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Why is the American Ugly? January 23, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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In 1958, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer wrote a fictional novel titled “The Ugly American”.  I read it as a teen in the 1970s.  (No, it was not required reading for school; I simply read a lot of different things at that point in my life).  It took place largely in southeast Asia, and involved sincere but misguided American attempts to improve the lives of the average person elsewhere in the world.  Afterwards, and into today, the phrase generally refers to insensitive and obnoxious Americans (mostly tourists) trying to tell those in other cultures what they are doing wrong, based on their own perspective.

There is much to say here. I am, at this moment, returning from approximately a week in Europe, speaking at a conference.  I pretty much travel to Europe 3-5 times a year, for the last seven years.  I realize that Europe isn’t the rest of the world, so interpret this as you will.

However you might feel about American culture and influence, it has become the gold standard of technology, entertainment and, well, art. As Neil Stephenson put it in Snow Crash, Americans are good at four things – music, movies, microcode (software), and fast pizza delivery.  In Europe at least, you have a good measure of American influence in at least the first three of these.  In at least some cases, it has overwhelmed the local culture.

The English language is the lingua franca. It is the language of aviation worldwide.  Tour guides, hotel staff, and restaurants are almost required to understand and speak English.  Some are upset with that state of affairs.

I am old enough to remember a time when Esperanto was supposed to be the universal language.  But a language that does not well represent a practical reality has no chance of becoming universal.

You may argue that Americans refuse to speak another language. I will respectfully disagree.  I took Spanish in high school, and Russian in college.  I would like to communicate in those languages, and in others (most recently this past week, German; well, and Slovak, the language of my past).  Most Americans are required to take a language in secondary school and college.  Unlike the Europeans, we are so large a geographic area that we have no opportunity to use our learned languages, and they fall into disuse.

In short, I do not believe in the colloquial definition of the ugly American. Sure, a few of my compatriots are less than comprehending of the norms of a foreign culture.  But there are certainly those from other countries (again, mostly tourists) who behave boorishly.  Yet the world seems to hold Americans to another standard.

American movies, music, and microcode are overwhelming because they are, well, good. Or at least compelling to those who consume them.

I met many people who speak multiple languages and attempt to communicate with others (not just me). One on this trip was Mario, who was an Italian transplanted to Austria to be with his girlfriend.  They spoke different languages, he Italian and her German, but they found common ground in English.  Would they have even met without English?  For most, English is the least common denominator of communications.

We Americans are not ugly. We are just trying to do the best we can, like everyone else.

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