Interview with Dr. Suzanne Enzerink

Check out Dr. Suzanne’s responses for our interview with her on US Studies in Lebanon and the Netherlands:

Tell us a little about yourself. I grew up in a quite rural part of the Netherlands. I never even visited the U.S. until my first year of college, so when I was about nineteen years old, but always had a strange fascination with it. You just couldn’t turn on the news without hearing about some consequential decision the U.S. had made, an event that happened there, etc. Virtually all commercial channels exclusively had U.S. television shows. Same for music; I grew up listening to Backstreet Boys, Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child etc. All of this sparked the question for me, how did this come to be?

Of course I had a bit of U.S. history in high school as well, with the historical linkages between the Netherlands and the U.S. (New Amsterdam, Brooklyn= Breukelen, etc), so this only fueled my interest further. It was also just a matter of fate in a way: I went to an open day at the University of Groningen to view their International Business and Management program and the general history program, but randomly happened upon the presentation for American Studies. At the time, this was the only BA program in American Studies offered in the Netherlands. I had never even heard of the degree. Yet when I listened to the presentation–the combination of history, culture, and politics–I was sold. During my B.A., I got the chance to study abroad for a semester in North Carolina actually, at UNC Chapel Hill. I have really fond memories of that time, my first time living in the U.S. My roommate was from Durham, so I got to do Thanksgiving with her family, explore the area, have good BBQ, get initiated to the UNC-Duke rivalry, etc. What I love about North Carolina is how warm everyone was to me; Dutch people are more apprehensive, harder to get to know. This is actually also what I loved most about Lebanon when I moved there after my Ph.D, the hospitality of the people.

But I’ll go chronologically. When I was in my M.A., also in American Studies, I got a competitive talent grant from the Dutch government to go to the U.S., and ended up at Brown University and after that as a U.S. history teacher at Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts. A year later, I applied for the Ph.D program in American Studies at Brown. I entered in 2013 and graduated in 2019.

I then got a job as an assistant professor of American Studies at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. I was there for 2.5 years, very difficult years for Lebanon. In addition to the currency losing over 90% of its value against the USD, there have been widespread power outages and crippling political corruption, all of this on top of the pandemic. And this month it has already been two years since the Beirut port explosion happened. It was a very happy time in my life because of the beauty of the country, the people I met there, the magnificent university and its campus etc, but also a very challenging one as you might imagine. Living there gave me, in many ways, a new perspective on life, on what I take for granted, and also on the role of education.

As of this January, I live in eastern Switzerland, in a town called St Gallen, about the same size as Chapel Hill. I’m an assistant professor of American Studies at the university here.

What do you work on/teach? The focus of my first book project is on cultural circuits between the U.S. and Europe during the Cold War, and in particular how U.S. producers moved to Europe to produce films, novels, etc that criticized the racism and sexism that characterized life in the U.S. I track this by looking at performers like Dorothy Dandridge, Nancy Kwan, Rita Moreno, etc. It also looks at the emergence of U.S. civil rights discourse in this global cultural arena, how both activists and producers leveraged the Cold War climate to demand changes at home. After all, instances of racism in the U.S. were perfect fodder for the Soviet propaganda machine (not that much has changed in this respect).

My teaching builds on that but is also a bit broader than this. I have recently taught courses on the U.S. in the world, inequalities in the U.S, and the role of cinema in bringing about social change, for example. I tend to tailor my courses to where I am based. In Lebanon, for example, much of my Intro to American Studies class focused on exploring historical and contemporary connections between the US and the Middle East, from the presence of a “Cowboys and Indians”- theme park in Lebanon to media stereotypes to foreign policy.

What are students most interested to learn about the US? This really depends on the students. I think much like me, a lot of them are just generally trying to come to grips with the fact that a country many thousands of miles away has such a presence in their lives in one way or another.

Beyond that, it really depends on the interests of the students. My current university has more of a business/economics orientation; students here are more interested in issues related to sustainability, inequality, and the U.S. as a global economic power, in addition to the issue of cultural influence. In Lebanon, there was, understandably, comparatively a lot of interest in U.S. foreign policy.

How is the US viewed from the Netherlands? Are there any stereotypes about people from the US? Is there a generally positive or negative impression of Americans? I would say that this has really wavered over the years, it’s not an easy question to answer. When I started my BA in American Studies, George W. Bush was in office. I would say there was a predominantly critical stance towards the U.S. at that time, politically speaking at least; this was around the time when the weapons of mass destruction turned out to be a fabrication, and the reasons for invading Iraq seemed more and more obscure. Part of this is that the Netherlands has been a longtime ally of the U.S.; when the U.S. asks for Dutch troops to join in on a mission, they usually go. So when Dutch lives were risked and sacrificed for increasingly unclear reasons, this became an issue. But then when Obama came into office, it was as though this wave of celebration and hope swept Europe for a little bit. People got really caught up in that narrative, of Obama being an emblem of progress and hope, of being the first Black president, etc.

