One year ago today, Susan and I embarked on a wonderful adventure--a 4-month sabbatical spent in Asia: 2 months in Vietnam, a month in India and a couple of weeks in Japan.
Aside from the inspiring experiences we had, and there were many, we took some pleasure in being far from the US during the odious Presidential primaries, particularly the seemingly inexplicable rise and dominance of Donald Trump in the Republican contest.
We were at some loss to explain the phenomenon to the people we got to know in Asia, and assumed it would be an ugliness that would recede somewhat after his eventual defeat.
Last week's events overturned most of those hopes. Still, he was elected President fair and square, albeit through a campaign in which he broke every rule of civility beyond even the greatest violators of civility in past elections while impugning the very core of the electoral process which, HAD it been fixed, would have barred him.
Now we see in his first steps toward actually assuming the office that he may not be quite the demagogue we feared -- based on some moderate statements and moves or non-moves, but he is choosing to bring into his government some of the worst people we could imagine.
He paid lip service on Election Night to being President For All Americans, but his choice of Steve Bannon to be a member of his inner circle is going to be a test of whether people are going to go along with anything and everything Trump, or whether those supporters who claim (reasonably in many cases) not to be racists and hateful of the most important American values will stand up for anything.
Poor choices to lead departments or have cabinet positions are in most cases a matter of opinion and wait-and-see. Giuliani as Secretary of State? A terrible choice (if that turns out to be his choice), but if that's who PE (President Elect) Trump wants to appoint, we'll probably need to allow him to prove himself worthy or unworthy.
But when an individual has engaged in systematic support for racist and anti-Semitic ideas, having used his website and news organization to happily gather KKK and NeoNazi individuals and leaders, we must say no.
One can understand Trump's willingness to bring him into the inner circle: his brand of Truth Makes No Difference I'm Just Interested In Stirring Up Hatred and Anger and Calling It Fun and Funny WAS a powerful tool in the recent election. And it is the bringing of Breitbart into the Oval Office that is the most dangerous element of how and where we go.
The Trumpists and their allies have falsely accused the mainstream media of a multitude of sins for a generation. Understand this: the serious mainstream media is constrained by ethics of facts and verifiability. Trump railed that the media was arrayed against him. And how could responsible media not appear to be against him? They reported what he said (and he denied it), they dutifully played along for months and years regarding the sins and shortcomings of the Clintons as if it were an equal concern on the other side. Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the campaign and election was Trump's marriage to Bannon in the first place, leading to a sense that Breitbart is something to be considered in the same sentence as CBS, NBC, PBS and CNN. The rise of Fox and MSNBC in recent years paved the way--news media with a clear point of view before, during and after events. But even these viewpoint news organizations (with the exception of some of the individual voices at Fox) had some sense of journalistic standards, and not a reckless disregard for truth itself. This is where the emergence of Breitbart in the same breath is, basically, terrifying.
If Bannon DOES get through the current firestorm, he is not likely (hopefully) to last long. The longer he has the ear of PE Trump officially, and the longer we are subject to the fantasy news world he nurtures, the greater the danger to our Republic, and to the values that have made it great.
The FBI (which had an extremely awkward role in the election that raises a whole other set of concerns) reports a very significant increase in numerous kinds of hate crimes during the last year. Understandable given the rhetoric of the Trump Campaign. What happens next? Whether Bannon is IN or OUT will be a canary in the coal mine on this subject.
Back to that amazing experience that started a year ago....My worry about the state and direction of our country is all the more poignant to me because of the amazing journey of Vietnam and the Vietnamese people. (Since we started with 2 months there, I'll leave India and Japan out of the discussion for now.)
Americans, what kind of problems do we REALLY have? And what are the prospects and barriers to succeeding?
The Vietnamese people were "host" to a number of wars in the mid to late 20th century (before that, too, but I'll restrict attention to more modern times).
