‘Unlearning the Myth of American Innocence’

“Americans will never understand their own country until they see it as the rest of the world does,” writes Suzy Hansen in The Guardianin an excerpt from her book, Notes on a Foreign Country.

She calls it “the myth of American innocence.” It might also be called willful ignorance of the world, blindness, or a belief that if we do not assert our power and try to dominate the world, forces contrary to our national interest certainly will do so.

Hansen describes her segregated childhood on the Jersey Shore, in “one of the Trumpiest towns in New Jersey,” as “provincial… middle-class modesty…I don’t remember a strong sense of civic engagement. Instead, I had the feeling that people could take things from you if you didn’t stay vigilant.”

She did not think of her place in the wider world, “or that perhaps an entire history – the history of white Americans – had something to do with who I was. My lack of consciousness allowed me to believe I was innocent, or that white American was not an identity like Muslim or Turk.”

Living outside the US, in Turkey, she has discovered some of the social constructs that formed her identity. So did I. Like Hansen, living abroad sparked in me a fascination with world history, the forces that shape nations. Like her, I believed that Turkey, “might be the place where the secret workings of history would be revealed,” and in some ways it was.

Yes, living in the Middle East could be, as she observed, intellectually and emotionally uncomfortable. Like her, I began to witness “how nationalistic propaganda had inspired people’s views of the world and of themselves” — Middle Easterners and Americans alike.

But I found it invigorating to try, as she did, “to grasp a reality of which I had no historical or cultural understanding.”

She writes: “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.”

Growing up in the South during the civil rights era, I was thankfully less innocent than Hansen. Perhaps because members of my family — teachers, journalists — were at the forefront of the struggle for social justice in their communities — and because I went to a high school that was about 48% white, 48% African American, and 4% Native American, I was most certainly aware that as a young white American, with educated parents, “I was an easy winner of an ugly game.” And I certainly knew if we did not actively care for the less fortunate and learn to share power, we could destroy society or retreat into wealthy enclaves of gated communities.

While I find value in Hansen’s perspective, she seems to have newly discovered liberal white guilt and how American nationalism distorts global realities, which I have known since the Vietnam era.

She does not say that the liberal, cynical Turks she hangs out with do not represent the Turkish population as a whole, pluralities if not majorities of which respond naively — like sheep — to the ultra-nationalist and manipulative religious appeals of Erdogan. They seem to have willingly given away their democracy, and respect for individual rights, and given in to his authoritarian, paranoid, megalomaniacal power trip.

Americans have not done that yet. There is still hope for a strong institutional response to the tendencies of Donald Trump toward unaccountability.

 

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