Tuesday, September 21, 2004

The Ugly American

Marlon Brando’s recent release from his mortal coil has inspired me to look again at some of the films to which he lent his mesmerizing presence, one of which was “The Ugly American”, made in 1963, in which Marlon is a US ambassador to a fictional south east Asian country still in the “development” stage, which is building a huge American-financed highway – called Freedom Road – from which all blessings will flow to the people. But all too many of the people don’t see Freedom Road as beneficently, seeing it instead as uprooting and destroying communities, and paving (sic) the way for American control over their economy and country.

Nationalist and communist agitators organize guerrilla attacks and mass demonstrations. The government waivers, and considers stopping work on Freedom Road. But the American ambassador insists that the project continue. Not only that, but to teach the agitators a lesson, the highway should now be extended further, to cross the entire country. The prime minister, knowing on which side his bread is buttered, acquiesces to the ambassador’s demands. When the news spreads, all hell breaks out. There is a national insurrection, and thousands are killed. China and North Korea take advantage of the chaos, and send soldiers into the country to stake out territory for themselves.

The ambassador, realizing he got it all wrong, speaks contritely into the microphones of the world’s newshounds gathered inside the barricaded embassy. He concedes that Americans, if they wish to win the hearts and minds of the Third World’s masses, must emphasize to them what America is for, rather than what it is against. And the ambassador says: ”People only hate us when we stop trying to be what we set out to be two hundred years ago”.

So, how much has really changed in the forty years since the “Ugly American” was made? A recent poll in Jordan, America's closest Arab ally, revealed that 99% of Jordanians do not like Americans at all, or otherwise outright hate them. America no longer represents freedom to Jordanians, or indeed to the masses generally throughout the Arab middle-east, who see today’s Ugly Americans as meddling in their affairs simply because America wants their oil. The obsequiousness of their leaders towards the US reflects that the US has bought them off as successfully as the Ugly Americans of the film bought off the Asian prime minister.

Any changes since the times of the “Ugly American” have been little more than cosmetic. The “communists” of then are the “terrorists” of now – the inchoate, unseen, and malevolent forces seeking to drain Americans of their precious bodily fluids and all else they hold dear.

This isn’t to say there have been no changes in the zeitgeist. For instance, unlike in the today of George W Bush, mainstream American films (as opposed to low-budget independent films – like those of Michael Moore) showing America in a less than complimentary light – like “The Ugly American” or “Dr Strangelove” - could still be made.