Four years an expat – What do I think of home?

Recently, my family and I traveled to the United States for our annual trip back to see family and friends. We’ve done this every (northern) summer since moving to Singapore. After we returned, a friend asked me what I thought of the US, since we’ve lived outside of the country for a while now. So, here’s my answer.

I’d start by saying that we’re from the Midwestern US (Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois), and we’ve mostly lived in small cities and small towns in suburban and rural areas – not urban or coastal areas – so there are bound to be differences from the strictly urban, island environment we live in in Singapore.

So, that said, the first thing that strikes me every time is now intensely car-based US culture is. You have to get in the car to do ANYTHING. Here in Singapore, we’re accustomed to walking most places or taking the train, which we vastly prefer.

Also, everything is single-family homes pretty much in the US, which is not at all like here. We live on the 25th floor of an apartment high rise. Frankly, I don’t miss having to tend to a yard at all. I do maybe miss having a garage to tinker in, but nowadays that’s really mostly for my boys to enjoy, not me.

Put together – cars and housing – I know these are supposed to represent the American Dream. They’re supposed to represent freedom. To me, anymore, they just represent restraint. A house needs to be endlessly maintained. Something is always breaking. And as I mentioned, I get no joy from mowing a lawn, anymore (especially when you throw in the environmental consequences of making it conform to the usual expectations). Also, we often talk about home “ownership” in the US. Of course, if you have a mortgage – which the vast majority of people do, of course – the lender actually has more of a claim on the house than you do. As for a car, they, too, need endless care and feeding – expensive care and feeding. And the notion of going back to being stuck in a traffic jam at rush hour is a nightmare. Yes, compared to public transportation, you do get your own personalized pod for your commute. But there’s a steep price to pay. Oh, and US cars are HUGE compared to here. Most US cars would be utterly impractical here, but that would be true of most cities, I think. (Maybe not Texan cities, where they are likely designed around dually pickup trucks.)

My friend also asked about how many people are outside in Singapore, compared to the US. On this, the comparison is a bit unfair because, being on the Equator, Singapore feels like summer all year round – hot and humid. (Although, oddly, the northern and southern summers are often far hotter than here because they get even more concentrated sunshine for a longer day. Here, the day is the same length all year long.) Because it’s always like summer here, people can very easily be out all year long, but the air con (air conditioning) is often more attractive than the sweltering heat. So, in that regard, perhaps every day feels a bit like a winter day, where you might go out for a bit, but you can’t wait to get back inside.

A last observation – and this is a bit rude, I guess – is people are a lot heavier. But this is well known from national comparisons. I can think of many reasons – and I’m not expert – but I’d have to point to the seemingly obvious reasons of the prevalence of US-style fast food, combined with the car-based culture. I know I packed on about 10 pounds in just three weeks. Man, it’s hard to resist the siren call of that deep-fried junk food. Now, yes, people can choose better food most of the time, but for sure, as an individual, you can’t choose a walking culture. That’s a public policy choice. We continue to invest our transportation dollars in roads and a car-based lifestyle, when other options are certainly available. Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, we are from the Midwest, and I think, in general, people are thinner outside the Midwest – California and Florida, for example – but that’s well known from state-by-state comparisons, too. (Thank the South for beating us out on this specific measure.)

I would imagine many people are curious about how the politics comes across. Actually, it’s not that hard to stay up on the politics from here, so I don’t feel as disconnected as I might have in past decades. However, I will say this: Trump supporters seem to have no problem getting in your face. One boat we saw in Michigan was flying an enormous Trump flag. There was no corresponding show from others, but we were in a pretty conservative area. Either way, I’m not a fan of Trump, so there you go.

Otherwise, it felt a lot like home always did – which is comforting.

The 21st Century Dilemma

A friend sends me this column by Niall Ferguson:

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I don’t see myself naturally aligned with Ferguson on much, but I found this analysis interesting.

That said, I think he glosses over the fact that China represents a wholly different political system with regard to human rights and freedoms than the US and Europe do. That same cultural perspective should be unifying us, and instead, Trump attacks our democratic allies and warms up to dictators.

That’s emerging as the central danger to our republic from Trump. He’s a wannabe autocrat. And while we might constrain him at home (if Republicans ever grow a spine), there’s a very real danger that he will have permanently damaged our relationships with our fellow democracies. And once that happens, autocracy will rule the global political day (which, in fact, is just a reversion to the human norm of millennia).

