Still Ugly After All These Years, and Proud of It

July 30, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

When did it start, this arrogance towards other countries and cultures? Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, and the rest – these were men of the world. The stated motivation for the Declaration of Independence was a “decent respect for the opinions of mankind.”

Compare that with the reaction to Barack Obama’s remark a couple of weeks ago. Here’s what Obama said. “You know, it’s embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is ‘merci beaucoup!’”

The conservatives jumped all over Obama’s decent respect. The Weekly Standard put it on their “Obama Snobbery Watch.” Mitt Romney, probably still angling to be McCain’s running mate, said, “I do think that, frankly, Barack Obama looks towards Europe for a lot of his inspiration. I think John McCain is going to make sure that America stays America.”

In other words, knowledge of other countries or languages, any attention to them at all, is un-American, anti-American.

Here’s Sen. McCain in a weekly radio address
Good morning. I’m John McCain, and this week the presidential contest was a long-distance affair, with my opponent touring various continents and arriving yesterday in Paris. With all the breathless coverage from abroad, and with Senator Obama now addressing his speeches to 'the people of the world,' I’m starting to feel a little left out. Maybe you are too...
Paris. There it is. Obama went to Paris. What more evidence do we need of his disloyalty?

It’s been nearly a century since “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” But apparently the City of Light is still a too-tempting drug, luring Americans away from the heartland. If you do go there, you have to wear your strongest American armor to ward off the temptation. . . like this American couple:

(The back of that Texas t-shirt says “Bush ’08.”) They come to a cafe in a nice section of Paris.

They’re loud. They order “Freedom Fries.” They order steak tartare and send it back to be cooked. They bring their own bottle of American ketchup. They snap their fingers for the waiter and complain about the service. They offer $100 to a couple to give up their table. (The couple declines, probably since $100 is worth only about 4 euros these days.)

OK. It’s not real. It’s an updated version of “Candid Camera” called “What Would You Do?” on ABC. (Those black Mercedes vans have “hidden” cameras.) As it turned out, the French were remarkably tolerant. Nobody told them to get lost.

Still, it’s interesting that ABC thinks we’ll enjoy watching ourselves barging through another culture tromping on everyone’s toes. Surely, not all Americans think ignorance is something to be proud of. Political campaigns seem to call out extremes, and appealing to the Xenophobe sector of your base probably doesn’t lose you too many votes elsewhere. But even though the Ugly American may be a caricature, it’s still something we recognize. Obama’s mistake was to refer to that ignorance as a matter of embarrassment rather than affectionate amusement and pride.

Big hat tip to Heather at Secrets of Paris.

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