Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Ugly, uglier, ugliest Americans


With the 1958 publication of "The Ugly American," authors William Lederer and Eugene Burdick gave the language a synonym for swaggering, incompetent, U.S. diplomacy, yet more broadly a phrase denoting Americans whose conduct shames their country.

In the half century since the fictionalized account of real diplomatic bungling in Southeast Asia, foreigners have come to know a larger cast of Americans who excel in incivility, brutality, venality, vulgarity, corruption and lies. The global Internet, international TV and movies, plus mass travel abroad, exposes more of the unseemly American culture.

Shameful behavior ranges from ugly (vulgarity in public and on television), to uglier (larcenous politicians and business executives who steal and greedy business executives) to ugliest (barbaric crimes and violence.).

Yes, millions of Americans bring pride to their nation. But much of today's U.S. notoriety is based on antisocial Americans.

One telling measure of the declining American culture is the world's largest prison and jail population—2,258,983 prisoners. Among jailbirds are once trusted public officials and CEOs. China, whose population is more than four times larger, has 1.5 million behind bars.

Americans are the most violent people in the industrialized world. Americans also own more than 200 million firearms, according to an FBI estimate. Predators are commonplace in criminal activity. The horror of hundreds of Catholic priests preying on young boys is known worldwide.

New to bestial behavior is the rash of men abducting, raping and killing young women, vindictive husbands killing their offspring in fits of pique with spouses and girlfriends and a model pro football athlete profiting from a lethal dog fighting racket.

A generation ago it was unthinkable that a U.S. president, aided by his Justice and Defense departments, would propose torture of wartime prisoners, then deny the practice even in the face of indisputable evidence.

Nor could anyone imagine trigger-happy government mercenaries working for the State Department randomly killing Iraqi men, women and children and then being immunized against criminal charges.

America's reputation from throwing out the welcome mat has been sullied by an ugly new campaign to expel and punish Hispanics labeled as "illegal" immigrants by demagogues with poorly concealed racist tendencies, so reminiscent of early U.S. discrimination against Chinese, Italians and Irish.

As for vaunted U.S. business managers, industries that once dominated world commerce have slipped behind foreign competitors. American jobs are sent abroad. Unrelieved U.S. government spending has required borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars abroad, especially from China, once denounced as anathema to American ideals.

Come to think of it, what are our ideals these days?

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