The Dangers of American Exceptionalism

The problem with Americans thinking America is, at its heart, good.

An American flag flies in front of the U.S. Consulate on July 9, 2008 in Istanbul, Turkey.
An American flag flies in front of the U.S. Consulate on July 9, 2008, in Istanbul.

Burak Kara/Getty Images

Suzy Hansen’s new book, Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World, is an examination of her time living in Turkey and traveling around the world after leaving New York City in 2007. Hansen is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine currently stationed in Istanbul. Although the book does talk extensively about her experiences there, it is probably best seen as a look at the impact America has on other countries, including in ways that Americans often seem unaware of. “Why was it that the people of the most powerful country in the world—powerful because of its influence inside so many foreign nations—did not feel or care to explore what that influence meant?” she asks.

I spoke to Hansen by phone recently. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how Turkish and American nationalism differ, the casual assumptions made by American reporters living abroad, and the ways in which Trump’s election changed how people think about their own countries.

Isaac Chotiner: You write that your time traveling and living abroad “shattered your faith in your own objectivity.” What do you mean by that?

Suzy Hansen: I realized I had all of these very unconscious assumptions, or maybe reflexes, that I hadn’t really been aware of before. At times when I thought I was being objective and I thought I was being fair, especially as a journalist, that actually I had all of these prejudices that I hadn’t really come to terms with or wasn’t aware of until then. I think that living abroad is something that exposes that stuff pretty radically.

What types of things are you talking about?

If you just look at the way that I reacted to [Turkish President] Erdogan in the first year I was here. Everybody was excited about his party. He seemed different. He was doing all of these reforms, and I of course didn’t really know that much about Turkey, didn’t know that much about him, and I didn’t know about him in the context of Turkish society, what type of man he was, that kind of thing. It’s amazing to me in retrospect, but simply because he was pro-business, I thought that this somehow made him less Islamic.

I think that this was automatic. “Pro-business” was a good thing and would be a good thing for Turkey. This is coming from someone who would not have thought the same thing about the United States. In the context of Turkey, I did have this automatic reaction.

In a sense we tend to think, “It’s like us, therefore it’s good.” That’s essentially what it is, because there is this deeper assumption, I think, that we believe that our way of life is better than others, that this is what everybody is working towards, and that everybody is aspiring to emulate us and be like us.

Though there’s less thought now that anyone wants to be like us.

Right. Yeah. [Laughs.]

Your book talks a lot about the idea of American exceptionalism. What do you think about the concept?

One thing that’s interesting about it is how resilient it is. I think it is the foundation of our collective identity in a way. The thing that I outlined, for example, in the introduction, where I talk about, no matter what, when I was in Greece and Turkey I would still see their economic progress, or if they were starting to model their countries more on our model, as a kind of maturation. I would still think that even though there was obviously disarray in Greece and we had a financial crisis in the United States. I would still think that in Egypt or think that in Afghanistan—that for example, we somehow had good intentions in Afghanistan even if everything was an absolute disaster. It was really quite a cynical enterprise, as I discovered when I went there.

And It’s not just about ourselves as a nation. It’s about ourselves as individuals. I think that that was a little bit difficult to discover, which I did when I moved abroad, but there’s something about it, this exceptionalism, which seems to suggest that we are somehow uniquely good in some way. This is very important to us to believe in, because otherwise we wouldn’t be isolated from a lot of the past crimes and various things that we’ve done around the world. I think that the way that it extends to one’s very personality is something that I hadn’t really quite understood before.

The twin or alternate concept is anti-Americanism, which you came face to face with and write a lot about as well. How would you define that today?

The one thing that I don’t think I emphasize enough in the book is that even though this book is very much about how foreigners see us, I don’t think that most foreigners, or average foreigners in any given country, are sitting around obsessing about the United States. They’re not. They have their own internal politics.

What I was trying to get across was that Americans just don’t have any connection to that history [between America and other countries] for some reason, whereas foreigners of course do. I would say that most people have a pretty decent understanding and a pretty fair understanding of what happened between the United States and their country in the last 30 years.

I think that the biggest problem about the phrase anti-Americanism is that for us it just makes us turn off. If someone is critical of America, we can call them anti-American, and then we don’t have to think about where these notions might have come from or these feelings might have come from. I’m sorry I keep using Turkey as my example, but after this last coup, when the Turkish government started suggesting that the Americans were behind it, I felt that my American friends or American pundits or journalists … it was funny how they reacted.

It was like, “Oh God, they’re all so stupid,” without acknowledging, “OK, but Americans in Turkey, were very, very deeply involved, and America was possibly very deeply involved in two of its past military coups.” This should just be a history that’s acknowledged, and I don’t think it is.

Right, although that becomes complicated, especially when the people putting forth those views in Turkey or Pakistan or whatever country you cover in this book are the most reactionary elements in a society.

That can be true, but I think you’d be surprised how “anti-American” many, many, many different parts of the Turkish population can be, or very critical, or very much believe that Americans were responsible for a lot of what happened in the past 50 years. Some of the most very educated people, the leftists, it’s not Erdogan people only.

