phenomenon is bringing the ugliest version of this out into the open. If people have to let go of these deep beliefs in America being the best—and I think that sometimes they are being confronted with the reality of this in their own lives, because they are not able to do well economically, or because they are not as successful as they once were—Americans will react with a kind of rage. Because what does it mean to be American if we’re not the best?

This is my main question. If we are no longer the most powerful, if we are no longer the most prosperous, and if we are no longer good on some level…who are we? That kind of dislocation is going to be very difficult for a lot of Americans, especially because it’s happening at the same time that another very important American belief is diminishing, which is that our lives will always get better. The American Dream is no longer. We don’t know what this will mean, what kind of country we will become, if people no longer believe that their lives will always improve and that their children’s lives will improve.

For Americans, that’s devastating, and I think we’re just seeing the beginning of this.

CM: To continue on the conversation about Trump: you write, “Trump is the crudest manifestation of some very American traits: recklessness, nationalism, contempt for history, an inability (if not utter disinclination) to inhabit a foreigner’s experience.”

How much do you think that defines conservatism, or the Republican Party, today? How much does that define one of the two dominant political beliefs that are now guiding the United States?

SH: I think it’s absolutely dominant. But I don’t think that it’s just dominant within the conservative movement or within the Republican Party. I really want to stress that liberals and conservatives share a lot of these problems. It is to varying degrees, but we have seen liberals and Democrats be just as hawkish and arrogant on foreign policy, and just as arrogant about what I think is the most important thing in regards to all of this, which is violence.

One of the main things that we’re all in denial of is that the United States—especially in the last fifteen years—has been perpetrating a tremendous amount of violence. I would like someone to initiate a conversation on how Americans relate to the idea of the deaths of others at the hands of their government. I don’t think that we have much of an emotional relationship to it at all.

There was a New York Times Magazine article that appeared a couple of weeks ago: two journalists went out and proved that the drone campaign and the air campaign in Iraq was killing civilians at 31 times the rate that the military was admitting or was even counting. There is a debate, a conversation that we should probably be having about how we feel about such air campaigns and such wars. We don’t have these conversations at all. We decided to support the war in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world, and there was no discussion. Was there ever a debate on TV? Did anyone ever talk about it? It’s extraordinary how detached we are from all this death.

This is the ultimate expression of a kind of nationalism that constantly assures itself that “we must be doing this for a good reason.”

We have, in recent years, been seeing endless, countless images of destruction in the Middle East. It’s been horrible. It’s been horrific. I have never really gotten the sense that Americans feel a tremendous amount of sympathy for Muslims or Arabs or Middle Easterners when they are suffering, because the reaction seems to be, “Well, those people always kill each other.” There’s a real distance that Americans put between themselves and others.

CM: Last year we had Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Viet Thanh Nguyen on the show, and he was saying that one of the reasons he believes the United States continues to support wars in an almost knee-jerk fashion, no matter who the country is or what the reasons are or what evidence is being presented—he says the problem is that war, especially in the US media, has become completely sanitized. He said the difference is that during Vietnam you would see pictures on the nightly news of dead or wounded American soldiers. That no longer happens. He believes that if that were back in the media, then you would see more people being opposed to war.

How much do you think that the media has sanitized war? And do you believe that if we actually saw the real images of war and how it impacts American soldiers, that we would see a change in the way that American citizens respond to the call for war?

SH: They definitely sanitized the war in Iraq, that’s for sure. I remember friends of mine who were war photographers having photographs censored, specifically of American soldiers. Often this is complicated because the soldiers’ families get to make the decisions also, but this was definitely government censorship that was going on.

But the media has really tried to cover the stories of what has been happening to our veterans who have returned home: they are committing suicide and they have suffered these horrific injuries. It would be interesting to know if it would have made a difference during the war in Iraq. But a lot of the people who are the making the decisions in the country are detached from the people who are fighting in the wars. Those are usually working class people. Some people in the United States don’t know any soldiers. We have soldiers in Afghanistan, of course, and we have people deployed around the world. We have a lot of small special forces teams doing things throughout Africa that we don’t know anything about at all.

But the question is: would Americans feel this response to images of Iraqi civilians who’ve been killed? Or Afghans? Syrians? We have, in recent years, been seeing endless, countless images of destruction in the Middle East. It’s been horrible. It’s been horrific. Nobody knows anymore who is even behind these wars, where it begins and where it ends, who is responsible. I have never really gotten the sense that Americans feel a tremendous amount of sympathy for Muslims or Arabs or Middle Easterners when they are suffering, because the reaction seems to be, “Well, those people always kill each other.” There’s a real distance that Americans put between themselves and others.

CM: You write in your book about covering a mine disaster that killed over 300 in a town called Soma in Turkey. You write, “I heard about the way the United States had governed the world during the Cold War and after, and how its foreign policy shaped a course of history for Turkey that even in small ways led to the Soma tragedy. But of all the things I discovered those days in that humble Turkish town, the resilience of my own innocence was the most terrifying.”

How did you continue to have innocence? What explains to you how you continued to have innocence after being confronted with their perspective on the US role in Turkish history? What explains why your innocence had that level of resilience?

SH: Throughout my book, I am trying to be very attuned to my reflexes, those gut emotional reflexes that I might never have expressed out loud (or I would have known better than to express out loud, or I would never have admitted). What is in those reflexes is the real American character, the very deep American character. There is a fundamental innocence that is difficult to dislodge, even if you are a lefty, even if you are really well-read, even if you are very knowledgeable about what has happened in the world.

But here I was: I had been living in Turkey for seven years. I had by that point basically written the book that we’re talking about. And I went to Soma to report on this mine disaster, and at one point one of the miners says to me that the union that failed to protect these miners had essentially been set up by the Americans in the forties, and that the economic and political policies that the Americans had encouraged Turkey to have in the eighties had further taken away any power from these unions to protect miners. It had essentially been supporting big business.

These miners explained this to me, and this is what I mean by innocence: I still was surprised. It was specifically the fact that the Americans had helped set up that union. I knew that they had done things like that in Europe. But for some reason it still came as a shock to me, and here are these miners, who are in a very rural place—they knew this history well. And I felt—again—the reflex of, “Wow, really?”

This is the reflex of innocence that I wanted to call attention to, that we have to be conscious of and aware of at all times in order to defeat it and in order to face reality.

CM: You write, “A young Turkish artist who had just returned from a decade in New York once said to me during a brief hopeful era in Turkey: ‘Western history is a farce and everyone knows it. Perhaps we can take the values that Americans have abused for material gain and do something better with them’”

How much do you think that sums up the feelings of many of the people you spoke with overseas?

SH: I think one hundred percent. This was a very well-educated, brilliant guy. He articulated that very well. But I think a lot of people are aware of that. What was so sad about this brief hopeful period in Turkey was that a lot of people felt like, “Maybe we can create something new, and yes of course we have forty or fifty years of the American century behind us, and the American example before us, but maybe we can take something and do something else with this.”

That is what a lot of people want to do when they have been (or are) aspiring to democracy. People got confused about this during the Arab Spring, too. The Arab Spring was a reaction in part against American power. They were not aspiring to an American-style democracy necessarily. They were aspiring to their own version of a democratic state, their own vision. Because they know very well—especially the people in the Middle East—the contradictions of the American project. It’s very sad, actually.

But I still have hope for the Middle East. I don’t think we can give up on the Arab Spring yet.

CM: Suzy, truly a fascinating book. I really appreciate you being on the show with us.

SH: Thank you so much for having me.

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