Oppenheim: One Simple Question

Jun 16, 2017

When I was in the third grade, kids in my class were spreading a rumor. It was 1968, Hubert Humphrey was running against Richard Nixon – and in Massachusetts, where a Nixon Presidency was widely feared, my classmates insisted if Nixon got elected, we would have to go to school on Saturdays.

Of course, that seems pretty funny now, but it’s interesting to remember how the anxiety of our parents trickled down. For us kids, the election wasn’t about Vietnam or civil rights; it was about a President making us sit in the classroom on weekends.

Those memories got stirred when I was recently in Uganda.

I co-led a group of college students who spent two weeks helping out at an orphanage. Repeatedly, the children at the orphanage asked us this question: “Do you like Donald Trump?”

The question was open-ended, and there was no direct suggestion that the American president was a bad guy, but the anxiety in their voices was unmistakable. After all, to these kids, we were nice Americans. They called us “uncle” or “auntie” – and we were developing a strong connection. For them, the question was how to square the positive feelings about us with the negative feelings they already had about American politics.

In Uganda, that negativity is palpable, expressed consistently in conversation and in the news headlines. In its federal budget, the Trump administration is proposing sharp cuts to aid for African development, as officials voice legitimate concerns about U.S. money being squandered through corruption. But critics accuse the Trump team of being hostile or indifferent to Africa, more concerned about security, and less about hunger and climate change.

To a child, those complex issues boil down to the simple question – “Do you like Mr. Trump” - which then translates to – “Do you like us?”

Some members of our group thought it was important to answer in neutral terms, but I had to admit I’m worried that America’s current leadership doesn’t understand enough about the world, about suffering and about the need to save the planet.

Maybe it was unfair to leave them with my own personal view, rather than an objective set of facts or a way to learn more.

But for that, they might have to go to school on Saturdays.