The Ugly America

"You really do hate America!" This was the parting shot from a man I
had just debated on a television show shortly before the invasion of
Iraq. Because he's a notorious right-wing blowhard, I laughed it off as
the ravings of a crackpot in extremis.

Little did I know...

Soon, those of us who opposed the Iraq war, torture, "extraordinary
rendition," Guantanamo, spying on innocent Americans and other illegal
tools in the Cheney/Bush black bag began to hear variations on that
theme from people one would have expected to know better. And it's
gotten worse as they've become more desperate... or do the depths to
which we've fallen suggest a fault-line in America's culture?

Only a short time ago we dissenters were called "Saddam-lovers,"
"America-haters" or, when they really wanted to cut deep, "French!" But
that usually came from the relatively unhinged, like my debate-partner.
Today, similar imprecations fall readily from the lips of media
bloviators while the hoi polloi moves toward lynch-mob tenor with
screams of "traitor," "terrorist," "kill him," and "off with his head"
- these not aimed at lowly actors but rather the next President of the
United States. Worse, it is winked at and ignored, then defended and
embraced by some of those from whom we expect better.

As one in the crucible of this volcanic yet potentially
transformative moment, John McCain, who claims to put "Country First,"
should re-read "The Ugly American." Sarah Palin can watch the movie.

Fifty years ago, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer's book exposed
the boorish behavior of some of our citizens when abroad, warning that
a "mysterious change seems to come over Americans..." when amid people
and cultures seen as 'different.' While the ensuing half-century proved
those in developing countries to be neither less intelligent, less
capable, nor less interested in improving their lives than human beings
anywhere, this breed of Americans, inclined to "isolate themselves
socially," per Burdick and Lederer, seems to have turned inward,
chanting "USA, USA!"

As the world prospered behind their backs, this insular strain of
American metastasized into swaggering jingoes full of Cold War
machismo, content to wave the flag and "Go for the gold." For them, the
collapse of the Evil Empire proved the world's sole Superpower could do
as it damned well pleased: "We're Number One," baby! Anybody who
doesn't like it should get the hell out of the way.

"[L]oud and ostentatious," per the book, this parochial group
bequeathed its "mysterious change" to generations of Know-Nothings who
stuck to their own, seeing 'difference' as a threat. Dumbed-down by
television and wary of anyone lacking sufficient fervor for their
triumphant "Christian nation," they made those of different color,
heritage, or belief into "the other," a practice encouraged by coded
appeals to racism from would-be leaders. With Nixon's "Southern
Strategy" and "silent majority" setting the stage, Reagan's "Welfare
Queens" and Bush the First's "Willie Horton" spread the contagion while
conferring it legitimacy.

Embraced as true conservatives and stoked by hate-radio
millionaires, these changelings seduced the Republican Party, laid
claim to the flag and launched a "culture war." Adopted by
anti-government hucksters, empire-seekers and profligate
free-marketeers, they divided the nation with a 'God and Country' ethos
that declared the Bible inerrant, reviled homosexuality,
"permissiveness," liberalism and critical thinking, denied women equal
rights, children any at all, and cowed the media into submission.

For them, the horror of 9/11 lay at the feet of the enemy within -
the ACLU, abortionists, pagans, gays and lesbians, secularists. And a
stunned public, reeling from the assault and sinking into
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, was led into a flag-waving frenzy of
revenge-seeking and other-hating that targeted "Rag-heads" and

Drunk with power, this mob took heart from W's "you're either with
us or with the terrorists," their malignant hostility dividing us more
sharply at each iteration, until the enemy became the world of Islam
and anyone who disagreed. Forsaking constitutional freedoms in favor of
"security," they turned our very nation inside out, with Americans
pitted against one another in states red and blue.

And today, while some dream of change, a perfect storm of cultural
division, failed leadership, lost principles, military disaster and
economic collapse have ripped the mask away, exposing a virus that has
undermined and rendered quaint American values of tolerance,
generosity, equality and fairness, replacing them with chauvinism,
avarice, confusion, fear and despair.

But struggles that have trampled the principles urging America
toward greatness are not new. That they have not destroyed us but
rather helped us grope toward maturity is due to some who have called
on our better angels and re-inspired the triumph of decency that
ennobles our promise. Even with chaos at the doorstep people look for
hope, for change, for reason to believe that the America of song and
story persists.

Yet today, unable to rise to the challenge of hope,
would-be-president McCain chooses expediency over country, placing the
priestess of parochialism, a barb-tongued, inanity-prone neophyte, a
heartbeat away from his Oval Office. Schooled in "Who Wants to Be A
Millionaire" and "American Idol," she energizes the pitchfork mob,
dividing "real America" from the rest, reviving faint echoes of white
superiority and "manifest destiny" as her sponsor deafens himself to it

This failure of leadership affirms the ugly America, the misanthrope
nation. Yet the heartbeat of promise persists. There is hope. There is
truth. If the people demand them.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.