The Guardian published an amazing article called Unlearning the myth of American innocence. Well worth reading the whole thing.
The experience of going to a radically new place, as college was to me, upended my sense of the world and its possibilities. The same thing happened when I moved to New York after college, and a few years later when I moved to Istanbul. All change is dramatic for provincial people. But the last move was the hardest. In Turkey, the upheaval was far more unsettling: after a while, I began to feel that the entire foundation of my consciousness was a lie.
For all their patriotism, Americans rarely think about how their national identities relate to their personal ones. This indifference is particular to the psychology of white Americans and has a history unique to the US. In recent years, however, this national identity has become more difficult to ignore. Americans can no longer travel in foreign countries without noticing the strange weight we carry with us. In these years after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the many wars that followed, it has become more difficult to gallivant across the world absorbing its wisdom and resources for one’s own personal use. Americans abroad now do not have the same swagger, the easy, enormous smiles. You no longer want to speak so loud. There is always the vague risk of breaking something.
Some years after I moved to Istanbul, I bought a notebook, and unlike that confident child, I wrote down not plans but a question: who do we become if we don’t become Americans? If we discover that our identity as we understood it had been a myth? I asked it because my years as an American abroad in the 21st century were not a joyous romp of self-discovery and romance. Mine were more of a shattering and a shame, and even now, I still don’t know myself.
When I flame people on the internet, this is what I hope to accomplish. A sudden, shocking increase in self-awareness can be painful. I understand. I got diagnosed with autism with my life halfway over.
For face-saving reasons, the targets of my ire aren’t going to admit I hit them where it hurts and threatened to destabilize something in them, but I probably did. I may be giving someone their first experience of someone seeing through them and not being impressed whatsoever and telling them all about it.
This is why people who take conservative tears at face value are stupid. Of course they’re going to act like the hysterical little bitches they know they are and tell themselves in bad faith that minorities are. They know that the act of opposing racism takes more balls than they have, and this threatens them because big black cocks. Once they go black they never go back! This is SRS BSNS DEFCON 9. Fucking is at stake here! For men, there’s a whole added layer of crybaby stuff on top of what Suzy Hansen is describing here.
I rarely hear people present a model of what converting racists is supposed to look like. Can anybody justify the assumption that they won’t cry about it if we pander to them? Of course not. They’ll double down until they suffer total humiliation, because that’s their Way. Anything less means their dick is small so they’ll be lonely forever and have no feeling words to describe that.
We were all patriotic, but I can’t even conceive of what else we could have been, because our entire experience was domestic, interior, American. We went to church on Sundays, until church time was usurped by soccer games. I don’t remember a strong sense of civic engagement. Instead I had the feeling that people could take things from you if you didn’t stay vigilant. Our goals remained local: homecoming queen, state champs, a scholarship to Trenton State, barbecues in the backyard. The lone Asian kid in our class studied hard and went to Berkeley; the Indian went to Yale. Black people never came to Wall. The world was white, Christian; the world was us.
We did not study world maps, because international geography, as a subject, had been phased out of many state curriculums long before. There was no sense of the US being one country on a planet of many countries. Even the Soviet Union seemed something more like the Death Star – flying overhead, ready to laser us to smithereens – than a country with people in it.
Yes, it’s scary to have no fucking idea how anything works, but it can hurt you. It’s American to stay in that state forever instead of learning your way out of it. It’s fundamentally dysfunctional.
By the time I got to high school, I knew that communism had gone away, but never learned what communism had actually been (“bad” was enough). Religion, politics, race – they washed over me like troubled things that obviously meant something to someone somewhere, but that had no relationship to me, to Wall, to America. I certainly had no idea that most people in the world felt those connections deeply. History – America’s history, the world’s history – would slip in and out of my consciousness with no resonance whatsoever.
