Politics Monday: My Parents’ Democracy is Back

The more we and other democracies can show the world that we can deliver, not only for our people, but also for each other, the more we can refute the lie that authoritarian countries love to tell, that theirs is the better way to meet people’s fundamental needs and hopes. It’s on us to prove them wrong.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken
A Venezuelan newspaper ran this photo of six-month-old me and my young, optimistic parents in Caracas in 1955.

Moving abroad in the post-WWII world, Bob and Nan Amerson were steeped in liberal democracy. Their years at Macalester College (Dad, Class of ‘50; Mom, ‘49), like those of Walter Mondale (Class of ‘51), were deeply influenced by President Charles J. Turck’s commitment to internationalism, community service, and civic affairs. Fritz Mondale became a champion of liberal politics, while my parents expressed their civic spirit in their willingness to live abroad as America’s representatives, allowing the world to get to know our country through them. For a quarter century, my parents shared American culture, hospitality, arts, and traditions, believing in the vision so beautifully described by David Brooks.

Liberal democracy is based on a level of optimism, faith and a sense of security. It’s based on confidence in the humanistic project: that through conversation and encounter, we can deeply know each other across differences; that most people are seeking the good with different opinions about how to get there; that society is not a zero-sum war.

David Brooks, The New York Times

When my parents joined the US Foreign Service in 1955, they became part of, to borrow from President Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land:

the American army of diplomats and policy experts promoting the principles of a liberal, market-based system — individual freedom, the rule of law, strong enforcement of property rights and neutral arbitration of disputed, plus baseline levels of government accountability and competence — and the economic and political heft to promote these principles on a global scale.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land (get here on Audible, narrated by President Obama)

Around the world, American diplomats are carrying out that duty today, holding to the challenge laid forth by President Biden in his speech to Congress last week.

Can our democracy deliver on its promise that all of us — created equal in the image of God —have a chance to lead lives of dignity, respect, and possibility? Can our democracy deliver on the most pressing needs of our people? Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart?

President Joe Biden

Our diplomats are counting on us to answer with a resounding yes.

Politics Monday: Homegrown Terror Begets Homegrown Propaganda

NOTE: Today, I am launching Politics Monday, following the PBS NewsHour model, kicking off my blog week with posts relating to government. My Wildcard Weekend post was a book review. Coming up: Travel Tuesday, Wellness Wednesday, Family Friday.

Inauguration night’s Celebrating America television program featured Tom Hanks’ earnest declamations about democracy, inspiring songs from Springsteen and Bon Jovi about better days ahead, and touching vignettes from first responders, children volunteers, and other pandemic heroes. It was both corny and moving, from Hanks’ Lincoln Memorial opening to Katy Perry’s Firework fireworks.

Something about the production felt both familiar and a little uncomfortable, but it wasn’t until I saw this headline in the British newspaper, The Independent, that I understood why.

Biden’s inauguration concert a safe, soothing tribute to anti-fascism.

The Independent

It made the hairs on my neck stand up.

American public relations was my father’s USIA work overseas

Celebrating America was exactly the type of program about American democracy that my father, Robert C. Amerson, would have shared with foreign audiences during his career with the United States Information Agency (USIA).

The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 authorized the State Department, USIA, and the Voice of America (VOA) to exercise “public diplomacy,” telling the truth, painting a convincing picture of America, and explaining our motives in a manner that combatted Russian propaganda. It was the Cold War, and America was vying with the Soviet Union for world domination.

Truth can be a powerful weapon.

Smith-Munda Act of 1948

But the same products were prohibited in the USA

USIA told good stories about our country, like a film about Wilma Rudolph, the Black track and field athlete who won three gold medals at the 1962 Rome Olympics during my father’s Italian assignment.

It seems a shame that Americans will never see it, but USIA’s enacting legislation prohibited the domestic dissemination of its materials.

Robert C. Amerson journal entry,

Aiming the propaganda machine toward our own citizens was not permitted. The chilling example of the Nazis controlling Germany by saturating the airwaves with Hitler’s demonic messaging was a cautionary tale, and America’s effort needed to stand in contrast to the USSR’s propaganda machine.

Apart from Freedom of Information law access, the prohibitions of the Smith-Mundt Act still stand.

And now we’re selling democracy to americans

The Trump administration took America on a steep slide down a slippery slope into rage-filled self-interest that culminated in the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Giving his inauguration address standing where domestic terrorists had stood, President Biden included the word “democracy” ten times in his Inauguration Address — five times in just the first ten lines — and he closed by exhorting us to work together.

And together, we shall write an American story of hope, not fear. Of unity, not division. Of light, not darkness. An American story of decency and dignity. Of love and of healing. Of greatness and of goodness.

President Joe Biden

The evening’s program continued these themes, said The Independent, “highlighting from their very inclusion just how fragile those ideals had become beneath Trump’s fraudulent thumbs.”

Much of the show resembled a public health warning about fascism.

The Independent

I am proud. I am concerned. I am conflicted.