I envision a global democratic alliance that also includes India. Sure, India often gets laughed at for having so much democracy that it can’t develop – or function. But I’d rather throw humanity’s lot in with that problem than autocracy.

The Trump-Kim Summit

The Trump-Kim summit is tomorrow (Singapore time), and I guess I’ll weigh in on it – mostly just because they’re both staying about a five-minute walk away on either side of me.

Everyone has to wish that this meeting works out. Even if this could mean an easier path to a second term for Trump, everyone has to wish for this to succeed.

But what’s success? I think the only measure that there can be is that there is a concrete step toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

But what are the chances that that’s going to happen? Virtually zero.

In my reading of the situation, above all else Kim wants security. He wants to know that he and his regime can stay in power. In a world where the US names countries to an “Axis of Evil” and overthrows nations with every new presidency, the only reasonable and solid guarantee he could create for himself was a nuclear deterrent. Now he has it, and he’s not going to give it up.

So, based on that reality, this whole thing is for show. Kim gets what he wants in international recognition and stature. Trump gets what he wants in basically the same terms, except he’d love a shot at getting the Nobel Peace Prize.

But if this fails, neither one of them loses anything. We just return to the status quo, and they can each leave, blaming the other for why it didn’t work out. Just see their Twitter feeds for how they’ll go about that. There simply is no downside to this meeting for them. It’s only upside.

Meanwhile, according to Singapore’s prime minister, the country is shelling out SG$20 million (about US$15 million) for this event (although who knows who might cover all the costs in the end, really), and I can’t get deliveries to my condo since I’m in one of the secure zones. (Well, okay, that last part is a bit petty.)

Again, let’s hope for success. But that’s not where I’d put my money.

P.S. I am not a fan of Trump, but that doesn’t mean I disagree with everything he does. I actually see this as a welcome shake-up of the dynamic with North Korea. But there’s been so little planning – it’s so much off the cuff – that it seems unlikely that this will go anywhere.


In a previous post I asked the question, am I a journalist? From reading that, you will know that my answer is yes, under a couple of conditions:

  • That I will be transparent about my worldview and associations.
  • That I will hold to the commitments and habits of a journalist, including retaining a healthy skepticism, relying on verifiable facts and evidence, and remaining fair-minded.

In this post, I try to be as transparent as possible about various items that I think are relevant to understanding my journalistic work and writing. Here they are.

I was born and raised in the Midwest, and I’m damn proud of it. I lived in Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois for almost my entire life before moving to Singapore. (Yeah, that was a bit of a change.)

I self-identify as a secular humanist, and yup, that means I’m an atheist. (I was raised as a Roman Catholic.) I believe a secular society is best. Otherwise, we risk endless religious war.

I was a mainstream journalist for a little while, but then I had to move on. I cover that here.

I spent several years working in the un-paid economy as a stay-at-home dad, raising two boys.

Thanks to my hard-working spouse, we’re doing pretty well. (Based on where she works, don’t expect any poignant commentary or hard-hitting exposés on the construction equipment or mining industries.) We’re in the top roughly two percent of earners and top ten percent of wealth in the US – which is pretty darn good, of course, and ridiculously wealthy on a global scale.

That said, given the shape of the income and wealth distribution, I find it much easier to identify with the 99%. Let’s put it this way: I’m not attending Davos.

I believe in the traditional western liberal values of freedom and individuality, including freedom of expression, free enterprise, and free and fair elections – using the American interpretation of these rights as my baseline.

Even though I identify as a journalist, I reserve the traditional rights of citizenship. I will vote and support candidates and issues I believe are in the best interests of my country and the world.

I have traditionally voted for Democrats because they tend to be in line with my positions. That said, I think party partisanship makes people stupid. I refuse to self-identify as a Democrat and do not consider myself a member of the Democratic party.

In 2016, I voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. And for what it’s worth, I would have voted for John Kasich over Hillary Clinton, but alas, Republican primary voters didn’t give me that choice. I have contributed money to individual Democratic candidates from time to time.

I once briefly helped a Democratic candidate for the US House and have phone-banked for Democratic candidates once. I decided I didn’t like to do either one of those things.

I’ve lobbied Illinois state politicians in opposition to fracking and on behalf of a more equitable tax system.

Based on my reading of the evidence and upon reflection, I believe the following are important to human well-being: a comprehensive welfare state; clean, democratic politics; and strict gun control.

I believe everyone should have the basic stuff of life. We can argue about how to get there, but I really can’t see why not to do this.