Racism, antisemitism and prejudice, however – those things, on some unconscious level, I must have known. They were expressed in the fear of Asbury Park, which was black; in the resentment of the towns of Marlboro and Deal, which were known as Jewish; in the way Hispanics seemed exotic. Much of the Jersey Shore was segregated as if it were still the 1950s, and so prejudice was expressed through fear of anything outside Wall, anything outside the tiny white world in which we lived. If there was something that saved us from being outwardly racist, it was that in small towns such as Wall, especially for girls, it was important to be nice, or good – this pressure tempered tendencies toward overt cruelty when we were young.
What I think people struggle with is the concept that there are people evil enough and powerful enough to design the inner lives of the public this way, knowing it makes change psychologically impossible within the value system they’re promoting.
This “nice person” or “good person” thing is designed to be evil. This is why Taoism comes down so hard on “contrivance” and blames immorality on the idea of morality poisoning people’s natural goodness. Of course you can’t get anywhere with someone who reacts to “can you please be more respectful?” with “OMG you’re saying I’m a bad person I can’t take it I’m going to fucking die black people are so threatening and scary.”
When my best friend from Wall revealed one night that she hadn’t heard of John McEnroe or Jerry Garcia, some boys on the dormitory hall called us ignorant, and white trash, and chastised us for not reading magazines. We were hurt, and surprised; white trash was something we said about other people at the Jersey Shore. My boyfriend from Wall accused me of going to Penn solely to find a boyfriend who drove a Ferrari, and the boys at Penn made fun of the Camaros we drove in high school. Class in America was not something we understood in any structural or intellectual way; class was a constellation of a million little materialistic cultural signifiers, and the insult, loss or acquisition of any of them could transform one’s future entirely.
In the end, I chose to pursue the new life Penn offered me. The kids I met had parents who were doctors or academics; many of them had already even been to Europe! Penn, for all its superficiality, felt one step closer to a larger world.
Still, I cannot remember any of us being conscious of foreign events during my four years of college. There were wars in Eritrea, Nepal, Afghanistan, Kosovo, East Timor, Kashmir. US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were bombed. Panama, Nicaragua (I couldn’t keep Latin American countries straight), Osama bin Laden, Clinton bombing Iraq – nope.
An Aspie friend in his 30s made the same observation: “I realized I’m white trash!”
It’s deliberate that she couldn’t understand class in an intellectual way, because it’s unjustifiable if you can. Therefore it’s good population control to discourage the tools for understanding it. Many people have read Orwell talking about Newspeak in 1984. What they learned was that political correctness is bad and black people are pussies, not to look for those same patterns in our own society (the point of writing such a book).
But for me there was also an intervention – a chance experience in the basement of Penn’s library. I came across a line in a book in which a historian argued that, long ago, during the slavery era, black people and white people had defined their identities in opposition to each other. The revelation to me was not that black people had conceived of their identities in response to ours, but that our white identities had been composed in conscious objection to theirs. I’d had no idea that we had ever had to define our identities at all, because to me, white Americans were born fully formed, completely detached from any sort of complicated past. Even now, I can remember that shiver of recognition that only comes when you learn something that expands, just a tiny bit, your sense of reality. What made me angry was that this revelation was something about who I was. How much more did I not know about myself?
Yes, she got angry.
This is important: if we want to change the white people, we have to put them under enough psychological pressure to overwhelm their defenses and cause an agonizing breakdown of identity. There are no shortcuts.
I did it. So can they.
