Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sad, delusional American exceptionalism

The following is a chain email forwarded to me by a friend. I've edited it slightly to omit my friend's name and to enhance readability, because as much fun as it is to mock bad usage and questionable punctuation, I'd prefer to focus on the weak ideas and the ridiculous style.

The bolding is mine throughout, generally to highlight recurring bits or something I thought was funny.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, Jul 2, 2008 at 3:39 PM

Happy Fourth of July!
Happy Birthday, U.S.A.!
God bless America!

Fwd: Should be required reading in Grade school and College again

This is what America is all about. Be proud!


While in England at a conference, Colin Powell was asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury if our plans for Iraq were just an example of empire building by George Bush. He answered by saying, "Over the years, the United States has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our borders. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return was enough to bury those that did not return."

You could have heard a pin drop.


There was a conference in France where a number of international engineers were taking part, including French and American.

During a break one of the French engineers came back into the room saying, "Have you heard the latest dumb stunt Bush has done? He has sent an aircraft carrier to Indonesia to help the tsunami victims. What does he intend to do, bomb them?"

A Boeing engineer stood up and replied quietly, "Our carriers have three hospitals on board that can treat several hundred people; they are nuclear powered and can supply emergency electrical power to shore facilities; they have three cafeterias with the capacity to feed 3,000 people three meals a day, they can produce several thousand gallons of fresh water from sea water each day, and they carry half a dozen helicopters for use in transporting victims and injured to and from their flight deck. We have eleven such ships; how many does France have?"

You could have heard a pin drop.


A U. S. Navy Admiral was attending a naval conference that included officers from the U. S., English, Canadian, Australian and French Navies. At a cocktail reception, he found himself standing with a large group that included personnel from most of those countries. Everyone was chatting away in English as they sipped their drinks but presently a French admiral complained: "Whereas Europeans learn many languages, Americans learn only English." He then asked, "Why is it that we always have to speak English in these conferences rather than speaking French?"

Without hesitating, the American Admiral replied, "Maybe it's because the Brits, Canadians, Aussies and Americans arranged it so you wouldn't have to speak German."

You could have heard a pin drop.


A group of Americans, retired teachers, went to France on a tour. Robert Whiting, an elderly gentleman of 83, arrived in Paris by plane. At Customs, he took a few minutes to locate his passport in his carry on. "You have been to France before, monsieur?" the customs officer asked sarcastically. Mr. Whiting admitted that he had been to France previously. "Then you should know enough to have your passport ready."

The American said, "The last time I was here, I didn't have to show it."

"Impossible. Americans always have to show your passports on arrival in France!"

The American senior gave the Frenchman a long hard look. Then he quietly explained, "Well, when I came ashore at Omaha Beach on D-Day in '44 to help liberate this country, I couldn't find any Frenchmen to show it to."

You could have heard a pin drop.


What Is a Veteran?

A "Veteran" -- whether active duty, discharged, retired, or reserve -- is someone who, at one point in his life, wrote a blank check made payable to "The United States of America," for an amount up to and including his life. That is honor, and there are far too many people in this country today who no longer understand this fact.

The focus on sound, and in particular about quiet on the part of the Americans, echoes the old Teddy Roosevelt saying about the big stick. By 2008, when this email was sent to me, two ill-planned and ill-conceived wars, and a lot of diplomatic bluffing against countries like Iran and North Korea had made clear how loud we were and how ineffective our sticks had become; and whatever moral authority we claimed in stories like this had been called solidly into question by things like the torture memos and the extra-legal detentions of Guantanamo Bay. In that context, the portrait of America as a benevolent superpower is almost poignantly naive.

Even disregarding that context, though, there's a lot in this piece that I like to poke fun at. In order:

To Colin Powell, I'd have to find some non-snide way of bringing up Puerto Rico, Guam, Texas, all more or less straightforwardly the territorial spoils of war. Depending how trollish I was feeling, I might also ask whether the Civil War was a purely altruistic endeavor on the part of the state.

To the Boeing engineer I might say, "That's amazing! What can those ships do in wartime?"

On the third story, I always flash to this old Simpsons episode set in the future where Moe the creep bartender is getting sloshed with an Englishman. "British, eh? You know we saved your asses in World War II?" he asks with a leer. His drinking partner retorts "Yeah? Well we saved your asses in World War III." Voicing this sentiment through Moe, among the least honorable people in Springfield, reveals how base and laughable it is. Maybe I don't need to spell this out, but a world where America is a leader among peers is not one where we assert cultural superiority based on a decades-old military victory that did at least as much good for us as for the people we made ourselves out to be saving.

But the fourth story is really where you see how thick the author is laying on the ugly stereotypes. (I'm not even sure how the customs officer's reasonable question could be asked "sarcastically".) Every French person is portrayed as rude, crass, snotty, and hilariously entitled. The American jingoist loves imagining the French person as the counterexample to "Speak softly and carry a big stick", and thinking of himself as speaking just long and loudly enough to remind them of our superior actions. It's clearly a comforting portrait for some of us, but even in 2008 it required the reader to forget some truly shameful things.