The Real 'Ugly American'

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.