Setting: a moderately crowded subway car in Oslo, not long ago. Sitting near me is a wiry man with long, scraggly salt-and-pepper hair and beard. He’s wearing a cap with a Price Waterhouse Coopers logo. He looks fiftyish, though he has the wild-eyed, ever-young quality of an aging hippie. I know at once that he’s not Norwegian.
Facing him is a black couple, both about thirty. Both are smallish, a bit stout, in cheap but tidy clothes. (The guy in the cap is the opposite — he’s dressed expensively but sloppily.) The woman is wearing a head covering, but not a veil. Even from the side, the way they’re sitting – slightly hunched, with their eyes downturned – suggests that they’re not completely at ease, perhaps even a little scared.
“Where are you from?” the guy in the cap asks. In English. He’s American. And he’s incredibly loud – everyone in the car can hear him. The black man apparently replies, but I can’t make out any sound at all.
“Oh, really? Ethiopia? What’s it like there?” Again, the answer’s inaudible. “No, I know where it is. What’s it like there?” Pause. “No, I asked, what’s it like there? How is it? I mean, the real truth. Not what they tell us. The real truth! They don’t tell us anything here. The Norwegian newspapers are useless. All they tell you is who’s f—ing who. Who’s sleeping with who. But not what’s going on in the world.”
I wonder how the husband feels about this stranger’s language. (Assuming he understands it.)
“I’m from the United States. It’s the great prostitute. Prostitute! Do you know what that means? It means whore. Hore,” he says – “hoo-reh,” the Norwegian word for whore. “The whore of the world. That’s where I’m from. The United States does nothing but spreads evil and destruction and violence over the whole world.”
I know this man. Not personally: I mean I’ve run into Americans like this before.
“So please tell me,” he asks the Ethiopian, “what it is like in Ethiopia?”
Pause. The Ethiopian man mumbles an answer. His wife is still staring down at the floor. She looks terrified. It’s not hard to imagine why. To come from a place like Ethiopia, and to find yourself suddenly being interrogated by a stranger — what is going through her mind? I want to rush over and reassure her that everything will be all right.
“Yes, I read that you hadn’t had a government for years. Right. Right, famine. I heard about that. Fighting on the Eritrean border. Right. Right. So now you’re here? What made you come here?”
I look around. Everybody on the subway car is listening to him, willingly or not.
“Democracy? You came here because of democracy?”
He pauses and looks at the Ethiopian man in the eye. “Can you tell me something? One? Thing? What – do – you – mean – by – democracy?” He shakes his head. “I’ll make a confession. I don’t know the meaning of the word!” He grins with immense self-satisfaction. “They say in the United States that we have democracy. But democracy is just another way of stealing from the people. It’s just another way they have of controlling us!”
His voice is still very loud. I exchange a look with a man across the aisle from me. His eyes roll.
“What do I do?” the American says. “I’m a student. I’ve been a student all my life. I’m a student of politics and economics and movies. And I’m still learning, sitting here talking to you!”
He jabs a finger at the Ethiopian, flashing another broad, self-satisfied, condescending smile. Then he tells the Ethiopian where he works and what he does. (Later, I Google the name of the place — an Oslo cultural institution — and find his name. He has, it turns out, a position of considerable cultural influence.)
“So how long have you been in Norway?” he asks the Ethiopian. His eyes widen at the answer. “Just seven months? Really? You’re newcomers! Welcome! Welcome! I’ve been here for twelve years. I’m so glad you’re here! It would be so boring here with just Norwegians! They’re so rude! I speak to them and they don’t even look at me. But they’re also so polite — they wear Walkmans instead of going around with ghetto blasters!”
I look at the Ethiopian man. I wonder if he knows what a Walkman is. I can’t imagine he’s ever heard of a ghetto blaster. It obviously has not occurred to the American that this might be the case.
When I get off, the guy across the aisle from me smiles conspiratorially. “Lucky you,” he says, sotto voce. In unaccented English. So he’s American, too. The guy in the cap is still talking away. As the train pulls away, I turn and look in the window to see him writing something down — presumably his name and phone number — for the Ethiopian man.
If recent history should have taught us anything, it’s that the freedom we enjoy in North America and Europe is a rare and precious commodity. It’s not something we’ve earned; it’s something that was fought for by others and bequeathed to us. It’s our job to defend it — whether it’s also our job to export it is a question over which America is divided. But one thing that should be clear to all is that denying its reality isn’t an act of generosity and humility; it’s an act of ingratitude and irresponsibility, and an insult to freedom-seeking refugees such as that couple from Ethiopia.
When William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick published their book The Ugly American in 1958, later adapted in 1963 into a film version starring Marlon Brando, it became a byword for American bravado abroad, for an arrogant breed of homo americanus that had no interest in other cultures and believed Uncle Sam had all the answers. The ugly American still exists. Nowadays, however, he’s arrogant not about his country’s virtues but about his own. Among non-Americans, he’s eager to make sure everyone knows how morally superior he is to his homeland.
He’s been a student all his life. And he’s learned absolutely nothing.