The Ugly American

The Age of Information is upon us. This last American Election made us all victims of TMI (too much information). Even Twitter has expanded the number of words it allows-more’s the shame. Let’s watch carefully what happens next! Those who have never

Jan. 20, 2017, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol 10. No. 11,January. 20,, 2017 Magh 07,2073)


In 1958, Lederer and Burdick published a novel-or was it actually fact we ask in retrospect- called The Ugly American, which was made into a film. The protagonist is an unwitting engineer sent to prop up American efforts in the oil fields of South East Asia. What he found and what he expected to receive gratitude for exposing from the ‘powers that were ’, employers, etc. was corruption, ignorance and arrogance, and all on the part of his fellow countrymen. Well ‘nuff sed’ as they say. I bet you can guess who actually turns out to be the ugly American!

The story rocked the boat. Americans were used to seeing themselves as heros and handsome, kind and so forth. Ugly just did not cut their prevalent self image at the time. The phrase stuck and ‘the ugly American’ captured mainland Europe’s imagination. Of course, coming from an island, albeit a large one, and from an island which regarded Americans as great allies, even though they still received a fair amount of cautiousness when they presented themselves as sons in law, the ugly American phrase hadn’t run by me so to speak.

I was in Paris in 1958 being guarded, scrutinised and educated by an adult I admired. Middle-aged at that time and statuesque, a woman who had nursed her way through two world wars and married into money, I more than admired her, I wanted to be like her. She introduced me to the ‘couture’ of France and to my favourite perfume. She also warned me about ‘politesse’: if I did anything gauche (read English) she would admonish me ‘ c’est pas politesse ma fille.’  She kept me on the straight and narrow in a way my mother never could.

And it was from her, my French guardian, that I learned about ugly Americans. We were at a pastry shop in Montmartre (I believe it’s still there) having coffee and éclairs when a young American burst in:

“ Does anyone here speak English?” he asked. Dead silence,” Please,” he spoke slowly this time,” help me , this taxi driver doesn’t understand what I’m saying and I think he’s driving me the wrong way.”

Still silence from my elders but I offered my services as an interpreter. I accompanied him to the taxi and sorted the problem out and in an unnecessarily gentlemanly manner he escorted me back to the café.

Leaving he commented” Thank you Mademoiselle, where did you learn to speak such good English?”

Before I could respond, one of my guardian angel’s employees from the café  (for indeed it belonged to her {among other pastry shops in Paris}) pulled me back and escorted him out firmly, plonking him a little roughly in the cab. Then I ‘got it’ from all sides.

“ You silly English goose don’t you know Americans are dangerous: all they want is one thing. He would have taken you off in the taxi and maybe-who knows-never sent you back. In any case, he would have seduced you and then what face will we have to show our dear friends, your parents.”   My ears burned all the way home, which fortunately was only on the other side of Montmartre. I apologised when they all wound down enough to hear me.

Astounding when you think of today, the risqué contortions in Hindi movies and the proliferation of ‘partners’ and ‘house husbands.’ Also when we examine an era of tremendous American power, a power that purports to promote democracy.  And here’s a thought, whether we like it or not, we non-Americans, who are entering the era of Donald Trump, America has looked after us long enough and we now have to ‘wake up and smell the coffee.’ What coffee is this? Folks are rattled by the tweeting and so forth and maybe about cosying up to Russia. Why?

It’s not so long ago that people in Britain who were members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament were put on a watch list. Not that that worried Sir Bertrand Russell, Founder of the Peace Pledge Union, and a great mathematician and philosopher. American artists and playwrights who were victims of McCarthy who sought refuge in Britain would find themselves being queried and scrutinised by the British intelligence service. James Bond makes it all look like rollicking fun but it wasn’t I don’t suppose.

In 1962, The Manchurian Candidate led people to question all those who had worked abroad. The Manchurian candidate (book and film) is about a well-connected young American who is unwittingly ‘turned’ to help in a communist plot. In Britain the exposing of Kim Philby et al. did much to engage the public in spy craft, fact and fiction. 

Those of us who were fascinated by all these fables of skulduggery would query “ How can you get someone to unwittingly take part in a communist plot?” Of course you can if the prey has never come near the Manifesto’ and you are persuasive enough to convince people that they are helping bring about a new world order-----------peace, justice and what not.   It’s easy, ask our own brands of communist how they managed to get so many young people to lay down their lives or throw away their futures. Certainly not by telling them about the stalags or loaning them a copy of Solzhenitsyn’s ‘A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch.’  I doubt these homegrown ‘leaders’ read enough to keep ahead of the game. Imagine if those of us who accept the Cartesian ‘ Cogito ergo sum’ based all our actions on that and sat around spouting pithy thoughts to impress each other and the world: many of us do that even now through newspaper columns and conference papers!

The Age of Information is upon us. This last American Election made us all victims of TMI (too much information). Even Twitter has expanded the number of words it allows-more’s the shame. Let’s watch carefully what happens next! Those who have never heard of Trump won’t care anyway and the rest of us won’t get bored as he pulls off antic after antic.

N.B. English dictionary definition of the word trump - ‘flatulence.’


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