A week before Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States, I found myself in a heated debate over U.S. politics in a living room in Kingston, Jamaica.

The dispute concerned the most pathetic moment of the American presidential campaign, and Sarah Palin’s Katie Couric interview was emerging victorious. Watching the extended Guyanese family of intellectuals, obsessed with cable news and North American politics, I oddly felt like the non-American in the room, with a smaller cache of Saturday Night Live quotes and a Wasilla imitation that paled beside theirs. But all focus turned to me when the sharp-tongued sister looked my way and asked, in her prim Caribbean enunciation, “Can you please explain to me, why are Americans so infatuated with ignorance?”

Like the Guyanese coconut roll stuck in my teeth, the question rendered me speechless. Unable to muster a satisfactory reply, I shook my head and looked toward the ground in a feeble gesture of shame.

So while watching President Obama take the oath of office, I could not help but feel a morsel of hope. Not for universal health care or the elimination of poverty, but for something small, something selfish: Hope that I will no longer need to apologize for my country.

In the past eight years of traveling for school and work, I’ve grown accustomed to being a sounding board for frustrations, accusations and rhetorical questions regarding the U.S. It’s a role I have played unhappily but willingly, with the understanding that for those unable to score a seat within shoe-toss range of President Bush, a traveling American can serve as a proxy diplomat.

There were the Argentines I met in 2002, after an economic blueprint drafted by Americans led their country into a financial crisis. Or Tia Nena, my elder Costa Rican host, who waved a newspaper in my face with a headline announcing Bush’s plan to erect a fence along the Mexican border.

Who else could they fulminate to? An American government they rightfully believed could not care less?

In his first inaugural address in 2001, President Bush spoke exclusively to his citizens, alluding to foreigners in two words only: “enemies” and “allies.” His international policy followed suit, directed by American interest and defined by unilateralism. Four years later, floundering in the first of two foreign wars, he could not make the same omission. But ever xenophobic, his only remark to the world beyond his borders was a warning to tyrannical states that America was not afraid of a fight.

Standing from the same podium last month, President Obama addressed the multitudes watching from around the world not as oppressors, enemies, or members of some nefarious axis. He spoke directly to them, declaring that “America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity.”

I recalled my friends in Jamaica, and a satisfactory answer finally came to mind: This time, intellect won over ignorance.

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Founder/Executive Editor. I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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