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NewsOct 4, 2018

Seeing the world through America’s eyes

Acclaimed author and foreign correspondent aimed to research Middle East, but discovered our country’s problems, instead

A women with long red hard sitting in a chair speaking to an audience of students

Photo: Author and foreign correspondent Suzy Hansen speaks with students in Alumni Hall on Wednesday.

Americans know so little about the rest of the world, even when they’ve lived abroad for years.

On Wednesday, author and foreign correspondent Suzy Hansen revealed this discovery — and self-discovery — in a daytime visit with College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) and an evening lecture to an audience of about 100 in Marran Theater.

Hansen discussed her decision to write about and reside in Istanbul, inspired by the experiences there of her favorite author, James Baldwin. A Turkish friend told her, “We think your book is about America.”

“What they were hearing was the observations I was making as an American about Turkey,” Hansen said. “I started becoming more and more aware of my own ignorance, my own prejudices.”

Though she was a bit chastened by the comment, it helped her focus her work, which became her acclaimed "Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World.” Her first book, published in 2017, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and is this year’s selection for CLAS Reads, a Lesley tradition where incoming students are assigned the same book to read prior to their arrival at Lesley.

A women with long red hard sitting in a chair speaking to an audience of students
Author Suzy Hansen speaks to Lesley students.

“I was really so excited about this,” Hansen said of her book being chosen for CLAS Reads. “It really is an honor for me.”

Hansen honored her audience with a brief recap of her career before the publication of her book, as well as her observations about the spread of propaganda — both political and cultural, both in the United States and overseas.

Her journalism career in New York City (she was an editor at the Observer newspaper) essentially began with 9/11 and ended just before the financial collapse of 2008, having been awarded a fellowship in 2007 to conduct research in Turkey.

“I think Sept. 11 was the most painful for those who had been invested in America’s status as the superpower of the world.”

This mythology, she indicated, was behind the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq, which has been disastrous from a military and reputational standpoint. But America had already cut a wide swath in Iraq, even before Operation Desert Storm of 1990-91, the first foreign policy crisis for America since the end of the Cold War.

In 2012, one Iraqi man who grew up in the 1980s told Hansen, “You had everything to do with what our nation became, but you know nothing about our country.”

Hansen knew that was true. In school she learned about the post-World War II Marshall Plan and the subsequent Truman Doctrine of anti-Soviet containment, but she learned nothing at the University of Pennsylvania about the Cold War-era conflicts in Latin America, the conflicts now fueling the United States’ own conflicts over immigration.

“I never learned anything about those places when I was in college,” she said. Rather, in the 1990s, under the Bill Clinton presidency, America was prosperous and, “We could sort of persuade the rest of the world to adopt our way of life.”

Suzy Hansen in Alumni Hall.
Suzy Hansen's book is this year's selection for CLAS Reads.

When the U.S. and worldwide financial markets collapsed a decade ago, many Americans — even highly educated journalists who should have known better — too often blamed the victim. When Hansen was in Greece in 2010 to cover its economic crisis, the coverage was often pejorative, and the questioning by journalists was often accusatory. “What did you do?” was the prevailing attitude, Hansen said.

Yet, as America post-Cold War concerned itself with “what to do with the Third World,” we replaced a racist model of colonialism with a more subtly racist model of “modernization,” laboring under the assumption that all other nations strive to be exactly like the United States.

And if those nations were poky about remaking themselves in America’s image, coups, assassinations and military incursions were just the thing to bring them in line.

“The world once believed in America, and has been traumatized by its failures,” Hansen said.