I’ve contributed to the groups the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Common Cause, the ACLU, Illinois People’s Action, and Drinking Liberally – sometimes with time, sometimes with money, and sometime with both. I am not an NRA member (surprise!), nor do I own a gun.

I oppose an unlimited right to abortion and the identity politics of in-born traits.

I tried to come up with a pithy summary for my political-economic worldview, and I came up with “socialist for conservative reasons”. I also like “decidedly, but not strictly, left-wing”. Pick your fave.

I’m fascinated by China and Chinese culture.

I hate professional sports, but I love tennis, so I’ll watch those folks.

I enjoy the occasional rainy day.

For more insight on where I’m coming from, please follow me on my blog, Twitter, Facebook, and Medium.

I reserve the right to change my mind.

Am I a journalist?

As you can see at the top of my website, I describe myself as a journalist. However, if you spend any time reading my blog or my social media posts, you’ll quickly see why, when asked, I also describe myself as a liberal.

If you’re of a particular mindset about journalism, you might find that a tough pill to swallow. I understand, because it is for me, too. I grew up in the 70s and 80s at the tail end of an era in journalism when “objectivity” was considered absolutely paramount. I even grew up in the household of a traditional newspaperman who taught classes on journalism ethics. Journalists were not supposed to express an opinion. They certainly were never to be politically active, either in partisan politics or with an issue advocacy group. That said, even in those stricter days, there were a few exceptions. Sometimes journalists could write “analysis” pieces, in which they tried to put facts and events into more context, and that required applying judgment as to what was relevant and irrelevant to best understand a given situation. Also, when someone was labeled a columnist, he or she could express opinions more readily. However, there was still an expectation that facts and reasons had to be provided, and political activity remained off the table.

This traditionalist mindset has taken a beating in the last roughly three decades. Rightly so, because it was mostly a fairy tale. Journalists were never robots, without emotional attachments to a sense of what was and wasn’t important. They couldn’t help but have a sense of what was right or wrong for themselves, their families, their communities, their country, and the world. For example, at a most basic level, whatever perspective they had came out in story choice. Some events and issues were deemed worthy of attention and time, and others were not.

So, if this traditional sense of journalism was largely a fiction, is objectivity dead? Is there anything that can be reasonably called journalism?

The answers are no and yes, and explaining those answers will in turn explain why, despite self-identifying as a liberal, I feel like I can still describe myself as a journalist.

It comes down to the concept of transparency and the craft of journalism.


Put simply in a 2009 post by David Weinberger that I found thanks to Jay Rosen:

Transparency is the new objectivity.

The idea is that, since no one can ever be completely free of interests and perspectives, it’s best just to be upfront about what they are. Rosen digs further into this definition of objectivity here.

As he stresses, being clear about where you’re coming from “is the biggest shift, and the hardest for traditionalists to accept.” As a recovering traditionalist, I think he’s probably right there. Transparency is a powerful idea. Rather than going to all sorts of personal and creative lengths to disguise one’s opinions, just be open and free with what they are. In fact, being forthcoming and truthful sounds an awful lot like, wait for it, what journalists expect of everyone else.

The craft of journalism

While the concept of transparency does a lot of the heavy lifting, it doesn’t get you all the way to an understanding of what it takes to be a journalist. For the rest, I think you have to turn back to some very old-fashioned notions. Labeling yourself a journalist means that you are willing to make commitments to a particular kind of craft.

First, journalists must always retain healthy skepticism. They must always challenge facts and assumptions. They must maintain a critical distance – or put another way, be willing to call bullshit.

Second, journalists must be fair-minded. Perfect balance in any story is not always possible – and frankly, not always desirable, as examinations of the coverage of global warming have shown. Even so, journalists have to be careful not simply to dismiss perspectives that don’t align with their worldview. (Of course, there are limits.)

Third, journalists must stick to the traditional notion of finding and verifying facts and information, even if they also provide context that interprets those facts. The famous quote by Daniel Patrick Moynihan comes to mind:

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.

By the way, I would also extend this idea to say that journalists must commit to being secular, in the sense that we can only consider facts as they exist in the natural world. People hold all sorts of beliefs about supernatural reality, but what’s important is how they have an impact on the world we share.

All of this, by the way, might sound like a version of the scientific endeavor, and yes, it’s pretty close. As Carrie Brown-Smith puts it here: “The scientific method on a tighter deadline.”

