Suzy Hansen:  “Notes on a Foreign Country…”

Dear Commons Community,

While traveling last week, I read Suzy Hansen’s book, Notes on a Foreign Country:  An American Abroad in a Post-American World.  You have to read this book carefully because the author covers a lot of ground and has important messages about how Americans see themselves and how the rest of the world, particularly people living  in the Middle East, sees Americans.  Although born and raised in New Jersey and worked for a while in New York City as a journalist, she leaves in 2007 to spend several years in Istanbul on a fellowship and decides to stay there.

While living in Turkey, she comes to realize that Americans have quite a different view of who they are versus the rest of the universe.  Americans see themselves as living in the greatest country in the world and have no problem pushing their way into other countries neglecting what they are doing to cultures and people’s lives.  Furthermore, she also does a fairly good analysis of American foreign policy over the past hundred years that essentially attempted to promote American values and thwart communist incursions and influence.  Here is an excerpt from a New York Times review:

“Hansen is not only unnerved by but also genuinely interested in the ways her country fails to “interrogate” itself. She asks why, given the extent to which America has shaped the modern Middle East — the lives it ended, the countries it fractured, the demons it created, its frantic and fanatical support of Israel — it “did not feel or care to explore what that influence meant.” She is unsettled by how absent or illusive or, worse, unnecessary this fact is to many Americans, including herself — for, before anything else, “Notes on a Foreign Country” is a sincere and intelligent act of self-questioning. It is a political and personal memoir that negotiates that vertiginous distance that exists between what America is and what it thinks of itself. That dramatic, dizzying and lonesome chasm is Hansen’s terrain.

One of the causes of this disparity, she proposes, is that “Americans are surprised by the direct relationship between their country and foreign ones because we don’t acknowledge that America is an empire.” She is curious about the nature of the impediment, about how “ignorance is vulnerable to the atmosphere it is exposed to.” Without realizing it, she too had absorbed a fear of Islam and the idea that Muslims “were people that must be restrained.” She admits, “My problem was that not only had I not known much about the Middle East, but what I did know, and how I did think, had been an obstacle to original and accurate and moral thinking.”

The book is well-written and engaging but as I mentioned earlier has to be read carefully.  There are some small issues such as she relies moslty on novelists and fiction to support her positions.  She displays an immediate dislike for Turkey’s former president, Mustafa Attaturk, who secularized the country without sufficiently evaluating the turmoil that existed in his country and the pluses and minuses of his regime.   She also can treat enormously complex issues such as the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima in one and half pages. There is a ton of analysis on this both pro and con that cannot be reduced to a quick commentary and conclusion.

In reading Hansen’s book, I recalled several times the 1958 best-selling novel, The Ugly American, by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, that traced American foreign policy blunders in Southeast Asia in the post-World War II era.  Hansen’s book dovetails with what Burdick and Lederer said about how America pushed its way into other countries much to the detriment of indigenous populations.  Hansen reduces a lot of the distrust if not the hatred in the Arab world to a combination of America’s economic hegemony, its unabashed promotion of Western culture, and its support and backing of Israel.

I have visited Istanbul and Cairo, two cities that figure prominently in Hansen’s book and I understand a bit of what she is saying.  I would give her “Notes…” a read!


St. Andrews!

Dear Commons Community,

Today we spent most of the day in the beautiful town of St. Andrews.  We visited the University of St. Andrews founded in 1413, which has been the alma mater of many British royals including Prince William and his wife, Kate Middleton.  It is a beautiful campus with lots of old stone buildings and lawns.

St. Andrews also is the home of two ruins – St. Andrew’s Cathedral and St. Andrew’s Castle.  Both are in major disrepair but still impressive structures and in the case of the Cathedral, surrounded by beautifully maintained grounds.

No visit to St. Andrews would be complete without a visit to the Old Course (golf). It is a magnificant facility and many would say is one of the top golf courses in the world.


University of St. Andrews


University of St. Andrews


Benjamin Franklin Received an Honorary Degree in 1759


Ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral


Ruins of St. Andrew’s Castle


The 18th Hole at St. Andrew’s Old Course



Greyfriars Kirk and Kirkyard!

Dear Commons Community,

We spent the afternoon at the Greyfriars Kirk (church) and kirkyard. This Presbyterian kirk (above) opened on the former site of a Roman Catholic church on December 25, 1620.  The interior is interesting with minimal ornamentation except for several beautiful stained- glass windows.  The grounds around the kirk are mostly a graveyard that is very well kept and is a pleasant place for a walk.  The graveyard and the George Heriot’s School next door are said to be inspirations for settings and names used by J.K. Rowling in her Harry Potter books.  According to a guide in the Kirk, Rowling lived in the neighborhood and had children who attended the School.  She also did much of her writing at local pubs.

The Martyrs Memorial in the graveyard  commemorates 18,000 people killed between 1661 and1680 during a period of civil war and religious persecution.

There are a number of prominent people buried in the graveyard such as William Smellie, the editor of the first edition of Encyclopedia Britannica.  The gravestone is inscribed with words from his friend, Robert Burns:  “Here lies a man who did honour to human nature.”

Greyfriers Bobby was a skye terrier who supposedly spent 14 years guarding the grave of its owner from 1868 to 1872.   Greyfriers Bobby is a cult figure in Scotland and there have been books written and movies made telling this story.  The statue in the photo below greets patrons of the Greyfriers Bobby Inn.

A pleasant afternoon in one square block of Edinburgh!



Interior of Greyfriars Kirk

Graveyard Where Some Gravesites Abut the Adjacent Building


Graveyard Path


Martyrs Memorial


William Smellie Grave


Greyfriars Bobby

Rosslyn Chapel, Hadrian’s Wall and Abbeys!

