Friday, September 18, 2009

The supposedly Ugly American - an easy target

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 16.)

I was flicking through an old Listener last week when I stumbled across an article I must have missed first time around.

It was a column in which a well-known New Zealand writer recalled a female American travelling companion whom he and his wife had encountered while on a group tour of the Australian outback.

The article poked fun at the American tourist, whose name – possibly made up by the writer – was said to be Mayleen. She was described as having the exuberance of a 10-year-old and a similar level of social discretion.

The writer didn’t mock Mayleen affectionately. Rather, his tone was sneering and bordering on malicious.

Mayleen was portrayed as irredeemably stupid, loud and annoying. If the writer was to be believed, everyone in the group loathed her from the start and wanted to get as far away from her as possible.

The tour guide was quoted as saying he hoped Mayleen didn’t get run over as a result of her propensity for bounding across the highway to take photographs. It wasn’t that he was concerned for her survival, it was just that her death would have meant five hours’ paperwork.

In other words Mayleen was the archetypal Ugly American – only in female form as opposed to the more common male variant, who invariably wears a gaudy tropical shirt and has a cigar clamped in his mouth while he bores and offends everyone within shouting distance by loudly delivering his invariably bigoted opinions.

The writer of the article is a man whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past but this piece irritated the hell out of me. It was smug, snide and condescending.

I’ve seen many similar articles before – some by New Zealand writers, many by English journalists. Americans, it seems, are fair game in the culture wars. It’s taken as read that they are all crass, vulgar and stupid, and that we superior New Zealanders (or English, as the case may be) will be amused by tales of their ghastliness.

Just this past weekend, in one of the Sunday papers, I read another sneering column by a New Zealand journalist who clearly regarded Americans as greedy and feckless beyond redemption. And I occasionally read TV reviews by critics who can’t bring themselves to watch anything American but swoon uncritically over anything made by the BBC.

I have a question: if all Americans are so stupid, how come their country is the wealthiest and most powerful on earth?

The writer of the Listener article possibly told us more about himself than about Mayleen. Why was this article written? It was clever, in a cruel sort of way, but it didn’t tell us anything of value. Its sole purpose was to show how gauche, tasteless and silly Mayleen was.

Was the purpose to make the writer and his readers feel superior to this supposedly pathetic creature? I suspect the article was written in the confident knowledge that the ageing chardonnay socialists who still make up a proportion of the Listener’s readership – though not to the extent that they once did – would have shared the writer’s view that Americans are crass, vulgar people deserving only ridicule and contempt.

Would it have been written, I wonder, if Mayleen had been English, or German, or Canadian? I suspect not, because that wouldn’t have reinforced smug prejudices in quite the same satisfying way.

Scratch many supposedly liberal New Zealanders and you’ll find a nasty vein of anti-Americanism not far beneath the surface. I guess this is partly a result of our British heritage; the Brits never really forgave America for breaking away.

It’s also the ugly flipside of our otherwise attractive national trait of egalitarianism. A certain type of New Zealander despises America because of its raw, brash capitalism. We like to think our brand of liberal democracy, with its strong strand of humanitarianism, is more civilised – and by and large, I agree that it is. But that’s no justification for condemning all Americans.

For every loud, ignorant and obnoxious American of the type caricatured by self-satisfied New Zealand writers, there are many who are polite, considerate, witty, socially sophisticated and highly educated.

I sometimes wonder how many of the critics have actually been to America. In my experience those who have spent time there, and made the effort to get to know Americans, take a much more tolerant view.

A few days ago I was talking to a cousin who has visited all 50 states. He knows Americans as charming, courteous, obliging and generous people. My experience isn’t quite that extensive but my impressions are the same. Many times while travelling in the US I’ve been taken aback by the kindness, consideration and graciousness of complete strangers.

Of course you’ll find extremes of good and bad. That’s inevitable in a country as big and dynamic as America. Someone once wrote perceptively of another country that “whatever you read about India, the reverse is also true”. Exactly the same applies to America.

Fixating on the popular caricature of the Ugly American may shore up prejudices, but it doesn’t reflect reality.

In any case, every nationality’s worst characteristics seem to be exaggerated when they are away from home. The boorish Australian is a well-known phenomenon internationally and I’ve cringed at the behaviour of fellow New Zealanders overseas. Then there are the English, who are likeable people on their home ground but often seem to become obnoxious when they emigrate.

Mayleen, if indeed she exists as described, may be an Ugly American, but on the basis of the Listener article I’m not sure the New Zealander who wrote about her is any more likeable.


Lindsay said...

The irony to me is when we compare our country to others, the US would tick more boxes - relatively recent colonisation and diversity of ethnicities, with minority groups making up disproportionate disadvantage. Agricultural reliance. Diversity of religion. Language. NZ has more in common with the US than any European country, including the UK.

Vaughan said...

Very good piece.

A similar article could be written about anti-Australian prejudice.

As a New Zealand-born person living in Australia, I get irritated by sheep jokes and some humour at the expense of NZ. Most of it, though, is delivered in jest. There is a real affection here for NZ and Kiwis.

So I shudder at the petulant criticism of Australia and Australians by some Kiwis, many of whom live in this wonderful country of so many great people.

I think the sooner all of us try to stop defining ourselves or boosting our self-worth by lambasting perceived faults in others, the closer we will be to sorting out the major challenge of the age -- how to make globalisation work for all of us.