The ugly American in the shadows

Posted: Jul 31, 2003 12:00 AM

The Ugly American, like the wicked witch, is dying and almost gone, a fading memory of the Cold War. He was a caricature mostly of European snobbery, the uncultured tourist in a Hawaiian shirt, smoking a cheap cigar, speaking English in exclamation points, demanding directions to the Mona Lisa, the bullfight or to Big Ben.

Like any good caricature, there was a bit of truth to the image, but those were the days before Americans learned to sip from fine California grapes in a glass, drink dark coffee in a small cup and savor a home-grown avant-garde art scene that knocked the French off their brochures. We grew up.

Some Europeans can't give up their fantasies of the Ugly American, but they've become parodies of those they put down. Clive Davis, writing his Letter from London in The Washington Times, tells of finding himself at a London dinner table with a luminary from the British Broadcasting Corporation loudly defending the BBC's fantastical coverage of the war in Iraq as a prelude to own his contempt for all things American.

"What seemed to distress him more than anything, though, was the fact that the world and its neighbor had taken to strolling around in that time-honored emblem of U.S. power, blue jeans."

The man from the "Beeb," however, had neglected to observe his own fine pair of expensive, power-blue designer denims. When his oversight was pointed out to him, he waxed philosophical in a postmodern vocabulary, giving voice to retrograde Marxism. He was not concerned for a sophisticated middle-class man like himself; he, after all, was smart enough to see the irony. He was concerned about the globalization of American fashion, dripping down to "the masses."

Such is the ideological mindset of the "public intellectuals" in London, Paris and Berlin, who never see an inconsistency they can't embrace in telling the world how morally superior they are, and how they're particularly superior to the Americans. The world they struggle to feel superior to is passing them by, and Attitude is all. Attitude, in fact, is all they have left. They shut down intelligent argument and abandon common sense and preen with the emotional arrogance of adolescence.

Conversation at these chic dinner tables infiltrate print and television media and "news" quickly morphs into argument as talking heads reach for hyperbole. The Internet, unrestrained by fact checkers, editors and other doorkeepers, corrupts ideas in the service of ideology. How else to explain that one in three Germans under the age of 30, as polled by a German newsweekly, believe that the U.S. government sponsored the 9/11 suicide bombers? One in five of all Germans hold this view. Few are Muslims.

A media-saturated culture rewards sensational attitudinizing, blather without accuracy, rationality or ethics that is meant only to shock and awe. Misinformation accelerates at the cost of precision, provoking passion, if not much else, through exaggeration.

In a fascinating essay in Dissent, a magazine of the respectable left, Kevin Mattson demonstrates how Michael Moore, America's most prominent (or at least the loudest) leftist, hurts the cause he wants to serve by seeking to entertain rather than inform.

When a CNN interviewer confronted him about the glaring factual errors in his book, "Stupid White Men," he replied: "How can there be inaccuracy in comedy?" He wants to be taken seriously as a critic, but a critic has a responsibility to facts (if not necessarily to truth). If Michael Moore's movies were put through a lie-detector test, they'd break the machine.

Perhaps more than any other talking-head entertainer, he's responsible for keeping the Ugly American alive. A young American woman of my acquaintance, who lives in Berlin, says audiences pack the house there for Michael Moore movies, drawing laughter and cheers for his dumps on the Americans who inhabit his fantasies of corporate America and power politics.

In "Bowling for Columbine," he flashes violent images of the American military - drawing an irrational link between the U.S. government and the high school shooters at Columbine.

His next "documentary," which he calls "Fahrenheit 9/11," is to be released close to the presidential election next year. It's about George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, sons of fathers who extracted the family fortune from oil. We can expect it to be played for laughs, a tale of the president and the terrorist about as entertaining as Beavis and Butthead.

Such moral equivalence will knock 'em dead in Hollywood and Cannes. The ugly American lives, and Moore's the pity.