Dear Commons Community,

Yesterday we spent the entire day touring south of Edinburgh.  

Our day started with a stop at Rosslyn Chapel, made more famous by Dan Brown’s mega-best seller, The DaVinci Code.  Some scenes for the movie were shot on location in the cellar vault.  The main area has lots of interesting sculptures and figures. Before The DaVinci Code, the number of yearly visitors was approximately 34,000 (2001).  Since 2006 – the year the film came out – the  yearly average is more than 150,000.

Below is a photo of the ruins of Melrose Abbey, built in the 12th Century. An outside grave supposedly contains the heart of the Scottish king and hero, Robert the Bruce.

We then crossed the border between Scotland and England to visit to the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall built in the 2nd century. It ran horizontally across from the banks of the River Tyne near the North Sea to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea, and was the northern limit of the Roman Empire.  According to our tour guide, the wall originally was about 18 feet high and 9-feet across for most of its 73-mile length.  Along the wall, the Romans built fourteen forts.  The ruins of one these (Housesteads Fort) are depicted in a photo below. 

The last stop on the tour was the ruins of Jedburg Abbey built in the 12th Century.

We learned a lot of history today!


Interior of Rosslyn Chapel


Melrose Abbey


Hadrian’s Wall

Ruins of Housesteads Roman Fort


Ruins of Jedburg Abbey

Walk Along Canongate!

Dear Commons Community,

After lunch, Elaine and I went for a walk along Canongate, the lower third of the Royal Mile in Old Town. The photo above is Calton Hill taken from one of the lookouts just down from Canongate.  Calton Hill has a number of monuments to the likes of Robert Burns and Horatio Nelson.

Below is a rooming house built in the 1490s where the Protestant reformer John Knox supposedly lived for a while and died.  Tolbooth Tavern with the large clock hanging on its rightside was built in 1820 and remains a very popular pub.

The University of Edinburgh has a campus on Canongate that houses several schools and programs including the Old Moray House, the School of Education and the Centre for Open Learning.  Behind the campus is a famous plateau known as Arthur’s Seat.  It was described by Robert Louis Stevenson as “a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design”.

The next photo below is Canongate Kirk (kirk is another name for church).  It was built in 1688 and ordered by King James VII.  Outside the kirk is a bronze statue of the poet Robert Fergusson who died prematurely at the age of twenty-four.

A fine afternoon of walking.  Tomorrow we are off to Hadrian’s Wall and the Rosslyn Chapel.


John Knox House


Tolbooth Tavern


University of Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat


Canongate Kirk


Statue of Robert Fergusson


On CUNY-TV Tonight and This Week: “CUNY’s First Fifty Years:  The Triumphs and Ordeals of a People’s University”

Dear Commons Community,

My colleague and co-author, Chet Jordan and I taped an interview in August for CUNY-TV’s EdCast, hosted by Linda Hirsch.  The subject of our interview was our new book, CUNY’s First Fifty Years:  The Triumphs and Ordeals of a People’s University.  Former President of Brooklyn College and Interim Chancellor of CUNY, Christoph Kimmich who reviewed it said:

“The CUNY story is a great story and the authors tell it well.  They pull together the University’s evolution and growth, track the benchmark decisions and the major crises, and explore its interactions with politics. Not too much arcane detail and generally enough background to satisfy readers who are not CUNY junkies.  Familiar though the story is for me, I still came across things that were new to me.  All in all, the authors accomplished much of what they set out to do: a character sketch, with illuminating vignettes of the major players and landmark events along the way. ”  – Christoph Kimmich

The progam will air tonight, tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday. You can find further information at:


Loch Lomond, Kelpies, Highlands, and Stirling Castle!

Dear Commons Community,

It was a full day of touring with visits to Loch Lomond (above), the Kelpies, the Highlands, and Stirling Castle.  Loch Lomond is one of Scotland’s truly beautiful lakes, a bit like New York’s Lake George in the Adirondacks.  Tom Weir (below) was a well-known Scottish mountaineer, environmentalist, writer, and television broadcaster, associated with preserving the beauty of Loch Lomond.

At 30-meters high, The Kelpies are the highest horse sculptures in the world.  The Kelpies represent mythological transforming beasts possessing the strength and endurance of 10 horses.  They also represent the lineage of the heavy horses of Scottish industry such as Clydesdales that pulled the wagons, ploughs, barges and coalships that shaped the geographical layout of the area. 

The Highlands of Scotland are the mountainous region in the north.  The mountains are majestic and also edge beautiful valleys where sheep and Highland Cattle graze.  A side note: our tour guide, Amy, referred to the shaggy, horned critter in the photo below as a “Heelan Coo” not as a “Highland Cow”

The last stop on the tour was Stirling Castle, the home of the Scottish kings and queens such as Robert the Bruce, James III, and Mary, Queen of Scots. 

Quite a day of sightseeing!


Tom Weir Bronze with Loch Lomond in the Background!


The Kelpies with Elaine in the Foreground!


Sheep and Highland Cattle Grazing in a Valley!


Stirling Castle – Home of the Scottish Kings and Queens!


Bronze of Robert the Bruce with Stirling Castle in the Background!

Evening in Edinburgh Old Town!

Deacon Brodie’s Tavern

Dear Commons Community,

After dinner last night at a pub called, Deacon Brodie’s Tavern, we went for a stroll through the Old Town.  The photo immediately below of the white building and bluish dome is the Bank of Scotland established in 1695.  The other photos are of other popular sights and streets in the town.  On corners, you can find bagpipers playing for contributions.

Tomorrow we are off to the Highlands.


The Bank of Scotland

George IV Bridge – Bank Street

Edinburgh Castle

Camera Obscura Museum