Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018 | 2 a.m.
I have traveled the world. I have learned what can happen to the greatest civilizations in the world . I worry for our country.
Some of you may have noticed that this column has been silent for the past three weeks. It isn’t because I was lazy, although that is a charge to which I sometimes must plead some level of guilt. Rather, it is because my dear Myra and I were traveling the globe on one of those once-in-a-lifetime adventures that, when they present themselves, should be taken.
The trip we embarked upon was reminiscent, in a way, of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition some 600 years ago, when he set out in small boats to find new lands, explore new cultures and learn for himself just how flat the world wasn’t. His circumnavigation took three years — it ended with his death in the Philippines. Our 35,000 miles took us a little over three weeks.
We visited the remains of some of the greatest civilizations that have ever inhabited Earth. Their people were the leaders of their time, their cultures were admired, envied and desired. They were the people of their day who advanced the cause of science, perfected the beauty of the arts and nourished through the written word the best of their collective imaginations to make more perfect their own versions of government and civil life.
Today, they each have one thing in common.
They are all gone.
Whether it was the incredible Machu Picchu in Peru, the epitome of Incan building and civil society; or the hard-to-fathom Moai of Easter Island — the tribute to a deity that for too long was unknown to the modern world; or the sheer majesty of a Buddhist and Hindu fusion into the temple at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the intricacies of which are still being uncovered and understood; or the impossible-to-conceive-of Buddhist temple in Lhasa, Tibet; or the inexplicable construction techniques still being unearthed in Petra, Jordan — each of these ancient wonders represented the best of what man could accomplish at a time when our modern world finds it almost impossible to comprehend how it could have been built in the first place.
They are archeological sites today because the people and the civilizations they represented and housed are all gone. For all kinds of reasons, some known and some not, what in its day was the very best in the world just no longer exists.
I write about this trip because I found a message in each place we visited that portends the potential of an unacceptable reality. For everywhere we went — we were with people from across America of all shapes and sizes, religions, political views and cultural likes and dislikes — we were asked the same question by people in every country we visited:
It was clear to each of us that in every country we encountered, people looked to the United States for their own security, stability and the certainty that their own lives were enhanced because of the existence of our country.
To almost all of them, the United States represents that shining city on the hill during their time on this planet. We are the Incans of Peru, the Buddhist builders of Angkor Wat and the Nabateans of Petra all rolled into one people in the 21st century. America represents what every other people around the world aspires to achieve.
And, yet, they still ask that question. What happened, as in what have the people done to sully the idea of America and threaten the 21st century ideal of world leadership — in all aspects of human life?
What we learned from our trip is that it is too easy to be at the top of the game in one instance and just a historical afterthought a few years later. It is not beyond the realm of the possible to believe that a hundred years from now, explorers from other lands will be looking at the United States through the same kind of lens through which we viewed Machu Picchu — a lens through which one can see unparalleled leadership and skill and an inexplicable demise all in the same historical gaze.
The good news about the United States is that our Founding Fathers built into our founding documents the aspirational goal that demands from us a renewal of purpose every four years — two if you count the mid-terms.
It is up to the citizens of the United States to pursue a more perfect union as we move through time. That contemplates the certainty of mistakes being made — we are human, after all — but it also provides the time and space to correct those aberrations at each election cycle.
When I answered the question people around the world asked me, I gave them the only honest answer I could: We made a mistake!
No matter how we rationalized the election of 2016, no matter how we may try to justify the results, the fact remains that electing Donald Trump president was a mistake.
Whether it turns out to be the kind of mistake that leads to the demise of the American democracy or is just a blip on the political radar screen of history is something we should find out soon enough. For in the United States, we have the ability to fix our mistakes every few years.
That time is in a week or so, when votes will be counted across the country and the will of the people will be expressed.
I hope the voters prove the resiliency of the American democratic experiment and fix the mistake we made two years ago.
If not, if we fail to act in a manner prescribed by our Founding Fathers when they put their trust and faith in the hands of the American voters, then the United States will go the way of the other great civilizations of the world whose time came and went without so much as a historical whimper.
So the answer to the question of “what happened” heard around the world?
The United States lost its mind.
We will know in just a few days whether we have what it takes to regain our sanity. Or whether we will become just another stop on the world tour of lost civilizations.
Vote, citizens. Vote.
Brian Greenspun is editor, publisher and owner of the Sun.