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In Search of the Beautiful American

When I was 17, I read a book that shaped my life. Now, as I'm about to turn 64, I picked it up again. What I read shocked me. But in that very shock I found hope—despite the evidence to the contrary—that our culture just may be inching its way toward wisdom.

The book is The Ugly American, by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. Published in 1958, it's set in Southeast Asia, where the Vietnamese are fighting to free themselves from the French, and the Russians and the Americans are vying for the loyalty of people and nations.

In the novel, the bad people are the Communists. The good people are the Americans. The Americans are really likable, but they have a problem. When they go overseas as official U.S. representatives, they become pompous. They live pampered lives in enclaves and don't learn the language. They're ignorant of the local politics and insensitive to the culture. They make fools of themselves, alienate the
local people, and waste the taxpayers' money. So they are losing to the Communists.
The answer, in the authors' view, is for Americans to go overseas, learn the language, live simply, and understand the culture of the place they live. Then everyone will follow the Americans, and we will win against the Communists.

It's a simple and compelling argument that fit the tenor of its time so well the book became a multi-million-copy bestseller. Its thesis laid the groundwork for what would become the Peace Corps. And the book ignited me. At age 17, I decided I would work in poor countries, learn the language, be sensitive to the culture, and help the people. Two years later I met David Korten, who also wanted to help people in poor countries. We fell in love, married, had two children, and spent most of the next 40 years in Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia.

Now, in rereading The Ugly American, I am shocked by what I didn't see on my first reading—and what I believe millions of Americans, who were so taken by this book, also did not see.

First is the simplicity of the framing argument. In Lederer and Burdick's world of 1958, there is never any question that Communism is bad, America is good, and the goal of every American is to win the world's people to the American side.

Second is the authors' underlying arrogance and racism—ironic in a book that calls Americans not to be arrogant. The book is famous for its portrayal of bad Americans. But it also portrays several good Americans, and it is how they are characterized that dismayed me. The good Americans are consistently active and the local people passive. The good Americans have the valuable ideas, and the locals gratefully receive them. I cringed as I read the glowing account of a good American who “would stick out his huge hand and vigorously pump the small bird-like hand of the Cambodian.” When I lived in Southeast Asia, I learned early on that people feel a vigorous handshake is aggressive and inappropriate; and the term “bird-like” is so insultingly dismissive I can only conclude its use betrays the authors' deep racism.

I've come a long way since 1958. I know that we Americans are not always the good people, and that some of our policies cause extreme misery for people in many parts of the world. I see we remain all too ready to resurrect the framework that there are good people in the world, like us, and bad people “who hate us for our freedoms.” And I see that we still tend to put America and our people in the center of every story and diminish the roles, the capabilities, and the independent aspirations of others.

But I also see that a great many Americans have, like me, come a long way, some because they heeded Lederer and Burdick's call and joined the Peace Corps. I see the millions who turned out to protest the aggression against Iraq, the thousands who protested the World Trade Organization in Seattle, the tens of thousands who read and resonate with the ideas in YES!, and the millions who work tirelessly to change our culture's attitudes and our country's policies. Despite the arrogant stance of our government's leaders, and the willingness of many of our citizens to accept the simple framework of “good people and bad people,” I see there are millions who don't buy it. Those millions were not there in 1958—and in them lies my hope.

Part of me is still that 17-year-old girl, ignited by a book that says we can do better. I still believe that we are capable of moving beyond the simplicity of “good people and bad people,” and that we can overcome our racism and arrogance to work with others of all colors and cultures to make a better world for everyone. And I'm still basing my life on that belief.

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