I had been running from U-Hall to Doble Campus. Like every Monday and Wednesday I only had 20 minutes to make it from my English class to my Intro to Communication class. Out of breath and just wanting to sit down, I realized that there was an unfamiliar face in the room. I only had a few seconds before my brain remembered that the face I saw seeing sitting in my teacher’s chair was the well-know author Suzy Hansen. And here I was for about an hour and 15 minutes of pure delight.
From culture shock, rediscovering herself to learning a whole new language, Hansen took us on her journey from the U.S. to Turkey, as explained in her book, Notes on a Foreign Country. In that book, one of the main themes she explores is what she calls “American Innocence.” Hansen explained how and why it is perpetuated by Americans– not only because of ignorance but also because of a somewhat deliberate choice to look at history through rose-colored glasses.
In Hansen’s book and talk, she mentioned that traveling around the world helped her to realize how her view of America, and America’s involvement in the world, had somehow been tainted. She wrote and spoke about how she had to come face to face with the realization that unconsciously, she had been thinking (and living) in a way that made her oblivious to how the rest of the world saw America. Ultimately, she found that she needed to question America’s history: what she had been taught, and how it had been passed down. On page 91 of her book, she quotes from Jonathan Lear, who wrote “unjust societies tend to cloud the minds of those who live within them…such societies hold themselves together not by force alone but by powerful imaginative structures that instill fear and complacency in the population.” But, as Hansen acknowledged, she had never before thought of herself as a product of an unjust society. However the more she learned, especially from living in another country (Turkey), the less innocent she felt.
Hansen said, “My lack of consciousness was dangerous because it exonerated me of responsibility, of history, of a role– it allowed me to believe I was innocent.” She went on the explain how this innocence was somewhat perpetual because America was made up of people from different parts of the world who had joined what is now called America at different intervals, and who had appropriated the place for themselves, while not necessarily understanding the history. This is specifically problematic because people could then justify themselves by claiming that they had not been there when cruelties were taking place against the native populations or against the slaves. America was a place where they could begin a new life without having to take upon themselves a bloody past. This meant that there was never a real perpetrator and no one ever took responsibility.
In the same way, the history of America has for many centuries been told to Americans in a way that euphemizes these crimes to humanity and even furthers the notion of the United States as a “helper” or a “savior.” The belief that Americans were always the ‘good guys’ in history has been repeatedly reinforced.
I had the opportunity to question the author, and I asked her “Would you say that American innocence is somehow linked to American ignorance?” Hansen replied that to a certain extent it was. The heritage of America had for centuries been built upon the notion that America was always the good guy. This is the history that was passed down, very rosy, glossing over the atrocities that had taken place in the world, some of which could directly be linked to America’s involvement.
According to Hansen , the way American history was told, as well as Americans’ willingness to deliberately close their eyes about certain things, made it possible for most Americans to remain oblivious to what really occurred throughout US history. She mentioned Baldwin’s analysis that “ white children, in the main, and whether they are rich or poor, grow up with a grasp of reality so feeble that they can very accurately be describes as deluded– about themselves and the world they live in…white people have managed to get through entire lifetimes in this euphoric state…people who cling to their delusions find it difficult, if not impossible, to learn anything worth learning.”
To Hansen, these realizations were shocking. As she told us during her talk, “I was very angry at my own ignorance, and I was coming to a deep sense of shame and guilt. But the most powerful feeling I felt was exhilaration at how deeply connected I felt to the rest of the world.” As she started rethinking the way she saw her people’s involvement in the world, her innocence progressively started to disappear. And a new feeling of connection at a deeper level with what is “the rest of the world” started to emerge within her.
This is what Hansen hopes to nourish and develop as she continues to rediscover the world through another perspective and through glasses that are not tainted, but rather clear. Hansen hopes that other Americans will be willing to take off their rose-colored glasses and look at the world through another more accurate perspective, a perspective that is more balanced, making Americans more able to interact with other countries, as she has been able to do.
I was able to hear Suzy Hansen in two settings: in my Introduction to Communication class, and then at a talk she gave in Alumni Hall for honor students. She also spoke at Marren Theater. Many students who attended one of these (or heard her several times) wished there had been more time to hear her speak about her experiences, and what she learned from living in Turkey. She was an informative speaker, and the talks she gave were valuable to me and other students.