Americans Think They're Envy of the World
Published on Thursday, June 20, 2002 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune
Americans Think They're Envy of the World
by Patt Morrison
 

I left Paris just as President Bush was heading there on his European tour, and I watched from the safer distance of England as Bush blew into town and then blew up. At a news conference, an American reporter asked French President Jacques Chirac a question in French, and Bush got all shirty.

"Very good," he snapped sarcastically. "The guy memorizes four words and he plays like he's intercontinental. I'm impressed. Que bueno. Now I'm literate in two languages."

President Bush is not one to mock anybody's stabs at bilingualism. He has used Spanish to political advantage, with a skill said to fall somewhere between Peace Corps and patron-grade Spanish. Not that skill matters; it's the thought that counts. Look at JFK, who, when he said, "Ich bin ein Berliner," was really inadvertently saying, "I am a jelly doughnut" -- but the Berliners loved him for it anyway.

Many Americans of the chattering class took this presidential hissy-fit as more evidence of George Bush the Backwater Boy, who said with evident astonishment to the president of famously multiracial Brazil, "Do you have blacks too?"

But there was more to it than that. Bush wasn't just being Bush, the fellow who talked about Greeks as "Grecians" and believes that subject-verb agreement makes one's manhood suspect. He was being quintessentially American.

Americans are the world's luckiest teenagers, with the best car, the fattest allowance and the biggest line of brag, yet like all teenagers we're secretly afraid that someone is laughing at us. Here's a news flash. They are. Our cowboy Puritanism dumbfounds the rest of the world. We execute teenagers, we impeach a president over a sex act, we want to ban pop from schools to protect children at the same time we practically sell guns in vending machines.

Just before I left for Europe -- "Yurrup," as I think Mark Twain had it coming out of his countrymen's mouths -- I spoke to the press attaches with some of the foreign consulates in Southern California. They wondered just why it is that their countries -- big, venerable nations -- don't get much coverage in America's news media, and what they do get, especially on TV, more often than not begins with a phrase like, "In a move that may affect U.S. interests."

I made our excuses. This is a huge country. It is almost as far from L.A. to New York as it is from London to Kabul. We are padded out east and west with two enormous oceans, and to the north and south with two vast, friendly countries, one of which speaks the same language we do. No wonder only one American in five holds a passport, and probably no more than that speak another language with any fluency. Americans can go their whole lives without meeting a foreigner, except maybe the busboy.

But I also explained that we have no history of empire to bind us to the broader world. News from Africa and Vietnam is big in France because France had imperial stakes there. India and Pakistan make headlines in Britain because the flag of empire advanced there.

Instead, the United States practices Pops Americana, a soft-sell virtual empire of culture, burgers, movies, jeans and slang. Ronald Reagan genuinely believed that if the rest of the world was safe for big-screen TVs and gold MasterCards, everyone would be just like us, and thrilled to be so.

So the world manages to envy us even as it mocks us. In a column last week, the Guardian, Britain's leftist newspaper, enumerated our deficiencies, then listed "50 ways to love America," from walk-in closets and the First Amendment to Trader Joe's chocolate-covered pretzels.

Pops Americana is one reason "they" hate us, in all those sinister and unpronounceable places on the world's map, and one reason why we now find ourselves on the crash-course terrorism tour of the world, learning about places like Kabul and Kandahar, and, like our other tours of places with names like Normandy and Saigon, we risk once again making the mistake of coming home from "over there" convinced that the great world is full not of intriguingly different places, but only perilous ones.

Patt Morrison, a writer and frequent commentator on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.

© Copyright 2002 Star Tribune

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