The Ugly American – Part I of III

AGAIN and AGAIN Rebuked

By Jorge D. H. Prosperi 2019

The Ugly American published in 1958, written by Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer, became a runaway national bestseller for its slashing exposé of American arrogance, incompetence, and corruption in Southeast Asia. The Ugly American was also a 1963 movie starring Marlon Brando. The book and movie linked gripping stories about how the United States struggled with countries across Asia due to misplaced priorities and entrenched special interests laying bare for American audiences a foreign policy gone dangerously wrong.

The book and movie provided a rare in-depth view of labeled “third world” countries trying to decolonize, endeavoring to find their voices among oppressive forces of power and control that spoke on behalf of the people. The Ugly American counterstory shared the struggle for identity emerging throughout the world as the sun began to set on imperialists – a challenge that still lingers for some countries kidnapped and kept hostage via colonialism, imperialism and nation building AGAIN and AGAIN.

The Ugly American was also an iconic term used to describe white-male-Americans touring Europe with a particular gaudy look and attitude. The stereotype was dressed in multi colored Bermuda shorts, plaid shirt, white belt, matching tennis shoes, with a Kodak camera dangling around the neck. What was overheard from such dullards were arrogant comments demeaning the host culture, language, dress, food and people. These semi-literate globetrotters were easily recognized by their southern bravado drawl – demanding  instructions to the nearest MacDonalds. “HEE HAW! Get out of my damn Yankee way(s)!”

The Ugly American had left native soil to soil himself with a fanny pack of ‘basic education’ lacking cultural, civic and civil awareness. He did not need to pause to learn about others and difference – he had dollars in his pocket, the most powerful military on earth, Wall Street and the English language. He had been taught to proclaim “Numero Uno” status defining citizenship with simplistic America-First slogans based on a delusional-self-absorbed existence of entitlements, privileges and the capital of whiteness.

For such Ugly Americans, Europe and the world for that matter, could keep its history, heritage, cultures, languages, sculptures, museums, classical artists, master musicians, authors, philosophers and United Nations. Jefferson’s venerated Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité were too difficult to pronounce and discern – even French fries and croissants were boycotted.

For the Ugly American, civility could be trumped (no pun intended) with ignorance, fear, hate, power and control. America was the “fittest” of all – and America did not need to deal with anyone else’s “survival” – not even its own huddled masses yearning to be free.

This is how many Europeans and Americans depicted the not so sophisticated Ugly Yankee of the 1960s – an angry bull in the china shop bitterly flailing away. He was comically tolerable and nationally absolved for his crudeness given traditional ties that bind . . .

Cash <=> Power <=> Control
It worked then. It works now!

Of course, such images of ugliness were denounced by the majority of Americans apologizing for the ugliness, expressing displeasure and shame. America in the 1960s was changing as most Americans were beginning to shift attitudes about difference and otherness. They were starting to cautiously and discretely dip their white toes into the shallow end of the Diversity pool – the deep end still waiting. Some stepped back – some began to enter the pool.

America was not only shifting attitudes about neighbors across oceans, but also about the neighbors living across town where no passport was needed to visit. Eminem reminds us that crossing ‘8 Mile Road’ south and north down Woodward Avenue was not a ‘Dream Cruise’ for all – but a major racial-socio-political-cultural journey for citizens heading downtown or the Upper Peninsula with police watching as to who was whom with different kinds of racial visas required.

Nevertheless, Americans in the 1960s were beginning, AGAIN, to examine its ugliness. It was not the first time. Jim Crow Laws and the Civil Rights Movement were yet other opportunities to recognize and work through the paradoxes of the founding documents. The deep end of the pool still waiting for citizens to affirm and authenticate its depths.

Some Americans became increasingly alarmed and cautious of the ugliness of the legacy of oppression. They were reminded that the legacy of oppression by any other name, be it slavery, Nazism and/or Eugenics still oppresses and lingers. America was taught to deny, deflect and ignore the past. History was a matter of times long ago. The 21st Century would surely cleanse America’s soul. But history has a tendency to fast forward to the present. It comes calling asking critical questions requiring answers. History never goes away – it waits for its calling to impact the present and future.

America still struggles with its heritage and reality of Ugly Americans. Again and Again they surface to challenge the essence of Democracy, Justice and Equity that remain at the center of America’s ‘tug of war’ with the rope grabbed . . . on both sides . . . AGAIN and AGAIN.

End of Part I of III – Go to Part II