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I have an essay in The Point magazine -- a Chicago-based magazine on culture and politics -- that I spent many months working on. It is about Americans abroad, the damage we do, the innocence we claim, the stories we tell -- and also, perhaps, the responsibility and solidarity we could take on. It's about Suzy Hansen's journalist memoir "Notes on a Foreign Country," -- and about Henry James, James Baldwin, and Omar El Akkad among others. And it has more auto-biography than I usually include in any of my writing.
I generally agreed with Hansen's critique of American imperialism, and I found the book thought-provoking. But I also found her framing and her tone off-putting, because of how self-centered it is and above all of how utterly humorless. Here is an excerpt:FORD COUPE DELUXE 1940, EAGLE'S RACE 1 18Lightweight Maier (Grey) Germany - 1935
Hansen argues that her lack of awareness about America’s role in the world was structural, intentional—an ignorance that many Americans, particularly white Americans, wear like mental armor, allowing them to believe, against all evidence, that our political and military interventions abroad are always necessary, successful and well-intentioned. “I would never have admitted it, or thought to say it,”Corgi 304 Mercedes Benz 300 SL Hardtop Roadster In Its Original Box Near MintMG Model Ferrari 512M 4th Zeltweg 1971 Hand Built 1 43 Hansen explains, “but looking back, I know that deep in my consciousness I thought that America was at the end of some evolutionary spectrum of civilization, and everyone else was trying to catch up.” Hence, she assumed that in Istanbul, she would assess how well Turkey was meeting certain U.S. standards (“democratization,” “modernization”); she would also think about “solutions” to Islam, because “that’s what Americans always do.”
Hansen occasionally mentions The Fire Next Time (1963), in which Baldwin describes the willful, Kit De Inicio para montar 1 43 Chevrolet Lumina Carretera interestatal WinnerRRBSC-03N - SC Provincial Regt, Line at Att - Raid on St. Francis - John Jenkinsviolent blindness of white Americans, and their determination not to face “reality—the fact that life is tragic.” Baldwin himself left America for France and Turkey because he found life there false and unbearable, a physical and psychological assault. At least African Americans, he wrote, possess “the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace.” Hansen read this passage long before moving to Turkey,1 76 métal Scania 420 HIGHLINE horsebo ox76shl01hbHotwheels Mattel Mebetoys Alfa Romeo 179C F1 Grand Prix 1 25 Perfect but one of her points is how often we can know something but not really accept it. She writes: “Even when I disagreed with America’s policies, I always believed in our inherent goodness, in my own.”
From Istanbul, Hansen traveled to report from Greece, Egypt and Afghanistan, only to discover from wry, patient locals that the crisis each country is currently undergoing can be explained by a history in which U.S. intervention figures prominently. In Afghanistan, KING & COUNTRY D DAY DD213 U.S 101ST AIRBORNE KNEELING READY MIBVolkswagen VW Maggiolino Polizei 1953 1 43 Model RIO4573 RIOshe attends a Fourth of July party at the American embassy. There is a billboard outside the embassy that reads: “the u.s. embassy would be grateful if any of our friends who have information on terrorist activity or threats to please come to this gate.” There is a five-by-seven-foot American flag made out of cupcakes. The red, white and blue balloons keep popping from the heat, setting the crowd of Afghans and Americans, fearful of snipers, on edge. General David Petraeus and the U.S. Spark 1 43 - RUF RK Spyder van 2006 - orange - Mint in box2017 Ford GT Heritage Edition Red US008B GT 1 18 Spirit Serial 040 Of 252ambassador dodge difficult questions from Afghan guests and deliver platitudes.
This is all very well observed. A different sort of writer would have made something barbed and darkly funny of this scene. Hansen seems headed in that direction, but instead she stops, on cue, to wring her hands: “Those bland, company-man words. In Kabul these words sounded criminal. These were loveless, soulless words. How could we speak to Afghans like this? … No one believed in the words they were saying, PnM061 The Cardinal's Guard w Musket at the Ready by King & CountryAutoCult - Skoda Winnetou Cabriolet 1968 - 1 43and yet this language was about real things: flesh and death and war, people’s homelands, and their children.”
