Clueless In Baghdad

The Fruits Of Unconscious Puzzlement

August 7, 2004

Some months ago I returned to my home in Mexico after two weeks of hard touring in Bolivia. It was the kind of travel that at my advanced age I should know better than, but never do: flying into grass strips to boat into the endless swamps of the pampas, freezing in unheated shacks in the wild high desert at 12,000 feet, mountain biking down El Camino de la Muerte out of La Paz next to drop-offs of half a mile. Not sensible, perhaps, but few things worth doing are.

Curiously, in South America, our backyard, my traveling-companions-by-chance were virtually never American. There were Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, yes. And German, French, and Dutch folk, but no gringos.

They weren’t hippies. They ran from 22 to 40: an Irish girl of maybe 26 who had been solo on the road for six months, a French woman in the wine business in her late thirties on a two week jaunt, an English financial officer on holiday. Most carried expedition backpacks. They were friendly, gutsy, self-reliant. I liked them.

But there were no Americans.

It is a pattern. Another pattern is that almost all of the Europeans spoke at least two languages, the English-peaking peoples only one. It isn’t just in Bolivia. I live in a Mexico near Guadalajara where there is a large population of American expatriates and retirees. They almost never learn Spanish and do not much mix with the Mexicans. When I covered the American military in Europe years back, the troops never learned German. Some refused to leave the base.

Why? Is it lack of intelligence? Clearly not. Laziness? If so, it is a curious, focused laziness. Americans work harder than most people at most things. The country did not achieve its position in the world by witlessness and sloth. Lack of initiative? Americans far more than most peoples start companies, take courses, invent things. If they wanted to learn languages, they would. They just do not much want to.

I think they simply do not care about other societies, do not have sufficient curiosity to make the extended effort needed to learn a language. Where I live, many hide from Mexico in gated communities and seem not really to want to be in the country. Perhaps Lauderdale was too expensive. They are…not quite afraid, but ill at ease. They stand out by a hesitancy in their walk, in their manner of holding themselves. This is not true of all, especially not of those who take wives and go native. It is true of the majority.

They are not Ugly Americans, note. They are not discourteous toward the Mexicans. They contribute to charity and do good works. Most have led productive lives, not infrequently in demanding fields. As people go, they are good people. Yet they seem out of place.

I knew my companions in Bolivia briefly but well. When you spend nights at twenty below in unheated shacks with the wind howling outside, eight in a room in sleeping bags, an intimacy grows. One crazy night in the swamps we ran out of beer and the guides took us in boats through the night to a remote bar on stilts in the night where we drank ourselves silly. It was a splendid evening.

But there were no gringos.

The Europeans bicker among themselves a bit. “What can you expect of a German?” they will say, or “Everybody knows the Dutch are stingy,” but they say it with a smile. Yet they all know each other’s countries. They have been to Morocco, India, Egypt. They have a worldliness about them. It is not an air of snotty superiority. They are simply comfortable abroad.

They think Americans are idiots. By and large they aren’t offensive, don’t (usually) bring the subject up. I am not inclined to defend the indefensible however, and so discussions emerged. Why, they want to know, do Americans know nothing about the world? I never quite know what to say. Well, er, it’s a big country, we don’t have to speak other languages, ah, the schools are terrible (why, they ask?), we just aren’t very curious or travelsome (why not, they ask?) The observable fact is that Americans display a blank, uninquiring ignorance of other cultures. Our current president is a prime example.

What effect does this have on our foreign policy? On our relations with the rest of the earth?

A lot, I think.

I remember that the White House believed that the Iraqis would welcome our invasion by strewing flowers in our path, such would be their delight with American values, etc. It slackens the jaw. Does no one in the hermetic bubble on Pennsylvania Avenue understand that other peoples have their ways of doing things? That not everybody wants to be American? Two weeks of backpacking around Marrakech and Cairo would have disabused them—but who in the White House has done it? Who out of the White House has done it?

The American attitude implied in policy, and expressed in the bow-wow-woofish patriotism of much of my email, is that most other countries are backward if not actually aboriginal, and in need of enlightenment, perhaps armed enlightenment. Contempt is reflexive and profound. Considerable of my email tells me that Iraqis for example are dirty and flea-bitten, understand nothing but force, and deserve any treatment they get.

I find myself asking: How many of these people have spoken to an Iraqi? To any Moslem? Been to Iraq? Been anywhere? Know what countries border Iraq? Have a passport? Know why 622 may have been a year of some relevance?

The eerie parochialism leads to disaster as the country blunders into swamps it does not understand and discovers that it has underestimated the enemy.

If I mention that the rest of the world doesn’t like the United States, the response usually is, “I’d rather be respected than loved.” But the US is not respected. It is feared, like a muscular drunk who comes into a bar looking for a fight. If George and Condoleezza and Rumsnamara had spent a year on a shoestring on the banks of the Mekong in Vientiene, and in Rabat and Manaus and Lyon and Istanbul and Managua—we might not be the insular, puzzled country that we are today. And we might not be surprised, over and over, to find that people about whom we know nothing do not behave as we expect.

Getting Lit in the Swamps. PhredPhoto

This is a slightly expanded version of my column in The American Conservative.