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
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
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