Published in 1958, The Ugly American, by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, was a fictionalized account of an American diplomat’s challenging experience in an Asian country. In a larger sense, it is a statement on arrogant Americans who are insensitive to the culture and customs of the countries they visit.
I believe it is a term that can also apply to those in our own country, particularly as we struggles with issues of racism, immigration and the growing populations of ethnic Americans. Taking illegal immigration out of the equation and America still has significant struggles with people of different color, cultures, languages, religions and customs. This is not a bash on America. It is a look at the attitudes of some Americans.
America is a nation of immigrants and descendants of immigrants. There have always been pockets of ethnicity in American cities as immigrants gravitated together to form communities. Outside of cities, waves of European immigrants settled in areas of the plains and West, and today some of those communities still have deep roots in their native cultures.
Communities grow and people move around as they get married, have families, relocate for education or jobs, or seek a new life. What happens when people who do not look like us, move in, who speak a different language, eat different foods, practice a different religion, dress differently, and generally change the texture of what we call our community. Hopefully, there is acceptance, but not always. Most people are open and accepting, but many are not. Maybe not verbally or through action, but perhaps in silence, distance or an unwelcome attitude.
Most Americans have a favorable view of the work ethic and sense of family of immigrants, but according to a recent Brookings Institute study, over 70 percent believe that immigrants do not work very hard at assimilating into our society.
Each of us has an attitude, formalized or not, about what America is. There is America the country, and the America that makes up our neighborhood, street, cul-de-sac, building or block. We may have one attitude about what’s happening in our country, but what happens next door or down the street can be a different matter.
According to the Brookings Institute study, 88 percent of Americans believe our country was established on religious freedom, even for “unpopular” religions. Nearly half of Americans say that American and Islanic values are incompatible. And 46 percent of Americans believe that discrimination against whites is as bad a problem as discrimination against Blacks and other minorities. About 80 percent of Americans believe that people in Islamic countries have an unfavorable view of the U.S.
Most people would call themselves tolerant or modern thinkers. This isn’t conservative or liberal, just of a broad mind and charitable nature. These same folks would likely say they are “average” Americans. Generally, we assume that we are like most everyone else, plus or minus, in terms of beliefs, attitudes and what we think as “Americaness”. Most of us (50%-60% depending on the definition) would identify as belonging to some level of the middle class. We also see ourselves as hard-working, reasonable, at least somewhat spiritual, moral, and who love our country. Gosh, we’re all the same.
There is a wonderful, satirical film from 1965 called The Americanization of Emily, the story of a Navy officer stationed in England prior to D-Day, wooing an English widow, who is fearful of being Americanized. She detests loud, obnoxious, self-important Americans, who are there to show up the rest of the world and bed all the English women, then go home to their sweethearts, Cadillacs and Coca-Cola. What a great reputation.
It is interesting that we fought two world wars, and a bunch of little ones, for freedom and American values. We fought communists, fascists and tyrants. Originally, we broke away from a country ruled by a monarch and a state religion. Freedom, baby. We set up a country with equality for all (unless you were a Negro or a woman), and presuming you were a property owner. We had a few things to work out over the next several centuries as the definition of equality seemed to change. America is still a work in progress.
We formed a republic and constructed a constitution, bill of rights and established an economy based on competition and free markets. As we learned, government needed to set up some protections and equalizers to keep our country from becoming the mess that we left behind. Pure capitalism is a pure myth. Most of us accept paying our share of taxes (which is generally more than we want to pay) to provide for the common good, although we disagree on what that should include. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all do whatever we want and pay little or nothing for common services.
Somewhere along the way the concept of The American Dream evolved, where building a better life through hard work, seizing opportunities, and our own ingenuity was very possible. This concept, is rooted deep in the American psyche, and somehow caught the attention of many millions of others outside of America. Imagine that. No wonder so many people want to come here. They want freedom, a better life, and opportunity for their children. And most of those folks seem determined to achieve it. Funny, a high number of those folks understand American civics and history better than many of us natives. Most of them had to earn their citizenship, and probably value it at least as much as us who were born to it.
We know people want to come here, but should we let anybody who wants to come here move in? Most Americans would say no. Should we have unprotected borders? Absolutely not. Should there be a process for citizenship? Absolutely. There is much discussion and disagreement about all of the above. And thankfully, we are a country that welcomes civil discourse and the blending of ideas. At least we say we do.
There is much that is right about America. Not everyone is ugly; in fact, most Americans are not. Most Americans are abhorrent by acts of racism and cruelty towards others. Most Americans are appalled by marching Nazis in one of our cities, but would admit that there is a tricky freedom of speech issue. That’s a tough one, balancing the freedom of speech with the truth that Nazis in Germany killed upwards of 12 million non-combatants in the name of fascism. These fascist groups have existed in America for many years, but why in 2018 is the public more accepting, even saying there are “some good ones.” There are no good ones.
it is the one year anniversary of the Charlottesville march and protest.
Ugliness doesn’t just appear. It comes in shades and happens before we realize it has occurred. Sometimes it slips into our thinking without knowing it. We are quick to recognize it in others but not so fast to see it in ourselves. Does that make us bad? No, it just reminds us that we all swim in the same waters and are human.