When I was in my graduate school in the US in the 1990s, one of my friends asked me whether I would go back to China or stay in the US when I graduated. I said US. "Why?" Without much thought, I said: well, if I stay in the US, my human rights will be violated by the US government; if I return to China, my human rights will be violated by the Chinese government AND the US government.
Looking back many years later, this view still holds true, although the differences between the two have become much narrower, which undoubtedly could affect my next move. The Chinese government, at least, is not doing anything now it wouldn't do then. The US government, on the other hand, is clearly doing worse. The civil liberties and privacy is being restricted and violated, the rule of laws is morphing into a joke, and the Feds can essentially spy on anybody without any courts daring no and jail forever and kill even American citizens without open indictments or trials. This may be part of my "I-used-to-live-in-a-better-time" syndrome, because I can't be certain that some of them were not practiced in the 1980s or earlier. They likely were. But now these deeds are out in the open, challenged in courts but mostly upheld. So they ARE the established laws in the US.
As an example, in an airport in China 20 years ago, you needed a ticket to get past the security checkpoint. You still do in 2012. I was moved by the US airports in the 1990s, when people could greet or say good-byes to travelers right at the gates. Not any more, and everybody agrees the security screening is nightmarish. Many people are put on the black-box no-fly list without any warnings or justifications, and many including US citizens are harassed by the customs. When 911 happened, I thought that the attackers liked to change the US, but only the US government could do it. Indeed the US government accomplishes what the outsides couldn't possibly do, and in many more ways.
An interesting aspect is that I wouldn't have known much of it had I not been mostly in the US during this time. I learn it largely through the English media. The impact of the Chinese media, distance being a minor factor, is close to nil. This is because the official media is slow and inept. It is good only if one can read between the lines or needs a final conclusion. And the Chinese media remains very locally minded. There is a vast unofficial media in China, but it is even much less dependable. There is not a single brilliant or original mind in China regarding social and economic issues in the past 30 years, and China's "Public Intellectuals" can only recite empty stale lines from others.
The American intellectuals, on the other hand, are light years ahead as a group. Of course, most of the talking heads on air or cable TV every nights or on Sunday mornings are mere trash or worse. But one always needs to sift through the sand and dust to find diamonds.
In the mid-1990s I listened to the radio, which was dominated by the right-wingers. I thought and still think the Clintons are phonies. Didn't like CNN then or now. Foxnews was new, and I watched it despite no liking it either. Mostly as a way to check out different kinds of people, or just trying to find a gram of truth in the ocean of lies. A more valuable source of knowledge is the internet. The ultimate evaluation is based on whether one's viewpoints are backed up by real evidence and history, and predictions or assertions confirmed by later revelations.
Most of the highly scored are those shunned by the mainstream media. Here is a very limited list of people (some maybe born outside of the US). Noam Chomsky is the gold standard when it comes to public intellectuals, although he is slowing down. Glenn Greenwald is active and writes extensively and pervasively about the rule of law in the US. I also like Justin Raimondo, Norman Solomon, Ron Paul, and Paul Craig
Roberts. I learn from these people and others over the years, albeit not on every subjects from everyone. Importantly, much of what they write about not only applies to the US, but also serves as lessons to the rest of the world. This broad perspective is something I find glaringly missing in the past 30-year-long discussions in China. That generation of Chinese "Public Intellectuals" simply lack a sufficient understanding of the world and its history, critical thinking ability, and vision. I read on NYT in the 1990s some Westerner commenting that the so-called elites in China either followed the government completely or listened to the US completely.
One person I like who doesn't fit the intellectual label is Jimmy Carter, aka the best ex-president in US history. He has been advocating for the poor and anti-war since 1990s. I wonder what he would have done if he were in office. His own fours years were full of chaos, leaving us relatively little to judge from. This is what is terribly wrong in America, part I. Officials don't vote for or say what he believes in when he is in office, only after or before. Many ex-government officials talk against wars but clamoring for wars while inside. John Kerry and Hillary Clinton must have been regretting their votes dearly for the Iraq War secretly while running for the presidents later. Obama must have felt very lucky: if he had been in the Senate he mostly likely would have voted like Kerry and Clinton.
Four people who I don't like but sufficiently fit the mainstream. The first is Thomas Friedman, a NYT columnist. I read him mostly in the mid-late 1990s when traditional media still dominated. Everything he writes from then till now can be summarized in two sentences: 1. The Earth is flat; and 2. America uses McDonald's to rule the world. The second is Paul Krugman, who has the similar status in the media as Thomas Friedman before. He is a typical American liberal who likes to fight the Republicans. Not a market fundamentalist like most economists, he knows little realities beyond the US. The third is William Kristol, a neocon. It was comical seeing him talking non-stop WMD nonsense on TV since 1990s to the Iraq War. It became a farce when he together with those alike was even rewarded afterward, which indicates something terribly wrong in America, part II. Responding to his critics, he said something like: feel free to disagree with or ignore me. One has to admire his thick skin, though. The fourth is Christopher Hitchens. He died in Dec 2011 and received a round of eulogies, although he was by no means a pleasant fellow when alive. His story on Mather Teresa was enlightening, and denouncing Henry Kissinger was a highlight. His anti-religion stand was laudable, but it gets overboard if you go into other people's worshipping places and debating the issue. He became sort of a neocon after 2000, a huge turnoff.
So one can always learn from the Americans, good or bad.