It strikes me as a luxury and nearly an affront to be as sentimental and naïve as this. It’s not that we shouldn’t sympathize with Afghans and others—it’s that such an expression of sympathy, in which one’s own guilt and shock takes center stage, isn’t worth much. Meanwhile, many of the people I’ve met out in the world who are really up against it—who by circumstance or choice live terribly exposed—wear the risks they run matter-of-factly,1 18 SAIC Skoda 2018 Octavia Combi Agate Green Metallic Dealer EditionMERCEDES C CLASS B. MAYLANDER DTM 1966 Minichamps blue 1 43 the bearers of what Baldwin calls an “ironic tenacity.” They are knowing, daring, uncomplaining. I guarantee you they waste no time being shocked by the platitudes of U.S. ambassadors.
Hansen notes that when Albert Camus visited New York in 1946, he wrote in his journal that America was a “country where everything is done to prove that life isn’t tragic.” Camus held that “one must reject the tragic after having looked at it, not before.”2004 Hummer H2 with Camper Trailer 1 64 Scale JLBT008ANzg 838 Atlas 225lc, Excavator; 1 50 Hansen does the looking but not the rejecting. She remains transfixed by the tragic and her own response to it, casting pretty standard culture shock as emotional catastrophe. Her Turkish lessons are “soul-shattering.” In Cairo, she is “lonely and clumsy, wreaking havoc on things I knew nothing about.” In Afghanistan, “it was my mere existence, I felt, that did damage enough. I wanted nothing else but to withdraw myself.”
When I read this, a phrase of another writer immediately came to mind. “I hate tragedy,” wrote Waguih Ghali, a penniless alcoholic and suicidal Egyptian who, in self-imposed exile after Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in 1956, wrote one of my favorite novels.1 18 Holden LJ Torana XU-1 GTR Lone O'Ranger Ltd Classic Carlect.1 18 AUTOart Millennium 2002 Porsche Cayenne Turbo in Metallic Grey 78061 Beer in the Snooker Club contains passages that still make me laugh out loud. Egypt, the Arab country I lived in for many years, has one of the best and darkest strains of humor I’ve ever encountered. It does not come natural to me but I have often witnessed its gift, the way it can lift the pall of fear and death. It’s the laughter of survivors, balanced right on the edge of hope and hopelessness.
And check out the rest of The Point, there are many great pieces of writing there.
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I just received a copy of Morris Mini 1959 Minors 50th anniversary weiss diecast 1 18 Kyosho, Yoav Di-Capua's new book on Sartre and Arab intellectuals (it is essentially an intellectual history of the post-colonial Arab world) and its cover is very, very cool. I very much enjoyed Di-Capua's last book, Smokey et le Bandit 1977 Pontiac Trans Am 1 43 Echelle Greenlight 86513, a great historiography and was happy to meet him in Austin (where he teaches at the University of Texas) on the sidelines of South By Southwest a few years ago. It'll be some more rigorous reading than I'm doing now (I've been devouring Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem sci-fi series, see great reviews here and GREENLIGHT 1995 MITSUBISHI ECLIPSE 1 18 SCALE, THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS 19039) but looking forward to it.
Also recently received are two books on Morocco (and Jordan) – it's relatively rare that you get serious and in-depth English-language scholarship on Morocco, so good to see that – and a collected volume edited by Alfred Stepan including many A-listers and friends (Rached Ghannouchi, IKARUS 66 BUS DVB Dresden IXO 1 43 neuf et emballé HA2 µPEUGEOT 403 CABRIOLET DE 1964 SOLIDO N° 8165 1 18 CREME ROADSTER DIE CAST WAGENCarrie Wickham, Nathan Brown, Monica Marks, Radwan Masmoudi, etc.) that looks at the Egypt vs. Tunisia question post-Arab Spring. With chapter titles like "The roots of Egypt's constitutional catastrophe", it's pure Arabist geek-bait.