?In learning and writing about the severely dysfunctional societies of Pakistan and Haiti, I’ve been surprised to notice that my books on those countries have insisted on finding grace notes and themes of stubborn hope. I sense the same potential in the dysfunctional America around which I plan to travel to research my next book, Home Free: An American Road Trip.
I grew up in what seemed, at the time, an unassailably and insufferably safe and stable, all-white, suburban, middle-class, Middle American world. The time I mean is the 1970s and early ’80s. American society had already absorbed the self-inflicted body blow of the Vietnam War, but we didn’t want to talk about that, so we largely didn’t.
Ronald Reagan’s slogan in his 1984 reelection campaign was “Morning in America.” Looking back at that moment from this distance, it feels as if it’s been downhill ever since.
Having found my voice and vocation as a traveling writer who tries to listen patiently and compassionately to ordinary people in countries that are anything but safe and stable, I find myself unexpectedly both qualified and inclined to write about the greatly changed America in which I now find myself living.
While living outside the United States from 1993 to 2006, I learned that one thing almost all other societies have in common is that for decades they have been on the receiving end of the brute fact of American power. I also learned to look askance at the increasingly shrill and implausible claim that America is somehow better and different than the rest of the world. To be blunt, I learned that American exceptionalism is a self-induced illusion, and now many other Americans are slowly and painfully coming to the same realization.
It has now been five and a half years since I returned to live in the US By choice I live in Seattle, which is a remote outpost and, to an extent, an oasis and a refuge. As I’ve flown around America over the past five years, telling Americans about the Pakistan and the Haiti that I’ve come to know and love, I’ve found myself inadvertently rediscovering my own country. To make a long story short, it’s changed a lot. There is no landscape like the landscape of our childhood, as Graham Greene put it, and none of us wants the landscape of his or her childhood to change. But it always does, and the best we can hope for is that some of the change will be for the better.
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