However, most encounters of the Dutch with the U.S. are on the level of culture. I would say that about 80-90% of what makes it onto TV or into cinemas is American. U.S. celebrities, pop culture, food, sports, etc, all of these are widely embraced. Many Dutch people dream about visiting the New York they see on TV, the beautiful national parks, etc. You’ll see Dodgers and Yankees caps everywhere. The U.S. has an incredible appeal in this way.

Dutch people in general are good at differentiating between the country and the individual people, I will say. If any stereotypes exist at all, it would be the classic ones of eating junk food, driving everywhere, and enjoying surface level small talk.

How is the US viewed from Lebanon? Are there any stereotypes about people from the US? Is there a generally positive or negative impression of Americans? I again am reluctant to generalize here; in Lebanon, too, there are about as many perspectives on the U.S. as people you will meet. Some people really look up to the U.S. as this economic powerhouse that has the potential to step in and rescue Lebanon from its current financial and political misery; others see the U.S. as a root cause of much of this misery (in no small part due to the U.S.’ uncritical support of Israel, a neighbor Lebanon has no relations with, and other U.S. imperial incursions into the Middle East) and yet others don’t really think about the U.S. at all. One thing I will say, compared to the Netherlands and the U.S., is that my students in Lebanon had a much more layered and critical understanding of how U.S. interventions overseas has shaped much of the world as we know it today. For a lot of Europeans, especially, U.S. military powers are associated with the past tense and with positive interactions, i.e. the liberation of Europe during World War II. When I grew up, until 9/11 basically, I had only learned about the U.S. in a very positive way, both in the classroom and through informal sources like my grandmother. She would talk about Americans and Canadians liberating our hometown, pointing out their graves in the cemetery and the bravery of them giving their lives for the freedom of the Dutch.

In the Middle East, U.S. military incursions are much more recent, more devastating, and less easily justified even for those who are generally sympathetic to the U.S. Most of my students in Lebanon were born after 9/11, experienced firsthand the stereotyping of Arabs and Middle Easterners in the U.S., the effects of U.S. invasions in the region, and of course, the role of the U.S. in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lebanon has the highest number of refugees per capita in the entire world, with many permanent encampments–more like mini slum cities–of Palestinians who have now been there for decades after being driven out from their homelands. This indelibly shapes day-to-day life and the social balance of Lebanon.

How does the US’s leadership (president, foreign policy, major events that occur in the US [Jan 6th insurrection, COVID], etc.) influence other countries’ perception of us? I will be pretty direct here: it has a major impact. As I noted earlier, the news here in general pays a lot of attention to the U.S. in its role as a major global player. Mostly, recent Supreme Court decisions have greatly impacted the image of the U.S. I would say. The repeal of Roe v Wade and the general assault on civil rights and voting rights is seen as incredibly concerning. Most European countries are quite socially progessive. It is unimaginable for many that a Court would interfere in women’s bodily autonomy in this way.

The same goes for continued violence against Black Americans. Black Lives Matter, for example, a few years back inspired many solidarity protests around the globe, including in Beirut and Amsterdam. I find these valuable in that they also provide important moments for other societies to reflect on their own shortcomings. In the Netherlands, racism is very much alive, such as in the character of Black Pete during our annual Sinterklaas celebrations; in Lebanon, a system of indentured labor known as the kafala system entraps predominantly Asian and African migrants in subhuman conditions. In this way, coverage of what might seem a distinct U.S. problem can lead to action.

Gun violence, and the reluctance to pass gun legislation by Congress, is perhaps the factor that has most puzzled those outside of the U.S. Whereas some of the above mentioned issues are more contested–of course, there are also conservative and right-leaning segments in Europe–the question of gun violence seems to universally shock and baffle despite one’s political affiliation. The images of Sandy Hook and Uvalde, especially, with such young children, really led to both grief and disbelief.

One thing I will stress is that the attention to the U.S. is constant, no matter whether a Democrat or Republican is in office. Of course, Trump’s outrageous statements and demeanor were covered extensively here. But that doesn’t mean that Democrats, who are naturally more closely aligned with European political leanings, get a free pass by any means. For example, Biden’s recent visit to Saudia Arabia garnered quite a bit of critical attention in European media, both due to the regime’s complicity in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the general human rights abuses–such as against LGBTQ citizens–there. The U.S. uncritical support for Israel and its condonement of human rights abuses against Palestinians has been another recent flashpoint.

