A journalist questions the notion of American exceptionalism.
When New York Times Magazine contributing writer Hansen arrived in Turkey in 2007 on a research fellowship, she harbored a deep faith in America’s “inherent goodness, as well as in my country’s Western way of living, and perhaps in my own inherent, God-given, Christian-American goodness as well.” She assumed that any nation’s move toward modernity “in the American sense” meant progress. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, where international geography had been cut from the school curriculum, she knew little about the world; even as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, she hardly noticed international events. Living in a “zone of miraculous neutrality” about her country’s role in foreign affairs, she naively and complacently believed America to have “uniquely benevolent intentions toward the peoples of the world.” That view changed dramatically as she traveled through the Middle East, reading history and political analysis and conducting many interviews in Turkey, Afghanistan, Greece, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran. She discovered that fear of “communism, Islamism, or any other enemyism of the United States” led America to foster military dictatorships rather than risk the outcomes of democratic elections. Talking with Egyptian dissidents and Muslim Brothers, for example, Hansen learned of the corruption, torture, and repression resulting from American efforts to undermine Egypt with the aim of gaining power in the Arab world. She concludes that keeping Americans unaware about global issues has served such efforts, unleashed hatred abroad, and contributed to the rise of Donald Trump. Examining her own identity as an observer and writer forms a recurring theme: was she endorsing America’s penchant for denial if she wrote about a foreign country without fully understanding its history, including America’s role? Hansen offers a heartfelt plea for empathy and a recognition of “the realities of millions of people,” but honing a sophisticated global perspective seems far more complicated than she acknowledges here.
A mostly illuminating
literary debut that shows how Americans’ ignorance about the world has made
turmoil and terrorism possible.