Brown-Smith has more to say on the idea of transparency in her post, so go read it. But she also highlights the elements of journalistic craft I’m talking about here. In fact, she refers to the famous book (in journalism education circles, anyway) of Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, “The Elements of Journalism” (naturally), in which they say that the traditionalist notion of objectivity, that I discussed at the top, was a distortion of the original way the term was applied:

In the end, the discipline of verification is what separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction, or art…. Journalism alone is focused first on getting what happened down right….When the concept (of objectivity) originally evolved, it was not meant to imply that journalists were free of bias. Quite the contrary…. Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information—a transparent approach to evidence—precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work…. In the original concept, in other words, the method is objective, not the journalist. The key was in the discipline of the craft, not the aim.

As Kovach and Rosenstiel mention, it is this commitment to a craft of skepticism, being fair-minded, and checking and double-checking facts that makes journalists so maddening to the politicians, activists, press officers, and propagandists of the world.

Advocacy journalism

So where does this leave me in answering my question, am I a journalist? I say yes, because of the commitments to transparency and craft that I’ve laid out above. And as part of following through transparency, I’ve written an entire separate post with what I think you need to know. In there, you’ll find the issues and topics that I support and am willing to advocate for. And that leads me to my final thoughts. When you combine a sense of purpose and journalistic transparency and journalistic craft, you get a particular kind of journalism called advocacy journalism.

Roughly eighteen years ago, Sue Careless gave an address that spelled out clear boundaries for a journalist who wants to also advocate for change in the world, drawing the line between journalism and activism. Read the full address, but to wrap up here are some highlights. (The bullet points are mine.)

Rules for Advocacy Journalism:

  • No matter how dear a cause is to journalist’s heart, there are lines which should never be crossed by a professional journalist.
  • Can a journalist have a declared bias and still practice journalism in a professional manner? Yes. In fact you may be seen as even more credible if your perspective is acknowledged up front.
  • A journalist writing for the advocacy press should practice the same skills as any journalist.
  • You don’t fabricate or falsify.
  • There must be a general fairness and thoroughness.
  • Verify your facts and quotes.
  • Use multiple sources and try to cite neutral sources for statistics.
  • You use your eyes and ears when you are news gathering. If you are covering a protest and a demonstrator hits a police officer or shouts profanities, you are obliged as a journalist to report those facts, embarrassing though they may be to a cause you personally support.
  • A good journalist must play devil’s advocate. You must argue against your own convictions.
  • You may believe something in theory or in principle, but how does it play out in practice?
  • Refer to (your opponent’s) best arguments, not his worst, quote him directly, accurately, at length and in context.
  • Even when a juicy story or outrageous statement emerges from your opponents, you don’t rush to print it until it is confirmed.
  • Advocacy journalists should also cover stories that may be unflattering to their own cause or community. Bias at its worst is a blind spot or automatic judgement such as believing that a leader in a cause or community can do no wrong.
Words to practice journalism by.


The carnage on the border between Gaza and Israel is horrific. I get it that, after decades of conflict, no one in the Mideast has clean hands (including, or especially, the US), but the deaths in this conflict are completely lopsided:

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The US should be working to restrain Israel and seek a just peace. But we’re not. Why?

Because of American evangelicals.

I knew this is where US and Israeli right-wingers are coming from, but it’s still shocking that we’re even remotely expected to accept this as a serious argument:

Well first of all, I would take issue with beginning the history lesson in 1947. Go back another 3,500 years. Go back to the Bible.

Read the full quote in the article.

I accept that Israel’s existence as a sovereign nation state is a “fact on the ground” that just can’t be reversed at this point, but this argument is ludicrous. If the US is to accept it, then the time has come to give America back to Native Americans.

Unless, of course, what really matters isn’t history or reasons, but raw power. Lasting peace should require justice. Instead, in modern Israel, it means oppressing, displacing, and wiping out your opponents.

Trump’s foreign policy is built on doing what others haven’t done before, period – shake things up and make sure everyone stays tuned. He agreed to meet with Kim Jong-un, no strings attached, even though that was held out as the prize for cooperation by previous presidents.

With Israel/Palestine, he had two choices along this line: Seriously press Israel to stop the settlement expansions and start negotiating, or move the embassy to Jerusalem. He chose the embassy. Why? Because evangelicals were willing to flatter him:

“I told him that the moment that you do that, I believe that you will step into political immortality,” the news site quoted (Pastor John) Hagee as saying. “Because you are having the courage to do what other presidents did not have the courage to do.”

And of course, support him in huge percentages with their votes.

For what it’s worth, as a member of the non-religious community, let me say that I think religious people really have a hard time grasping how much their speech sounds like incoherent babbling to us. Bigoted, divisive, irrational incoherent babbling at that.