She quotes some James Baldwin quotes that moved her (and Andrea Dworkin!). Here, I quote Baudrillard in America:
And that smile everyone gives you as they pass, that friendly contraction of the jaws triggered by human warmth. It is the eternal smile of communication, the smile through which the child becomes aware of the presence of others, or struggles desperately with the problem of their presence. It is the equivalent of the primal scream of man alone in the world. Whether I am right in all this or not, they certainly do smile at you here, though neither from courtesy, nor from an effort of charm. This smile signifies only the need to smile. It is a bit like the Cheshire cat’s grin: it continues to float on faces long after all emotion has disappeared. A smile available at any moment, but half-scared to exist, to give itself away. No ulterior motive lurks behind it, but it keeps you at a distance. It is part of the general cryogenization of emotions. It is, indeed, the smile the dead man will wear in his funeral home, as he clings to a hope of maintaining contact even in the next world. The smile of immunity, the smile of advertising: “This country is good. I am good. We are the best.” It is also Reagan’s smile–the culmination of the self-satisfaction of the entire American nation–which is on the way to becoming the sole principle of government. An autoprophetic smile, like all signs in advertising. Smile and others will smile back. Smile to show how transparent, how candid you are. Smile if you have nothing to say. Most of all, do not hide the fact you have nothing to say nor your total indifference to others. Let this emptiness, this profound indifference shine out spontaneously in your smile. Give your emptiness and indifference to others, light up your face with the zero degree of joy and pleasure, smile, smile, smile…Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth.
She tells it like it is: people are deluded and, for the most part, nobody confronts them with it.
I know why this came as a shock to me then, at the age of 22, and it wasn’t necessarily because he said I was sick, though that was part of it. It was because he kept calling me that thing: “white American”. In my reaction I justified his accusation. I knew I was white, and I knew I was American, but it was not what I understood to be my identity. For me, self-definition was about gender, personality, religion, education, dreams. I only thought about finding myself, becoming myself, discovering myself – and this, I hadn’t known, was the most white American thing of all.
I still did not think about my place in the larger world, or that perhaps an entire history – the history of white Americans – had something to do with who I was. My lack of consciousness allowed me to believe I was innocent, or that white American was not an identity like Muslim or Turk.
Of this indifference, Baldwin wrote: “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 described as deluded.”
Young white Americans of course go through pain, insecurity and heartache. But it is very, very rare that young white Americans come across someone who tells them in harsh, unforgiving terms that they might be merely the easy winners of an ugly game, and indeed that because of their ignorance and misused power, they might be the losers within a greater moral universe.
It’s practically impenetrable:
My learning process abroad was threefold: I was learning about foreign countries; I was learning about America’s role in the world; and I was also slowly understanding my own psychology, temperament and prejudices. No matter how well I knew the predatory aspects of capitalism, I still perceived Turkey’s and Greece’s economic advances as progress, a kind of maturation. No matter how deeply I understood the US’s manipulation of Egypt for its own foreign-policy aims, I had never considered – and could not grasp – how American policies really affected the lives of individual Egyptians, beyond engendering resentment and anti-Americanism. No matter how much I believed that no American was well-equipped for nation-building, I thought I could see good intentions on the part of the Americans in Afghanistan. I would never have admitted it, or thought to say it, but looking back, I know that deep in my consciousness I thought that America was at the end of some evolutionary spectrum of civilisation, and everyone else was trying to catch up.
American exceptionalism did not only define the US as a special nation among lesser nations; it also demanded that all Americans believe they, too, were somehow superior to others. How could I, as an American, understand a foreign people, when unconsciously I did not extend the most basic faith to other people that I extended to myself? This was a limitation that was beyond racism, beyond prejudice and beyond ignorance. This was a kind of nationalism so insidious that I had not known to call it nationalism; this was a self-delusion so complete that I could not see where it began and ended, could not root it out, could not destroy it.
There’s a reason for “conspiracy theory” and “fake news”: it taints logical analysis by association.
A friend had told me that Emre was one of the most brilliant people he had ever met. As the evening passed, I was gaining a lot from his analysis of Turkish politics, especially when I asked him whether he voted for Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party (AKP), and he spat back, outraged, “Did you vote for George W Bush?” Until that point I had not realised the two might be equivalent.
Then, three beers in, Emre mentioned that the US had planned the September 11 attacks. I had heard this before. Conspiracy theories were common in Turkey; for example, when the military claimed that the PKK, the Kurdish militant group, had attacked a police station, some Turks believed the military itself had done it; they believed it even in cases where Turkish civilians had died. In other words, the idea was that rightwing forces, such as the military, bombed neutral targets, or even rightwing targets, so they could then blame it on the leftwing groups, such as the PKK. To Turks, bombing one’s own country seemed like a real possibility.
