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Ugly Americans

Ask any military child — especially any military child who has lived abroad — about the importance of being on your best behavior and you will get an answer that is more nuanced than “manners.” In a way, children of parents in the military underline international relations that are often lost on Americans who have no relationship to the government.

As a child in contact with the military so intimately, you learn fairly simple things that sound obvious but apparently aren’t: don’t repeat things you hear at home when out of the house; don’t take advantage of government property or — you know — steal properties that belong to another group; blend in and follow cultural norms in places that aren’t your own; do your best to be a reflection of service, that you are an extension of your country and that your country is an extension of you. It’s a bit of nationalist bullshit, yes, but it’s rooted in understanding others and extending a politeness and compassion to mask the notion of “loose lips might sink ships.”

Ironically, these philosophies or means of conducting one’s self with some sort of decorum have not been extended to everyone. A lack of cultural sensitivities have long been the American norm, exaggerated now as red, white, and blue chips on shoulders, badges of exceptionalism seen as entitlement and greed by outsiders. It’s quite gross and concerning and, really, is exactly why we’re seeing a lot of issues arise in our world as America’s name crumbles in the face of international politics.

For example: when Hobby Lobby executives smuggle ancient cuneiform tablets, this isn’t Christian preservation but a matter of Americanism run amok, of intellectual colonialism, the “Bend to me: I am American.” thought process.

Another example: when a Southern, Republican lawmaker — like a Southern teenager in 2014films a selfie at Auschwitz, this isn’t a simple faux pas of wrong place and wrong time but a collapse of cultural understandings that Americans simply are ignorant of. (Case in point: slavery.)

Another example, one that grated on us all weekend: when Donald Trump visited G20 — devolving it to the G19 as our “leader” cavorts with Russians and let’s his inexperienced child take the wheel as his other child to attempted to fraud the election — the national clothing is ripped off to reveal us as a group of people with “no desire and no capacity to lead the world” due to (literal) rich entitlement without an agenda that we all assume will leave us unscathed and just as potent as we once were.

It’s shameful, really. It’s laughable, an international joke that we are playing out on ourselves. We envision ourselves as the bully in a 1980s teen comedy who, despite being the butt of the final act joke, always gets bailed out by an omnipotent off-screen parent. We’re the Francis Buxton to the world’s Pee Wee Herman. We’re not the underdog: we’re the brat with daddy behind us, to help us even though we are quite undeserving of any help. (And, sadly, dad’s assets are being liquidated in fast forward.)

The best and most unfortunate example of this phenomena can be captured in the situation of Otto Warmbier, the teenager who stole propaganda from North Korea only to die earlier this Summer as a result of the treatment he received for his action(s) by the dictatorship. The entire situation is troubling. It’s shameful, all around, that a country would beat a young man to death because he attempted to steal a poster. But turn that mirror around: why would anyone in their right mind wander into a communist country on a touring trip, use it as an excuse to get drunk, and believe that you can steal another communist country’s propaganda with the expectation that one’s homeland will get you out of the situation? Why? I’m baffled by this, still eaten up about it, since we see this happen on smaller scales daily.

In examining Politico’s coverage of the subject with “Who Killed Otto Warmbier?,” you see how sad and troubling the situation as a glaring example of American exceptionalism run amok. North Korea is ran by a dictatorship with many grudges, one of which is with America. While we may feel that we are above the laws of other countries, that is not true — especially in communist countries: you are no longer playing on the same court with the same rules. There is no home field advantage taken abroad, regardless of how entitled you may be. Shit like Warmbier getting disciplined to such an extreme are his fault but also the fault of America for breeding a culture that is so blithely entitled to think they are culturally infallible. The unfortunate figure has become the best and worst example of American’s absent sensitivity trainings, our lack of understanding of others, a historical empathy to serve as a context for our individual actions when away from home.

We as a nation have devolved to the mid-century idea of “the ugly American,” a term associated with a book of the same name. In the The Ugly American, the book follows diplomats in Southeast Asia “whose insensitivity to local language, culture, customs and refusal to integrate was in marked contrast to the polished abilities of Eastern Bloc (primarily Soviet) diplomacy and led to Communist diplomatic success overseas.” The book was so striking that John F. Kennedy sent it to every Senator at the time. It was obviously a teachable text.

While I have not read the book (but I did grow up in a military family), it seems invaluable as a lesson in contemporary American culture. We did not read the writing on the wall and, alas, here we are, the brats born of wary parents in the 1950s. As the New York Times wrote in 2009, we’re still ugly after all these years. We’ve gotten uglier, I’d argue. We have no sense of self except that we are “better.” That is not a remarkable trait, if even a trait at all: it’s the mark of a mannerless monster that lacks self-awareness or empathy.

All Americans are ugly at this moment. We might resist, we might oppose, we might frown in disapproval — but we are just as ugly as the main offenders.

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