‘Eat, Pray, Admit You’re From An Empire’

PRI Radio: “My years as an American abroad in the 21st century were not a joyous romp of self-discovery and romance, the kind we see in movies,” author Suzy Hansen pens in her new book, “Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World.”

Hansen lives in Istanbul and has written for the NYT, traveled throughout Turkey and to Iran, Greece, Egypt, Afghanistan and the Mississippi Delta. I am eager to read her book, and yet it sounds unnecessarily negative and intended to produce the guilt or a feeling of culpability for what “we” Americans have done in the world. She writes that Americans “can no longer travel in foreign countries without noticing the strange weight we carry with us.”
Like most Americans, she was an innocent abroad. But instead of romance and discovery, her experience “was more of a shattering and a shame,” she writes.

I’m sorry, but I disagree with her. In my travels to 40+ countries, I found very very few foreigners who blamed me for the bad actions of my government, any more than I blame them for the bad actions of their governments.  In eight years of travel, mostly in Turkey and the Middle East, I rarely — very rarely — encountered hostility toward me as an American. I can count one, maybe two or three brief incidents.I would generally say that my years abroad were fantastic, yes, “a joyous romp of self-discovery and romance, the kind we see in movies.”

Admittedly, I haven’t spent much time in the world’s hotspots, as Hansen has. I have not been to Iran or Afghanistan, I do know Americans who have visited Iran and encountered just lovely people. See Rick Steves’ video on his trip to Iran.>Afghanistan, a war zone where Americans have stayed perhaps too long, might be different.

I have been to Egypt. Aside from the desperately aggressive hawkers seeking to sell me something — anything — I did not encounter hostility from the Egyptians. They, too, were glad to see the tourists. I certainly acknowledge that we Americans have played a far greater role in shoring up military dictatorships in Egypt than most people realize.

I have also been to Greece and found the tour guides and hotel owners very happy to have the business. I experienced no hostility from them whatsoever.

I found the Turks to be among the friendliest and most hospitable people on earth when I was there from 2009 to 2011. I acknowledge that Turkey, since the 2016 attempted coup, might now be different. Many Turks blame America for harboring the imam, Fettaluh Gulen, in Pennsylvania, who they blame for masterminding the coup. But I think it is admirable that America respects due process of law and the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” in the Gulen case. The US has refused to deport the 75-year-old man in poor health until the Turks can prove “probable cause” that he was a mastermind of the coup.

A pervasive paranoia has pervaded Turkish society, according to a Turkish friend. He called the country “a psychiatric ward.”

To blame America for the loss of Turkish democracy and President Erdogan jailing more than 100,000 dissenters, mostly educators, and turning the country into a near-dictatorship seems like a stretch.

I am interested to see if Hansen can make a compelling case for American complicity in the sad state of Turkish, Greek and Egyptian politics.

 While I can agree that Americans are generally innocent or ignorant of the bad things their government has done in the world, I’m afraid the result of her book becoming popular will be that Americans will travel the world with a defensive chip on their shoulders, or sad guilt-ridden “blame my government for everything wrong with your country.”

Bernie Sanders was guilty of blaming America during the political campaign, specifically, Nixon advisor Henry Kissinger for toppling the Sihanouk government of Cambodia in the early 1970s, which he said led to the rise of Pol Pot, genocide in “the killing fields” and the unnecessary deaths of millions of Cambodians. But a closer, more informed investigation of what happened in Cambodia by the late Joel Brinkley, one-time New York Times correspondent, suggests otherwise. I discussed this in my blog piece, “Did Henry Kissinger Cause Cambodian Genocide?”

I asked my son Matthew, who has traveled to more than 100 countries while working as a sound engineer in the entertainment division of cruise ships, if he ever felt “shattered and ashamed to be American”? He said, “No, of course not.”

He pointed out that the British Empire did some terrible things between the 16th and 20th centuries. The Irish still think of Oliver Cromwell as “the first member of ISIS, chopping off heads with impunity,” as a taxi driver in Dublin told me.

And yet, the relationship between the British and the Irish is “better than it has ever been,” said a tour guide at the Brazen Head in Dublin, “Ireland’s oldest pub.”

The British are largely responsible for imposing artificial maps (instead of natural borders) on the Middle East, carving it up, and making it the political mess that it is today.

Do the British go around the world with chips on their shoulder, guilt-ridden for what their ancestors did? Of course not. They acknowledge the terrible mistakes and are relieved to no longer carry the burdens of empire.

But if you dig deep enough, they are also proud of what the empire accomplished, and there were some very good things. And they remain proud to be English.

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