In short, I think what happens in the U.S. is always discussed and evaluated against our own value systems, and what’s happening is that the U.S. seems to be moving further and further away from the general sentiment in Europe in particular.

What was it like teaching American Studies in the US, as a non-US citizen? In the classroom, I have always seen it as an enrichment. At Brown, the class was usually a healthy mix of perspectives in terms of national background, race, gender, sexuality, class, etc, and I was just one more voice to add to the mix. I think in general students appreciate that I brought in a lot of global perspective, though I will say in American Studies this is more par for the course than anything else. Virtually everyone teaching in American Studies understands that we cannot view the U.S. in isolation, and that it is much richer and more generative to view the U.S. in relation to the world.

However, I have also written from time to time about the U.S. for public media like The Washington Post and LA Review of Books. Sometimes I share my thoughts on my Twitter account. I’ve definitely gotten some pushback there due to my citizenship status. To ‘mind my own business’ or ‘leave if I don’t like it’ when I still lived in the U.S. To an extent I understand this: people are protective of their own country, proud of their way of life, and here I am as a relative outsider mounting criticisms. However, everyone should be mounting these criticisms if they truly believe in the vision of equality that the U.S. set out to be, and if they want to stand a chance of materializing it. As James Baldwin wrote, ‘I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.’

How is teaching American Studies in other countries different from teaching it in the United States? Less different than you might think. Outside of the U.S. it sometimes requires a bit more contextualization, as students might not be familiar with how the Supreme Court works, for example, or certain cultural or political coordinates. But in essence, no matter where I am I try to show students how the U.S. has related to the world, in both positive and negative ways, and to understand how both systems of oppression and movements of solidarity have always developed within a global context. For those who are interested in learning more about this, I can highly recommend Angela Y. Davis’ work on solidarity between Black liberation movements and other global justice movements in her book Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. She really is an icon within American Studies, and I can’t think of anyone who more powerfully underscores the centrality of understanding the U.S. in a global context both to understand the past and present and to imagine different futures.

How do you think understanding US history impacts people’s viewpoints on the world? This is a big question that I love, but I can only answer it in part. On the one hand, I think learning about the U.S. shows how humankind has always contained within it the drive to create better ways of living together, to question authority, to believe in progress and improvement. This is of course at the heart of the U.S.’ foundation, and a narrative that remains extremely powerful and appealing both to those within the U.S. and abroad. At the same time, when you study U.S. history it is inescapable to see how this dream was always exclusionary; how this new system of supposedly unprecedented democracy was in fact built on a foundation of genocide against Native Americans and the enslavement of Black and Brown peoples.

This is the gigantic and bitter irony that is at the heart of the United States and its foundational myths, and one that I think forms a perfect encapsulation of what studying history should enable one to do: to differentiate between fact and fiction, between intent and result, between rhetoric and action. I therefore find current moves within U.S. education to restrict access to this kind of history extremely concerning. Ignoring these complicated histories does not change them or make them go away. It seems as though some legislators and educators have come to equate sharing these histories with an accusation of complicity, as if teaching the history of slavery is an indictment of all white Americans today. In fact, I believe that teaching these histories is as close to the spirit of the U.S. as one can get, calling out wrong when you observe them and working to create a better system. Even Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner himself, wanted to include a passage on slavery in the Declaration of Independence. There are still glaring inequalities in the U.S. that cannot be seen separate from decades of political, economic, and social decisions that were rooted in racism and other forms of discrimination. Ignoring, warping, or trying to erase these histories does make one complicit in my eyes to perpetuating these inequalities.

I’m not calling out Americans especially here, or U.S. history in particular; every national history has certain difficult and painful moments that cannot be ignored. The Netherlands, for example, played a huge role in the transatlantic slave trade, and after that was a colonial oppressor in places like Indonesia and Surinam. A lot of people in the Netherlands still have difficulty talking about that openly, too, without falling into defense mechanisms or the “that was a long time ago” rhetoric. But you can be proud of where you come from while still acknowledging historical injustices; one does not exclude the other.

Anything else you think we should know? I would encourage students (everyone, really) everywhere to keep an open mind to the world, and to inform yourself as much as you can about what goes on in it. This doesn’t mean you can–or should–consume all news you can find. That probably would just be very depressing. What I mean, rather, is that by reading a variety of sources you can come to learn the perspectives of other people, which in turn helps you move in life with compassion for others. I realize this sounds idealistic, but when we look at the roots of hatred–be it within the U.S. itself, or directed at those outside of it–it almost always originates in echo chambers, in single perspectives, what Chimanda Ngozi Adichie called the “danger of a single story.”