There’s an approving quote in your book about Osama Bin Laden by a Lebanese historian who says, “Bin Laden rejected the secular, liberal language of universal human rights and international law” because “they had done nothing to protect Muslims around the world.” That type of analysis, especially about someone like Bin Laden, is refracting everything back through our lens, and thinking that people’s beliefs or people’s political opinions are based on us, and what we have done. Do you think there’s a danger in a kind of mirror-image American or Western exceptionalism, in which too much is attributed to America or the West, good or bad?

Yes. I don’t think that we want to go too far in understanding foreigners, for example, or Osama Bin Laden, and just seeing everything through this lens of what America has done. I totally agree with you about that, and I think that there is a danger. What I was trying to do was really to get people to look at themselves, to get Americans to consider some of their prejudices and preconceived notions, etc., and to challenge their ignorance. To get across that a lot of us are really not well educated in terms of what has happened in the last few decades.

I thought about this, of course, to say in the introduction, “This is going to be a book that criticizes.” I’m not going to remind you at every turn of the good things that the U.S. has done, etc., or the good values it has, or the good principles. This is just not what I’m doing in this book necessarily because I think that we’re actually quite well aware of those things.

The case that you brought up is a very interesting one. Obviously, that historian was trying to be a bit provocative, especially by using Osama Bin Laden, but the thing to consider is that he is himself an Arab. He is speaking about an emotional experience that Arabs have had and Muslims have had. Maybe we don’t know how, let’s say, betrayed they have felt by American standards and America. Maybe we really don’t know, and that’s the part that you want to leave open in your mind, that maybe it has been awful. Because we don’t know.

America and Turkey seem like two countries that are very much defined by nationalism. How do you compare and contrast American and Turkish nationalism?

That was how I first realized that American patriotism was a form of nationalism. Some of these admissions are embarrassing to me now, but I really didn’t quite grasp that I had seen Turkish nationalism as this very strange thing. I think I really looked down on it in my first year, and I felt that that was something clever or even good that I was doing, because I was recognizing this very ugly force, which is what I thought it was, for what it was, and realizing that this was really the problem with Turkish society.

Some people would agree with that, but it was only after a while that I suddenly realized, “Actually, a lot of the rhetoric is similar to our rhetoric.” This is a country that was born from another, from their own empire, but was born out of the ashes of an empire, and they very much believe that they salvaged their own country, defended their own country, and that they founded their own country. And they are so grateful to their leaders for establishing this wondrous place. All of that stuff all felt really very similar.

I think what also felt very similar was the way that masculinity and nationalism [were] tied. I could see that Turkish men very much felt they got a lot of their sense of self and pride from the fact that they were from this warrior country, and they had defended the nation, and that they were strong. I think that I was starting to see certain types of American men, usually white American men, as also taking a lot of their confidence from the fact that they are white American men, that they are the most powerful people in the world to some degree. I was seeing these kinds of parallels in the beginning mostly.

I think that actually Turks do have this fairly strong identity, some of them do anyway, that gives them a sense of self and gives them a center. Obviously, this is very complicated because of the Kurds, and it is also going through massive problems right now, but I think that I just found it very interesting, for example, that in a country like Belgium, Moroccans are much more attracted to radical movements, Moroccans who live in Belgium, than Turks would ever be. Part of that is because of the language, but part of that is simply that Turks already have this very, very strong identity. Right now, a strong identity seems like something that will help you weather a lot of storms.

Has it changed over Erdogan’s tenure?

If I remember correctly, for a while he himself was deploying this rhetoric about how nationalism was not necessarily the most important thing, and that this had been harmful in some cases. This was when he was making peace with the Kurds, and when of course he wanted an Islamic identity to reassert itself. Now I think we see this very pernicious combination of the two. At the same time, by getting involved in foreign wars in Syria and Iraq, he’s really angered a lot of his own constituents, I think, for doing something that the Turkish nation never used to really do.

How has Trump’s rise and election changed how people in Turkey view America?

It’s a very painful thing to me. Definitely I’ve heard people just say how surprised they are that this kind of thing could happen in America. There you see some of the reverence for at least how politics are conducted there. How could the Americans have let this happen? How strange. This will come from people who have been very, very critical of America, but yeah, they are surprised.

I think one of the most interesting things was when my friend said, which she was just in complete shock when Trump won, and she said, “I used to be so angry at the people who voted for Erdogan. I used to just hate them. How could they do this? How could they do this to us?” She said, “But in Turkey, they really don’t have the same education that you have,” or that she assumed we have. She said, “If Americans can vote for such a thing, then really it can happen to everyone, and I’m going to be more sympathetic for the Turks who vote for Erdogan because they haven’t had the advantages that you have had.” She thought that because we were a wealthier country and we were more advanced that we were all more educated and therefore we wouldn’t vote for a man like this.

Join the club, I’d say to your friend.

I guess it is pretty scary right now.