Wednesday, December 26, 2018
efforts to communicate
by Douglas Messerli
William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick The Ugly American (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1958)
Given our increasingly dismissive attitude for individuals who lie outside of the latitudes of our so-called sacred domain, and given our President’s absolute inability to comprehend our interrelationships with the world at large and our commitment to many different countries, both long-term allies and others, like the Kurds, who have and might continued to have worked with us in difficult international dilemmas, I thought it might be time to reread the 1958 political fiction, The Ugly American, by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick—a book of immense importance in my childhood, which along with much of the nation I remember having read at the age of 11. To me, in retrospect, it seemed at the time as a terrifying revelation of the American inability to perceive how to relate to the numerous cultures in which we were embedded. How could we not, I wondered even as a child, attempt to comprehend what the world might look like in Burma, Sarkhan (the fiction’s mythical title for Viet Nam), and other countries in Southeast Asia, not to speak of what the book suggested about our nefarious involvements in South America and elsewhere?
The book, one of the great bookselling works of all time by Lederer, previously a special assistant and political scientist II to the commander in chief of the US forces in the Pacific and Asian theater and Burdick, who had served in the Navy during World War (it has sold more than 4 million copies), truly influenced the US political values, and led President John Kennedy to create—after Senator Hubert Humphrey had attempted and failed to establish such a program—founding the Peace Corps to bring everyday Americans into the broader world in order to help poorer countries across the world to deal with everyday problems in poorer international countries which the US had basically ignored.
I so admired this program that I truly wanted, when I approached college age to go “abroad” (how we spoke in those days about countries other than our own), and to commit myself so some country—I imagined going to Afghanistan for some inexplicable reason—but I was still too young and needed to get a college education. My now-dead acquittance John McLaughlin (married for years to my long editorial assistant Diana Daves McLaughlin) and artist Martin Puryear (who we also knew well) in the African country of Sierra Leone, both served together in the Peace Corps and were proud of doing so.
Rereading this iconic text, I perceived that it was not quite as radical as I might have originally imagined. Mostly, it is a dichotomous interchange between lower underlying American officials such as Homer Atkins and Tom Knox, working with locals in an intimate way, greeting the citizens they met in Southeast Asia, below an example of Tom Knox’s friendly stick-out-the-hand greetings of his constituents—
“Hey there, feller,” Tom would say to the first man he saw in a village. “Who/s the
Number One man around here? My name is Tom Knox. He spoke a chaotic mixture of
Cambodian, French, and farmyard English. But no one failed to understand him,
And everyone valued the sincerity of his efforts to communicate.—
who then went on to talk about their local chicken problems. Comparing these local yokels with the Embassy heads such as "Lucky" Lou Sears, one of who many isolate themselves in their headquarters, seldom meeting any of the locals.
It’s a simplistic, if probably true, dichotomy that speaks for the vast differences between those who might care and those who simply didn’t comprehend what they were representing a far more important position of the USA. Most of the higher-ups can’t speak the local languages—which I am certain is even more true today—while their Soviet counterparts spoke the local languages and assimilated into the local societies. It’s a simplistic, if very powerful tale, that demonstrates, chapter by chapter, just how much we failed to comprehend, as governmental representatives, how we might have truly related our presumably good intents while evidently having abandoned local involvement. We chose the latter, and today have continued that that abonnement to even a further degree.
We are now a culture of abandonment, a culture, as Trump proclaims, again and again, that is interested simply in “America first.”
If, after re-reading the 1958 political fiction, I might declare it to be terribly simplistic in its notion of the good and the bad Americans serving in positions around the world, I am even more disturbed today—in a time when many international positions have not even been filled, let alone with qualified or even interested officials. If once the Homer Atkins’ and Tom Knox’s of this 1958 fiction, who worked behind the lines, and later with the terribly well-meaning later Peace Corps volunteers, did offer the world a different vision of American involvement, I am afraid that we have newly become even more ugly Americans not only to those we don’t know but to our previous friends.
One only need to read the recent The New Yorker essay (December 24/31 2018) about how absolutely rude, clumsy, and virulent Trump was to Angela Merkel and the entire NATO gathering to realize how very ugly we are now perceived.
In the long perspective it almost appears that Lederer’s and Burdick’s terrible officials might almost be redeemed; today, I am afraid, that possibility has been utterly lost.
Los Angeles, December 26, 2018
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (December 2018)