Beirut, for example, has become shorthand for violence and chaos in U.S. popular culture. It is incredibly pervasive (I wrote a bit about it here for those who are interested). This week I was watching an episode of Netflix’ new show Uncoupled with Neil Patrick Harris, about a gay man who has to rebuild his life when his longtime partner suddenly leaves him. Even in a show that on paper sounds progressive for the U.S., when the character sees a living room that has been beaten to a pulp he says “let me sit down in Beirut right here.” Moments like this get to me. It is unnecessary, reductive, and dangerous. Learning about the world can help everyone notice how these singular stories or stereotypes come to circulate. I’m not saying that this will magically solve all issues–unfortunately, hatred and bigotry are extremely pernicious. But I really do believe that we can all take our individual responsibility. Practice kindness. That is my mantra both in the classroom and outside of it.

We checked out your article “Teaching American Studies in the Middle East” from the LA Review of Books, which inspired us to do this magazine. Could you explain your writing process for the article? Did you have to do any outside research? I was inspired to write that article after arriving in Lebanon. I had just finished graduate school, and everyone else in my cohort had gotten jobs within the US or North America at least; as I was talking to some of them about our experiences as new professors, and I quickly realized that there was still a lot of misinformation or misunderstanding about the investments of American Studies overseas, and that my students experienced the field totally differently from my peers’ students. The chair of the American Studies center at AUB, Robert Myers, had compiled a small booklet on the institutional origins of American Studies at AUB and the region, so I talked to him about this. In addition, I based my research on texts I was teaching that semester, such as Alex Lubin and Marwan Kraidy’s book on American Studies in the Middle East. These institutional parameters are a crucial part of understanding U.S. global aspirations and foreign policy in my opinion. Education has played such an important role in how the U.S. markets itself to the world. It’s important to try to understand how and why this has played out. 

How can we appreciate our country while seeing its flaws? Or see the flaws but still appreciate the country? In a way, these things are by no means mutually exclusive. Think about the James Baldwin quote I mentioned earlier; the U.S. was founded on democratic principles, the stated belief that everyone was created equal. Even if this was blatantly untrue when the nation was founded and these words were written, the sentiment is something to aspire to, to work to materialize in real life. There have been so many strides made since these words were written in terms of legal rights for women, people of color, same-sex couples, social security, etc, both before, during and after the formal Civil Rights Movement. There is no denying that it has always remained a work-in-progress–equality has never existed, racism for example has continued to affect social outcomes profoundly–but we also have to celebrate this progress. Not doing so would erase the hard labor of activists, many of whom have devoted their lives to securing legal protections and to bring the nation one step closer to this promise of equality. This is why it is so devastating now to see some of this work undone in recent Supreme Court decisions; not just Roe v Wade, but also the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. I think that is a big thing to pay attention to–why is it becoming harder to vote in some states? Which groups are disadvantaged by this? But to get back to your question, it is in this possibility of activism, of working toward equality, that I think you can also find a sense of pride; not just pride in those who do the work, but also because the U.S. allows for this kind of political participation. The First Amendment to freedom of speech is a defining characteristic of public life, as is the right for everyone to vote. Many people across the globe do not enjoy this right, or see their attempts at activism or criticism of the ruling powers met with censorship or imprisonment. Again, this is why it is so important to pay attention to attempts to curtail this right, as it is here first and foremost that ordinary citizens in the US get to participate in political life.

Another thought that comes to mind is that patriotism, which today has become associated with things like ‘Make America Great Again’ and the exclusionary politics this entails, was not always a contested term. British writer George Orwell–perhaps best known for his dystopian novel 1984–wrote an essay on nationalism in 1945, where he clearly distinguishes between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism in his definition is a kind of civic pride, a belief in the shared principles that the nation is founded upon. Crucially,  this entails “no wish to force [this system] on other people.” Nationalism, and this is what we see appear in some segments of the US right now, is this belief in the absolute superiority of a certain way of life, and this often is defined along ethnic or racial lines, or with certain molds for gender expression or sexuality.  That’s where things become very problematic, and where we see hate speech and violence emerge. To be proud of your country is not a bad thing; of course, it is a thing to be celebrated that the U.S. has things such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to vote, etc, and to realize that this is not a given for everyone.  But when you try to impose a certain way of life onto others–both at home and abroad– or exclude racial and ethnic others from your vision of the future or try to deprive them of these rights, that’s veering firmly into nationalist territory. And that is when it is time to come into action.