If being an Ugly American were an Olympic event and I was a judge the bronze medal would have gone to Gardiner Harris this week.
And he should count himself lucky because if I were his boss Harris would have been in possession of a pink slip instead.
While listening to NPR’s Morning Edition I heard Harris conclude an interview with host Steve Inskeep: “It’s a strange place on normal days, and of course, when the power goes out gets even stranger.”
The topic was the blackout in India, and while Harris’s color commentary would have been questionable had he been a rank amateur, it really rankled once I learned that he is the New Delhi correspondent for the New York Times.
Thankfully, power has been restored to India’s electrical grids, but I am still in shock over the sophomoric word choice of a presumably impartial journalist, sophisticated traveler and representative of the United States abroad.
To whom was Harris speaking when inferring that India was “a strange place on normal days”? What, for that matter, is his benchmark for “normal”? Does he assume that NPR listeners worldwide must share his background, life experience and point of view? Or is he totally oblivious to the fact that only a relatively privileged observer might conclude that New Delhi was a “strange” place?
A privileged observer, I might add, completely deprived of good manners.
That Inskeep didn’t call out his colleague on the gaffe was as disconcerting to me as the blunder itself. Which is why I’ve spent all week telling myself that the time constraints which come with doing live radio, rather than cultural insensitivity, were likely to blame for the oversight. Yet, in my heart I know the rationalization is my only defense against self-combustion at the thought of American hegemony going unchecked.
I have been to New Delhi, and readily admit to the countless times the expression “Holy cow!” leapt from my lips. Whether trying to navigate densely packed roadways– where bicycles, pedestrians (both biped and bovine) and motor vehicles all jockeyed for the same precious few inches– to happily lingering in the chicest airport terminal I have ever seen, I found the metropolis a study in the ancient and cutting-edge. The attendant contradictions, surprises and frustrations for Western travelers like me and Harris are to be expected; but if the first rule of travel, never mind journalism, is to go with the flow then the second should be to mind one’s tongue and not give offense to one’s hosts.
The Ishana Boutique: Indira Gandhi International Airport
Apparently, Harris never got this memo.
In any language, the word “strange” has a pejorative ring to it, thus no place in a professional’s vocabulary when called upon to sum up his or her experience of an entire nation. Particularly when that nation has arguably set the gold standard for hospitality and warmth to international travelers, as has India in my mind.
Photography: Courtesy of Denise Malausséna
And while we’re on the topic of precious metals: after the performance he turned in last week can anyone be more deserving of a gold medal in the Ugly American category than Mitt Romney ?
Following his disastrous trip to Europe and the Middle East, the politician hell bent on proving his prowess as a statesman not only demonstrated a tin ear for diplomacy, but managed to make Harris look like Dag Hammarskjöld in the process. From insulting Londoner’s by questioning their preparedness for the Olympics to enraging Palestinians by stating that Israel’s prosperity was owed to the “hand of providence”, the Mitt Wit had me cringing on a daily basis.
If there’s one thing I hate more than a stereotype, it’s having to watch knuckleheads reinforce them in mixed company. By this measure– and believe me when I say I never thought I’d say this– I could not wait for Mittens to come home.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Romney’s traveling press secretary, Rick Gorka, who also distinguished himself in the Olympics of Obnoxion when he unleashed the now famous, if contradictory, coup de grâce: “Kiss my ass! This is a holy site for the Polish people. Show some respect.” upon a cabal of reporters cheeky enough to demand a quote from Candidate Romney during his visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw.
My personal aversions to pots calling kettles black aside: I have to admit that Gorka’s last point was a good one. In fact, I pray he will learn to follow his own advice where showing respect is concerned. Now that he’s been benched, or– as the political parlance goes– is taking time off to be with his family from the Romney campaign, Gorka has all the time in the world to brush up on the skill set.
It goes without saying that Gorka sealed his fate when he cinched the silver medal last week, but his victory was pyrrhic at best as the rest of the world publicly fed on the lowest hanging morsel from a bumper crop of strange fruit coming from America. Hell, even I was left to wonder “Who are these people?” And I am one of them… by birth if not temperament, at least.
Is it too much for this fellow-American to ask that Gorka or any high-profile American traveling internationally be housebroken before being permitted to leave home? That they understand the world is watching and listening? That they recognize how their words have weight and their actions have consequences? That they acknowledge how they represent not just themselves, but you and I… for better or worse? And that any apparent ignorance of these fundamentals truths on their parts will no longer be acceptable?
My questions are not rhetorical. Nor am I saying that we the people must agree with every viewpoint of our ambassadors (both formal and informal) abroad. We can, however, mitigate potential worst-case scenarios by holding our representatives to a higher standard. By insisting that they listen more and speak less. That they humble themselves and travel with the expectation of learning as opposed to teaching. And, at the very least, that they get comfortable with being an observer as opposed to being the center of attention whenever and wherever they enter.
Unfortunately, Americans are not exactly renown for any of these traits, but hope springs eternal.
Watching young Olympians like Gabby Douglas, Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin charm their hosts in the UK and the global community at large makes me very hopeful that the Ugly American yoke can be lifted from our collective shoulders in my lifetime. But the yoke’s on us if we think we can keep unleashing the likes of Romney, Harris, Gorka upon unsuspecting neighbors without first teaching our old dogs some new tricks. And if I were appointed headmistress of this obedience academy, nobody would graduate without first living up to the motto : “Just because you’re thinking it doesn’t mean you have to say it out loud.”
…which, come to think of it, would work as nicely in our own backyards as it would abroad.