“Come on, you don’t believe that,” I said.
“Why not?” he snapped. “I do.”
“But it’s a conspiracy theory.”
He laughed. “Americans always dismiss these things as conspiracy theories. It’s the rest of the world who have had to deal with your conspiracies.”
I ignored him. “I guess I have faith in American journalism,” I said. “Someone else would have figured this out if it were true.”…
In fact, elements of the deep state were rumoured to have had ties to the CIA during the cold war, and though that too smacked of a conspiracy theory, this was the reality that Turkish people lived in. The sheer number of international interventions the US launched in those decades is astonishing, especially those during years when American power was considered comparatively innocent. There were the successful assassinations: Patrice Lumumba, prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1961; General Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, also in 1961; Ngo Dinh Diem, president of South Vietnam, in 1963. There were the unsuccessful assassinations: Castro, Castro, and Castro. There were the much hoped-for assassinations: Nasser, Nasser, Nasser. And, of course, US-sponsored, -supported or -staged regime changes: Iran, Guatemala, Iraq, Congo, Syria, Dominican Republic, South Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Uruguay and Argentina. The Americans trained or supported secret police forces everywhere from Cambodia to Colombia, the Philippines to Peru, Iran to Vietnam. Many Turks believed that the US at least encouraged the 1971 and 1980 military coups in Turkey, though I could find little about these events in any conventional histories anywhere.
But what I could see was that the effects of such meddling were comparable to those of September 11 – just as huge, life-changing and disruptive to the country and to people’s lives. Perhaps Emre did not believe that September 11 was a straightforward affair of evidence and proof because his experience – his reality – taught him that very rarely were any of these surreally monumental events easily explainable. I did not think Emre’s theory about the attacks was plausible. But I began to wonder whether there was much difference between a foreigner’s paranoia that the Americans planned September 11 and the Americans’ paranoia that the whole world should pay for September 11 with an endless global war on terror.
Here, she describes the agony of reading the news once you’re not so parochial anymore:
By the end of my first year abroad, I read US newspapers differently. I could see how alienating they were to foreigners, the way articles spoke always from a position of American power, treating foreign countries as if they were America’s misbehaving children. I listened to my compatriots with critical ears: the way our discussion of foreign policy had become infused since September 11 with these officious, official words, bureaucratic corporate military language: collateral damage, imminent threat, freedom, freedom, freedom.
Even so, I was conscious that if I had long ago succumbed to the pathology of American nationalism, I wouldn’t know it – even if I understood the history of injustice in America, even if I was furious about the invasion of Iraq. I was a white American. I still had this fundamental faith in my country in a way that suddenly, in comparison to the Turks, made me feel immature and naive.
Yes! It feels like being surrounded by overgrown children who have no good excuse for being that way. Profoundly ignorant people talk down to me all the time if I say anything factual.
This is the reason fighting back against racism is so exhausting. You tell the truth, and then you’ll get piled on by psychologically weak people who don’t know anything, who will say the most demeaning things imaginable without even knowing how fucked up what they’re saying is, and you’ll be outnumbered. Useful idiots.
I came to notice that a community of activists and intellectuals in Turkey – the liberal ones – were indeed questioning what “Turkishness” meant in new ways. Many of them had been brainwashed in their schools about their own history; about Atatürk, Turkey’s first president; about the supposed evil of the Armenians and the Kurds and the Arabs; about the fragility of their borders and the rapaciousness of all outsiders; and about the historic and eternal goodness of the Turkish republic.
“It is different in the United States,” I once said, not entirely realising what I was saying until the words came out. I had never been called upon to explain this. “We are told it is the greatest country on earth. The thing is, we will never reconsider that narrative the way you are doing just now, because to us, that isn’t propaganda, that is truth. And to us, that isn’t nationalism, it’s patriotism. And the thing is, we will never question any of it because at the same time, all we are being told is how free-thinking we are, that we are free. So we don’t know there is anything wrong in believing our country is the greatest on earth. The whole thing sort of convinces you that a collective consciousness in the world came to that very conclusion.”
