The ugly Americans

American flag

It used to feel special to travel abroad with that blue passport. In my evolving world view, I had ample reason to feel pride in my country and its democratic ideals and in my conviction, that despite our many flaws and occasional deep hypocrisies, we truly meant well in the world. We cared about the plight of others, we were generous in our assistance to the less fortunate, and we held our allies in the highest regard.

That was then; this is now. I am much older, and as I travel first to India and now back in Uganda, the sordid, sorry news from the United States is never far away. Large screen monitors in airports and hotels expose the latest in what we’ve now come to accept will be an unending series of Trump media distractions (intentional?) achieved through egregious and unpresidential tweets, along with reprehensible political statements and policies that fly in the face of the ideals that I grew up thinking defined us as a people. “America First” is code for screw the rest of the world (nations, and the environment) – we don’t care and you don’t matter.

From my short-term perch in Kampala, I can tell you that indeed we do make a lot of noise in the world. The polarized, angry name-calling and lack of even basic civility that has come to define the United States in the era of Trump is heard regularly more than 10,000 miles away. More people than you can imagine around the world now know who Mika Brzezinski is. No surprise then that I encounter, every day, perplexed looks by the citizens I meet in these two countries as they ask their variation of the same question:

“What has happened to America?”

It’s depressing that I don’t have the words to answer that. It is too easy to blame the other side, when an insufficient number of liberal and progressive Americans failed to show up when it mattered the most – at the polls last November.  For the first time in my long life I feel shame for my country, and particularly for the leader and his many supporters who are committed to a boorish politics of unapologetic selfishness, who are sowing the seeds of deep discord and division within the United States and beyond, and who seem united in their utter rejection that the globe is now interdependent. “America First” is telling the people I meet abroad every day as I travel that they simply aren’t significant, unless they have a terrorist’s agenda. Then they will be crushed (along with innumerable civilians who just happen to be in the way, and desperate refugees fleeing such terrorism who simply long for a modicum of peace, stability, and hope). To people abroad, America is now perceived as an increasingly reclusive, isolationist, heavy-handed and uncaring country. Yes, we are respected as militarily strong and quick to punish those who would do us harm (at least when it is in the Trump team’s perceived national interest to do so, which is an unsettling thought). And sure, as a citizen of the United States and the daughter of a U.S. Marine, I am gratified that my security is a priority, even if I have deep questions as to the prevailing assumption in Republican circles that there is no such thing as too much defense spending. So what does it all add up to for America in the world?

An ugly truth – Americans are no longer nice.

Or so I was thinking, at a particularly gloomy moment of reflection yesterday as I read about Trump’s and Tillerson’s plans to shut down numerous USAID missions around the world, merge USAID into the incompatible culture of the State Department, close America’s doors to even closely-vetted refugees whose suffering defies description, and cut back deeply on global humanitarian relief. The Trump budget would even cut back on Peace Corps funding.

Not nice, that. While admittedly more from a personal perspective, that particular cutback rankles me more than the far more serious cuts that will do so much damage to America’s global role. But it’s all coming from the same cloth – the denial of America’s role as a global peace-builder, and at a time of growing global conflict and tensions.

Is “nice” no longer relevant in this troubled world? Peace Corps Volunteers are America’s symbol abroad of what it means to be nice, to care, to reach out – even at the cost of considerable personal discomfort and risk. So  I was feeling aggrieved, and for the first time since my son has been deployed to West Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer I decided to give him a telephone call. After all, when will I only be two hours’ time difference away from him again soon? One of my best decisions ever.

Ian is doing well. The short phone call had me smiling inside and out, as his voice filled me with joy and pride. He is embracing the hardship and many challenges that come with living very modestly alongside the people he has come to serve. He’s relishing the chance to learn their language, to be a guest within their culture, and his opportunity to be a representative of the United States of America. He is being a “nice American”, and he is touching the hearts and minds of simple village people all around him. He is working very hard at this; I know very few people who could do what he is doing.

Hey – what’s a bunch of African villagers mean to the taxpayers of America? Critics are quick to disparage the Peace Corps as a “summer camp” for the young adult offspring of America’s coastal elites, as an agency that leaves little in the way of a lasting measurable mark on the development of the countries in which they serve. Yet long before I had a son, much less one who is a Peace Corps Volunteer, I watched up close the work of such Volunteers during the 15 years that I lived in Africa. I saw how they embodied the ideals that make Americans who we are, how they put the well-being of others way ahead of themselves, how they cared – deeply and with no “deal” expected in return – for the people they had come to serve. Like many in the American expatriate community, I hosted them each Thanksgiving weekend at my home in Nairobi, Kenya and watched the immense pleasure they took in having a warm shower and a good home-cooked meal. I respected the rigor and integrity of their niceness, as I do still. They do America proud. My son does America proud.

I will spend this July 4th in Uganda, a country whose Peace Corps program started back in 1964. I will be honored if I run into one of them at the Embassy celebration I will attend, and I will tell them so. “Thank you for your service” is not only an appropriate salutation for members of our armed forces. And I will remember that it still is among the highest callings of Americans everywhere to build global peace through self-sacrifice and service. We are Americans, and we are called by our history, traditions, and democratic ideals to be nice, to care, to apply our best efforts to make this a better world.

Despite what the Trump administration says…


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