The Humbling of One Ugly American

A meditation on ‘shit-holes’, given relevance by our Commander-In-Chief.

In the early eighties, I made my first trip overseas, to Europe specifically, on business for a multi-national company.  I traveled there with a colleague whom I had just met a week earlier. She was a US citizen of Mexican origin, educated in Canada and with a BA in French and an MBA in finance.  The first thing notable about her was an elegant dialect that seemed an amalgam of her Spanish, French and English education, blended seamlessly into one.


We arrived in Portugal and traveled to Oporto on our first day.  After settling into the hotel, we met to take a walk and get acquainted with our surroundings.  We walked the cobbled streets of Oporto among the shops and vendor carts and I slowly began to absorb a new reality;  a sense of ‘old Europe’ quite different from my experience.  At one point, she asked me what I thought of the place.  I said, “I can’t decide whether it’s quaint or a dump.”  As we continued to stroll through the streets, we passed produce carts.  At one point I observed how unappetizing the produce looked.  Without missing a beat, and in her understated, elegant way with a tone of mild but powerfully delivered condescension, she replied, “That’s because the good stuff is shipped to the US as a cash crop”.  She not only explained the circumstance of my observation, but revealed my ignorance in fact and attitude.  We laugh about that episode to this day as I often reflect back on that experience in our conversations about current events.


I wish I could say that was my only instance of American hubris.  But it was most definitely the beginning of my education in the myth of American Exceptionalism.  In the days that followed, we traveled to the Douro region, the port wine growing region in Portugal where our company maintained a house.  In this particular village, our residence was one of three, all owned by port wine-producing companies, which had power and indoor plumbing.  As we descended on winding roads into the valley, one could observe thousands of little plots of land with houses and working gardens, surrounded by vaster commercial vineyards.  If my sense of Oporto was like going back 80 years in time, the Douro was like traveling back yet further.  What I perceived at first was poverty.  But upon further reflection, I have come to understand that what I saw was a vastly simpler and humbler way of life defined by its own circumstances which were quite different from the ones I had always assumed were universal up to that point.   I would not trade my circumstances for theirs, but I gradually came to understand that I could not look down on their circumstances without questioning the justification for my own.


My colleague departed early from our assignment to attend to other matters, and for the next few days, I was left on my own to explore the streets of Oporto in my spare time.  I was struck by the number of bookstores that I saw among the shops, and displayed prominently in the windows of many were ‘do-it-yourself’ books.  It suggested to me a people and a culture that had not yet entered the ‘service’ economy, where individuals were still their own primary resource for meeting their needs. It suggested a less sophisticated economy on the one hand, but a more resilient one on the other.

I wandered into a neighborhood store and saw a shelf of aseptic milk, unrefrigerated.  I had never before seen that in the US.  It was a product of necessity in Portugal, where electricity was expensive and home refrigeration at that time was probably much more limited.  But it made perfect sense for them, and I wondered ‘why don’t we do this too?’

I could recite other instances in my brief experience in international business where I made comments or assumptions that were utterly ignorant of a greater world and its varied circumstances, but I gradually came to understand that, while we may live on varying planes of material well-being, there is an underlying plane of human values that is universal, and on which we can relate, and must.  When we speak of ‘shit-holes’ as our Commander-in-Chief has so chosen, we demonstrate our own ignorance of the world’s realities, many of which include our own wanton conduct in contributing to their circumstances in pursuit of our narrowly conceived and often unjust goals.


I remember my political science professor observing that the US won World War II not by brilliance of strategy, but by overwhelming the enemy with sheer material and human resources.  My father, a private in a combat engineering platoon of Patton’s Third Army put it a different way.  “We made fewer mistakes than they did.”  Yet, in Vietnam and in Afghanistan, our material might and superior training did not and are not winning the day, and likely will not.  We are fighting in the terrain of human values; a battle-scape that our mythology asserts we should win.  But we’re not.  That should give us pause for thought, but it hasn’t.  We still see ourselves as WWII conquerors and saviors of the world order.  And we confer upon ourselves the right of preserving that order in our image and to our liking.  It is not working, and will not.  We have reached the limits of our advantage.  We have squandered much of our advantage.  And, though many at the top of our particular national pyramid cannot see it or refuse to acknowledge it, we are sliding into 2nd world status in many areas, and 3rd world in some.  Without a mid-course correction of some dramatic scope in our national psyche and values, it is now conceivable that we will reach escape velocity from the orbit of material prosperity and national unity.  The Portugal I remember may come ever closer to the America of our future experience.  But Portugal has evolved and prospered.  I am no longer so certain that we will.


I am reminded of another moment in my undergraduate experience.  I worked with a colored lady in the university library reserve room.  She had a high school education, but had obviously earned a doctorate in life’s lessons.  She wore a smile that radiated the warmth of the sun, but betrayed traces of weariness of a life that had its challenges as well as its gratification.  One afternoon as we both sat at the reserve desk observing the antics of some of my peers, she remarked with a weary but warm smile: ‘Honey chil’, there’s ignorant and there’s stupid.  Ignorant is curable. Stupid is forever.”

We might contemplate that truth as we reflect on our president, and ourselves.



Copyright 2018  Integratedman  All rights reserved.


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