The Comey Interview

I didn’t find the ABC interview with former FBI director James Comey to be that interesting in the end. There wasn’t a lot of new information or insight. In fact, David Graham of the Atlantic had a good summary:

The interview also captured the sense of surrealism that has pervaded much of American political life for the last two years. Comey was at the heart of many of the major events in that span, including the Clinton email investigation, the Russian election-interference investigation, and of course his own firing, yet his reaction to these events is as dumbfounded as people who watched from afar. The view from the inside is uncannily like the view from the outside.

Americans’ opinions and political affiliations are unlikely to change after this interview, especially given the pushback from Republicans and Democrats ambivalence toward Comey. As for the most serious allegations against Trump and company, we’ll all just have to wait for the Mueller investigation to reach a conclusion – if it is allowed to finish, of course.

All of that said, here are three observations prompted by the interview.

1. Let’s spread the morality around

A lot is being made of Comey’s remark that Trump is morally unfit to be president.

While I happen to agree, this was quite obvious during the campaign, and many people – not the least evangelicals – still voted for and support him. To this day, I’m not sure what to do with that fact.

Either way, I want to highlight one assumption Comey makes, that I think many Americans share:

There’s something more important than that that should unite all of us, and that is our president must embody respect and adhere to the values that are at the core of this country. The most important being truth. This president is not able to do that. He is morally unfit to be president.

You know what, Congress needs to embody those values, too. We invest too much of our national vision and power in the presidency and the president. We need to demand more all around.

2. In tribal times, conservatives would never have accepted Clinton

When it came to the Clinton and Trump investigations during the campaign, I do think Comey was in a hard place. But looking back now, it’s clear he should have stuck with established protocol and not said much, if anything. Instead, he famously issued updates on the Clinton investigation, and it appears he had political calculations in the back of his mind all along:

Like I said, I don’t remember spelling it out, but it had to have been. That– that she’s going to be elected president, and if I hide this from the American people, she’ll be illegitimate the moment she’s elected, the moment this comes out.

Whether he should have been factoring politics in or not, he sure got his understanding of current American politics wrong here. Clinton would have been seen as illegitimate by the entirety of the conservative political and media class no matter what. Trump was already claiming the election was rigged and raising doubt as to whether he’d accept the results. As a polity, we constantly underestimate the ruthlessness of the modern conservative movement.

As an aside, while some Democrats and analysts and Hillary Clinton herself claim that Comey was the decisive factor in the election, I’m less convinced. In a long, complex campaign, there are many causes. For example, there were tactical errors in the Great Lakes states, and the Democrats have yet to reckon with how unpopular of a person Hillary Clinton was and is. Also, Trump weathered what should have been far worse setbacks, and yet came out on top – just barely, of course, and only with the aid of Russian hacking and through the unfair and antiquated quirks of the Electoral College.

3. In Washington, there is no stain that can’t be washed out

Comey also remarks in the interview that anyone who associates with Trump, in the end, will be permanently marked:

(T)he challenge of this president is that he will stain everyone around him. And the question is, how much stain is too much stain and how much stain eventually makes you unable to accomplish your goal of protecting the country and serving the country?

Okay, he’s totally wrong here. In Washington, the stains almost always wash out, no matter how heinous they might be.

The George W. Bush administration was a disaster – a misguided war of choice in Iraq that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars; the turning the United States into a nation of torturers; the biggest financial and economic collapse since the Great Depression – yet many major players went on with their public or political careers or have landed in prestigious think tank or media roles. Among the promoters of the Iraq War, David Frum is at the Atlantic, and Michael Gerson is at the Washington Post. Among the torturers, Trump has nominated Gina Haspel – a CIA official who operated one of the notorious black sites – to be CIA director, and incredibly, Comey himself worked to justify torture policies. As for the architects of the policy scheme that led to the Great Recession, I’m not aware of one who is in the poor house. George W. Bush himself even got some love recently when he subtly criticized Trump. Even from the Trump administration, Sean Spicer received a warm welcome initially – at the Emmys and Harvard of all places – despite obvious lying to the American public. There is no stain stain-y enough. Returning to the Comey interview, even from the Obama administration, former CIA director David Petraeus has landed comfortably, despite deliberately spreading classified information.

Washington just can’t quit its own inside players.

Bottom line, Comey is part of a long and growing list of public figures – including Hillary Clinton and Trump himself – that I wish would just pass from the political scene.