“Wow,” a friend once replied. “How strange. That is a very quiet kind of fascism, isn’t it?”
It was a quiet kind of fascism that would mean I would always see Turkey as beneath the country I came from, and also that would mean I believed my uniquely benevolent country to have uniquely benevolent intentions towards the peoples of the world.
During that night of conspiracy theories, Emre had alleged, as foreigners often did, that I was a spy. The information that I was collecting as a journalist, Emre said, was really being used for something else. As an American emissary in the wider world, writing about foreigners, governments, economies partaking in some larger system and scheme of things, I was an agent somehow. Emre lived in the American world as a foreigner, as someone less powerful, as someone for whom one newspaper article could mean war, or one misplaced opinion could mean an intervention by the International Monetary Fund. My attitude, my prejudice, my lack of generosity could be entirely false, inaccurate or damaging, but would be taken for truth by the newspapers and magazines I wrote for, thus shaping perceptions of Turkey for ever.
Years later, an American journalist told me he loved working for a major newspaper because the White House read it, because he could “influence policy”. Emre had told me how likely it was I would screw this up. He was saying to me: first, spy, do no harm.
Meanwhile, the direct influence of spies on journalists is well-documented in German but currently being suppressed in English:
The English translation of German journalist Udo Ulfkotte’s best-selling book, Gekaufte Journalisten (Bought Journalists) appears to have been suppressed throughout North America and Europe. On May 15, 2017 Next Revelation Press, an imprint of US-Canadian-based publisher Tayen Lane, released the English version of Bought Journalists, under the title, Journalists for Hire: How the CIA Buys the News.
Tayen Lane has since removed any reference to the title from its website. Correspondingly Amazon.com indicates the title is “currently unavailable,” with opportunities to purchase from independent sellers offering used copies for no less than $1309.09. The book’s subject matter and unexplained disappearance from the marketplace suggest how powerful forces are seeking to prevent its circulation.
Gekaufte Journalisten was almost completely ignored by mainstream German news media following its release in 2014. “No German mainstream journalist is allowed to report about [my] book,” Ulfkotte observed. “Otherwise he or she will be sacked. So we have a bestseller now that no German journalist is allowed to write or talk about.”
That guy seems legit to me. Talking about these things is fucking impossible because of the right-wing conspiracy theory people being so much louder.
The concept of chaffing and winnowing is not unrelated:
Chaffing and winnowing is a cryptographic technique to achieve confidentiality without using encryption when sending data over an insecure channel. The name is derived from agriculture: after grain has been harvested and threshed, it remains mixed together with inedible fibrous chaff. The chaff and grain are then separated by winnowing, and the chaff is discarded. The technique was conceived by Ron Rivest and published in an on-line article on 18 March 1998. Although it bears similarities to both traditional encryption and steganography, it cannot be classified under either category.
This technique allows the sender to deny responsibility for encrypting their message. When using chaffing and winnowing, the sender transmits the message unencrypted, in clear text. Although the sender and the receiver share a secret key, they use it only for authentication. However, a third party can make their communication confidential by simultaneously sending specially crafted messages through the same channel.
Suppose people are out there, saying true but inconvenient things? Why not bury their message in noise, so only people in the know can pick out the signal? Now it’s starting to sound like “ideas of reference,” but this is evidently the way that intelligence people think.
Like…the unique thing about the town where I grew up is that it was where they kept planes for jamming electronic communications. It’s, like, the planes making noise and being annoying. Spy stuff isn’t some abstraction. Massive infrastructure. Weird-looking radar dome things.
I’ve seen military planes circling Sunnyvale, for that matter, and NASA is down the road.
I don’t think most people watching that would think, “Wow, Chinese people must look at that and fucking hate Americans. I know I would if somebody was all arrogant and up in my shit like they owned my country!” Americans don’t even understand how much they don’t respect other people.