Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Trump is making Americans see the U.S. the way the rest of the world already did

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An interesting column in the Washington Post by Suzy Hansen, an American writer living in Istanbul:

Last spring, President Trump announced that he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement, making the U.S. one of only three nations that isn’t a signatory. This summer, he was throwing around careless provocations at a nuclear-armed North Korea. In May, he physically pushed his way past the prime minister of Montenegro for a group photo of NATO leaders. Many Americans reacted to these embarrassments with fear, horror and not a little bit of surprise — I guess because an American blundering through the world is something they had never seen before.

The Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie once observed that there are “two Americas” — one at home and one abroad. The first is the America of Hollywood, work-in-progress democracy, civil rights movements and Ellis Island. The second is the America of coups and occupations, military dictators and CIA plots, economic meddling and contempt for foreign cultures. The rest of the world knows both Americas. But as Shamsie has written, Americans don’t seem aware of the second one at all.

The debate about how the United States elected an irresponsible nationalist like Trump has focused on why the first America, the supposedly beautiful one, failed, rather than why the second America, the ugly one, triumphed. But from abroad, Trump makes a lot more sense — and has much more in common with his predecessors and his countrymen — than many Americans realize.

I left the United States more than a decade ago to live in Istanbul. I spent most of my first year educating myself about Turkish history and politics, and trying to learn how to write about them. What continued to surprise me was what I kept learning from foreigners about my country: about America in Turkey, and then about America everywhere else.

The rest of the world doesn’t figure much in U.S. lesson plans. A majority of states have phased out international geography from their middle school and high school curriculums; according to the most recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, from 2014 , three-quarters of eighth-graders place “below proficient” in the subject. And although many Americans know the major flash points in the nation’s international history — the Vietnam War and the Iran hostage crisis, interventions in Central America, the invasion of Iraq — few learn about the complexities of our relationships with so many other nations, especially the diplomatic, military and economic entanglements of the Cold War.

This may be particularly true of those Americans who came of age in the 1990s as the United States triumphed over the Soviets, its status as a benevolent superpower somehow confirmed. The ugliness of the Cold War was largely forgotten. I remember the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine portrayed in my ’90s-era education as great international acts of charity, of which Turkey had been among the lucky recipients. But when I moved to Istanbul, Turks taught me about the more complicated aspects of the United States’ long relationship with their country: that thousands of U.S. soldiers had occupied Turkish soil in the 1950s, and how, throughout the darkest days of the Cold War, most Turks believed that the United States was manipulating their military and their citizens. I had come expecting Turks to be foreign to me. It turned out we were profoundly, tormentedly, related.

It wasn’t just Turkey. After the financial crisis in Greece, I interviewed many intellectuals and other citizens there who offered historical explanations during which they referred — casually, assuming I knew about it — to an American intervention. I’d never heard of it. But it was a pivotal moment in contemporary Greek history: Thousands of Americans arrived in Athens as part of the Truman Doctrine, propping up an authoritarian regime against Greek communists and leftists and demanding that Greeks imitate the American way of life. From the late 1940s to the 1970s, American military personnel, diplomats and spies provided ample support to the Greek government as it tortured and persecuted its citizens. This history, our history, was part of them. I haven’t met any Americans for whom it was part of their identity — most never knew about it. It wasn’t at all part of mine.

In those fleeting moments, I would feel a terrifying gulf open between us: The United States had wielded the power in this relationship, and Americans took no responsibility for it. As a journalist, I had been sent to write about the Greek financial crisis for a major American magazine with no knowledge of how our mutual history might have produced unconscious prejudices in both countries.

At the very least, Greeks and Turks could explain how this history influenced their present. Americans, meanwhile, did not realize that who we were — as a nation and a people — had also been shaped by these abuses of power over the course of a century. Holding onto an image of ourselves as freedom-loving individualists who determined our own fates and championed the same for others, Americans didn’t have any idea how far we’d strayed from this ideal in the eyes of the rest of the world. This appeared to be true everywhere I went: in Egypt, in Afghanistan and, perhaps most important, in Iran, where tens of thousands of Americans once worked in service of a brutal ruler. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

9 September 2017 at 12:50 pm

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