When I was 5 or 6, my mother’s Uncle Bill came home from a life at sea. He had a great gray beard, yellowed by tobacco smoke. He swore tremendous oaths that frightened me and my twin brother. Eventually, he abandoned our company to fort up with some congenial drunks behind the abandoned service station in our hamlet to drink muscatel. After a few days, he had had enough, and he left. We never saw him again.
Like Uncle Bill, I have come back to California after more than three decades overseas as a correspondent and editor. And, like Uncle Bill, I am not sure I belong here, although I can demur on the muscatel.
I arrived in the throes of a presidential election that delivered Donald Trump to the highest office in the land and that now threatens some of the country’s most precious freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Some 62.2 million Americans who voted for Trump appear to have predicated their preference on factors that I do not recognize as a part of the country I left.
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Having lived in countries where saying publicly you are a Christian or an atheist can have you jailed or assaulted, the First Amendment to the Constitution may be the most important measure ever promulgated anywhere. Given Trump’s antipathy to the press, it is now in danger.
The genius of the First Amendment allows you to come to my door to attempt to convince me that your religion or creed should be mine and gives me the right to shut the door in your face. It protects me from a government that orders me to practice one religion or another. It allows me to practice the profession of journalism, mostly without fetters. It allows you to take to the streets to protest injustice, real or imagined.
The elements that made up Trump’s campaign seem to stand not just on his obvious xenophobia, misogyny, sexism and bullying but on a willful refusal to recognize reality: that climate change bears serious dangers to the planet, that health insurance is a right recognized by most of the Asian countries that I lived in for more than 30 years, that immigration from other countries is beneficial rather than dangerous.
My fear as a returning expatriate is that there is a good deal more to it, that Trump’s victory is a symptom rather than a freak accident, that this country’s social institutions are in a state of collapse, that the country has dumbed itself down through a bad education system, by students who should be learning about democratic institutions in class and instead are chatting on social media, and by parents who let them do it.
There seems a willful culture of ignorance. Americans seem cocooned in a spurious belief in American exceptionalism, knowing almost nothing about the world and proud of it.
Knowledge of geography and the outside world seems to have vanished. Recently my wife and I met with a branch manager in a Bank of America to arrange the transfer money from an overseas account “You lived in Hong Kong!” he said. “That’s exciting. That’s in Japan, right?”
Social media have overcome traditional journalism to the point where now we are talking about post-truth reality. I was reading the online comments at the end of a story by David A. Fahrenthold of the Washington Post on uncovering the irregularities in Trump’s seriously deficient charitable foundation. Several people who read the story were startled at how little investigation had been done by the media into Trump’s contradictions, lies and deceptions. But there was plenty of reporting and anybody who subscribed to a newspaper could have read it and predicated their electoral decisions on it.
The view you get of America outside of America is considerably different from the view you get inside the country. Too often, the United States is viewed as a bully that has backed corrupt governments. Now, under a new president who seems to subscribe to all of the societal components that the U.S.’s neighbors find objectionable or dangerous, the country is off on a new and even more ominous path.
Where’d you go, Uncle Bill?
John Berthelsen recently retired as editor of the Hong Kong-based Asia Sentinel, a regional news agency covering 23 countries across Asia. He now lives in Sacramento and can be reached at email@example.com.