After the Americans left in the early 1970s, the country faced challenges of constituting a unified state. It was ugly, violent and involved casting out many citizens for a while. To this day, the scars of war and its aftermath can be seen and felt. The American military decimated the cities and countryside. And the use of Agent Orange created issues that still are part of the challenge to the Vietnamese today. The Vietnamese socialists who came to power punished many other Vietnamese cruelly. Many are long gone. Many have returned, reentering Vietnamese society while wrestling with their own particular form of PTSD. My experience meeting some of them (those who have returned from the punishing re-education camps, etc.) suggests to me that their renewed presence in Vietnamese society is one of its greatest strengths.
Is it a free country? No. Speaking out against the nominally socialist government is unpredictably dangerous. You could be imprisoned. You could face the death penalty. But if the government is repressive, the PEOPLE (in my opinion) aren't repressed.
There is a strong sense that being Vietnamese MEANS something, and that there is a shared interest-- and a possibility of rising in a rising economy. That education leads to opportunity.
This sense of hope and opportunity is very strongly felt (although not by all). Susan and I were volunteer teachers in a Hanoi secondary school. We weren't their English teachers: they had those classes before, after and during our 2-month visit. We expanded what they were learning. We gave them context for the use of English in (American) English-speaking culture. We taught them about some Jewish stuff too. (Chanukah came about 2 weeks into our visit). We taught them that when someone says O-H, you say I-O! And they LOVED that, which was also a way to refocus their attention in class.
I cannot overemphasize the sense of welcome, excitement and hope of these children--6th graders to 11th graders. It was so inspiring. We worked with almost 1000 kids.
Walking the streets of Hanoi --and we walked MANY of the streets of Hanoi --it is clear that the situation is very complicated. Not everyone is advancing. But in the cacophony and chaos of the Vietnamese street is a relentless and often joyful pressing onward and upward.
The journey to prosperity for all is a very long one. Yet they have come a long way and are oriented forward.
If the government were less repressive, would the journey be swifter and smoother? Perhaps. But from what I can tell, most of the Vietnamese people aren't thinking primarily about politics or political freedom. They are VERY good at focusing on the economically possible. And that's a large part of the reason that the Vietnamese have been more and more successful in partnership with American and other international business. They deliver. Their work is reliable.
Contrast this, sadly, with what's going on in the USA at this time (and I mean generationally, not in terms of an outcome of last week's election): Our one-time belief that hard work leads to prosperity, our expectation that things will get better, has steadily deteriorated. Yet instead of joining together to address our problems, we have balkanized into 2 or more groups, each blaming the other, and we refuse to work together toward even the simplest common goal.
The enemy of America's greatness? Not Islam. It's Americans. It's anger. It's a growing hopelessness. Susan and I have been fortunate to travel to many places at the world over our 34 years of marriage. The scariest thing that I have seen anywhere on the globe is hopelessness--whether in the streets and subways of Moscow in 1989, some of the streets of America in the last 10 to 20 years. Young men who have no aspirations for their future are a threat to life and limb. Such young men with guns? Multiply the threat exponentially.
Clearly, the lack of hope spreading around our nation, especially in the places we liberals don't see--in the towns and villages across our states, has a corrosive effect on their lives and on our country. It was this hopelessness that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders tapped into "big league." I have few illusions that PE Trump will deliver solutions to those populations. But it is something we must somehow come together as a country to do.
We need to build and rebuild America--put people to work, give them hope and reward hard work. It won't be easy and it cannot be accomplished by one party refusing to work with the other.
At one point does it become too late? At one point is it no longer possible? I hope that we haven't passed that point. I have never had less confidence in the future.
I hope to find the energy necessary to continue the struggle--not regarding elections (except when it's time for that)--but in the context of protecting the rights of those who are threatened, likely to especially include immigrants, Muslims, women, people of color, and perhaps Jews. For a change, it's not the Jews who are at risk, except from the greatest extremists of both right and left.
Next week is Thanksgiving. I can't recall ever feeling less Thankful. I'm hoping to feel more thankful by this time next year--but it may be very, very difficult.
I hope you'll join me in that journey.