It was bound to happen. My new American president tweeted a part of a statement that I feel deserves a public response. On Monday morning, in a tweet defending his policy on immigrants, refugees and visa holders entering the USA, the new president said “…study the world!” His statement was directed at the millions of people who have protested his policies since he took office. And, when it comes to “studying the world,” the president inserted himself directly into my wheelhouse.
For the past 30 years, I’ve worked internationally as a filmmaker, photographer and writer. My professional mission has not been about building hotels or a base of power, mine has been about service and storytelling. I’m not suggesting one is better than the other – though I do think my career choices provided a very solid platform for “studying the world.”
It’s been a fascinating journey. And, after humanitarian trips to document Afghanistan (war), Pakistan (earthquake, medical mission), Sudan (genocide), Ethiopia (sustainable agriculture), Haiti (earthquake, medical mission), Burma (medical mission), Ghana (fuel efficient stove assembly and distribution), Kenya (education, health care and wildlife protection) and Colombia (medical mission), along with documentary filmmaking trips to Bhutan, India, Peru, Chile, Costa Rica, Belize, Morocco, Australia, Tanzania, Denmark, Sweden, Scotland, Norway, England, Greece, France, Ireland, Canada, the USA and a few places I’ve probably forgotten to mention, I’ve had the privilege and the pleasure of studying our world and, even better, participating in it.
Our world – the one that the new president considers so scary – is an amazing place that has never hurt me and has never let me down. I’ve built long-term friendships with real people in real places doing real things. They do not see America as exceptional (they love their own countries and don’t want to leave) but most of my international friends have long considered America as inspirational. My international friends are not isolated or fearful, they simply live their lives by cherishing family and friendship, faith and forgiveness. They shake hands, they play, they laugh, they work, they cook great meals, they read, they worship, and they love their children.
The people of the world have made me a better and more generous person, they have made my heart big and have given me an opportunity to share and smile and find happiness and beauty in palaces and playgrounds, schools, sanctuaries and slums. The people I’ve encountered along the way have made me an optimist. For that reason, I do agree with part of the new president’s tweet – it is important to “study the world.” The more I’ve learned about the world, the less likely I’ve been to turn my back on it. And I certainly won’t do so now.
My filmmaking journeys abroad have taken me to mosques, allowed me to visit ancient cathedrals and churches, Sikh temples, Buddhist temples, monasteries and ancient dzongs and sacred sites such as Machu Picchu, the Acropolis and Lalibela. These journeys have allowed me to document Hindu dances and death rituals, to film Vodou ceremonies, to participate in Andean rituals and festivals, and to photograph religious practices throughout the USA after being welcomed into a variety of mosques, Orthodox and Reform synagogues, Protestant churches of all kinds, and Catholic churches of all kinds.
The point I want to make is a simple one: Based on a generation of global travel, nothing convinces me that the recent “Executive Orders” on immigration and refugees make sense. By promoting xenophobia and fear, our new president’s ruthless disregard for America’s core values isn’t protecting us – it never will. I believe the new president’s policies will hurt our economy, our freedom, our reputation and our collective soul.
Puritan settler and lawyer John Winthrop’s view of America as a “city on the hill” is often invoked by presidents and presidential candidates – including Ronald Reagan who often called America “a shining city on a hill.” I spent time with President Reagan while working on a film in the early 1990s. Our production company also produced a 3-part series on Reagan’s presidency for public television. So, in Reagan’s case, I feel like I’ve spent some time “studying.”
Reagan used executive orders too – and among them was the grant of amnesty for 3 million undocumented immigrants who hailed mostly from Mexico. Reagan never pushed the notion of building a wall or keeping green card holders from entering the US on their return home. Reagan never tried to stop visa holders or refugees from entering the USA. In fact, during Reagan’s farewell address to the nation, he spoke a paragraph that shows a sharp contrast to the values of our new president. President Reagan said:
“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”
Today, because of a new administration’s decision to push bigotry, promote fear, and choose one faith over another, I believe that shine is disappearing under a series of misguided policies that compromise the values of a nation that has long been a role model for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, compassion for those in need, and the extraordinary, positive power of diversity.
During my trip to Ethiopia earlier this month, the government had taken the extraordinary step of declaring a “state of emergency” as a response to an anti-government movement. Their nation is divided – and while it’s an extraordinary place defined by truly amazing people and cultural diversity, the issues that confront Ethiopia are very real.
Ethiopia, like Russia, claims to have a democratically elected leader. And like Russia, the government controls the media and does little to represent the interests of the vast majority of its people. Among the recent steps the government of Ethiopia has taken to stifle freedom of expression and basic journalistic values, all social media had been shut down. There was no freedom of the press, and it’s not guaranteed by their constitution. During my recent visit, only basic text and email worked. The Internet was, for all practical purposes, useless. It was not possible to use Twitter (sorry Mr. President) or Facebook, and sending a larger file such as a photograph wasn’t possible. In an effort to defy freedom of speech, the government had reduced bandwidth to a rate that marginal at best.
Free speech and freedom of the press are among the basic freedoms that distinguish the United States of America. Regardless of ones political perspectives, freedom of the press protects all of us from politicians and government leaders who may choose to lie to the American people or to put their own financial interests ahead of the country. Freedom of the press and free speech are part of the system of checks and balances defined by our nation’s founders.
A free press began during the American revolution and it remains among the greatest checks on power that the American people have at their disposal. Journalistic pursuit of the truth and respect for the truth, have been under attack throughout our recent presidential campaign and in the weeks since the election. The attack against the press comes from a newly elected administration that appears to want to solidify its power without any effort toward transparency and with no regard for the value of an informed citizenry. These same people rarely, if ever, distinguish between cable tv pundits from the left and right versus trained journalists working for respectable, long-standing networks and publications.
The new administration continues to push fear over fact in its heated criticism of the press while using its own social media tools to avoid real interaction with the public or with trained, professional journalists. Policy is just policy, and it’s good and proper to debate it. Holding our leaders responsible and insuring integrity and truth in the process are essential to maintaining the freedom that has defined us as a nation for nearly 250 years.
Change and the peaceful transition of power is part of what makes our nation great. But as we begin a new journey with a new president, it’s my hope that all Americans will protect and unite around the fundamental principles established in our Constitution. That includes protecting individual liberty for all Americans along with freedom of speech and a healthy, vibrant free press.