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Jewish World Review Feb. 25, 2002/ 13 Adar, 5762

Suzanne Fields

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The ugly straw American -- GEORGE BUSH is trying to create a better image of America abroad.

He's decided to convert the wartime communications effort into a permanent office for spreading a positive picture of the United States around the world. While his emphasis is on "global diplomacy, " information will include issues of domestic policy and cultural values.

"A lot of the world does not like America, and it's going to take years to change their hearts and minds'' a senior administration official told The New York Times. He's right about that. He could start by attempting to disarm the Europeans and the English, the axis of cheese, sausage and chocolate, as one of my ornery colleagues described it. But it's not likely to work.

The Europeans have a long tradition of making fun of "the ugly American.'' For years the French lampooned their rescuers in two world wars with portraits of country rubes -- hayseed in their hair, bad taste in clothes and bad whisky on their breath. The ugly American after World War II was the potbellied nouveau-riche tourist in a bright-flowered shirt sitting at an outdoor table in Paris ordering cafe au lait -- pronouncing it 'coffee-o-late' -- voicing vulgar Americanized English sounds with a lazy Southern drawl or a boorish Brooklyn accent.

As Americans became more sophisticated travelers abroad, espousing their own newly acquired notions of high art, which displaced the French avant-garde in the sophisticated culture, they became a more complex target for caricature. But that didn't stop the Europeans from ignoring their own ignorance. Contempt begot envy, which begot scorn as intellectual sneers of unwarranted condescension were institutionalized in a virulent anti-Americanism in the upper-class salons, where the European elite meet to admire each other.

When George W. was elected, the intellectual snobs of London and Paris switched their sneering disdain from Ronald Reagan, movie star, to George W. Bush, frat boy. After George W. showed a remarkable depth of commitment, courage and understanding of what the fight against terrorism is all about, they temporarily camouflaged their contempt with a gloss of unity.

But they couldn't hide their intoxicated delight when the president used the phrase "axis of evil'' and they could once again (according to their lights) compare him derisively to Ronald Reagan and his use of the phrase "evil empire.'' No matter that the perception of evil was vindicated when the Berlin wall came tumbling down, and secrets tumbled out of the Kremlin confirming what Mr. Reagan had been saying all along.

What the upper classes, so called, in England and France can't stand about America and men like Ronald Reagan and George W. is their natural smarts for reading between the lines of the gobbledygook of the culturally chic. The snobs think clear and readily understood language is low class.

"America has a great powerhouse of intellectuals, artists and elites, but it has always been the masses that shape the tone, voice and manner of the way all Americans dress, celebrate and work,'' writes JWR's Barbara Amiel, with some ambivalence, in The London Telegraph.

That's the glory of our revolution. We've never had a class system in education or style. The Oxbridge crowd in England could hold someone like Bill Clinton in high regard because he had, after all, attended Oxford and his Arkansas antecedents were viewed as a quaint aberration, not a source of pride, by him as well as by them.

But George W. Bush, despite his Ivy League education, has too much of the rough-hewn Texan in him to be "one of them.'' George W. himself once explained, with a certain pride, the difference between himself and his father as "the difference between Phillips Andover Academy and Third Street Elementary School in Midland, Texas.''

The United States has never had an aristocracy as a point of reference or nostalgia. Alexis de Tocqueville understood this when he observed that our democratic roots keep us from putting our trust in intellectuals because every common man believes he can think for himself and has to be persuaded individually. We have a strong filter for hypocrisy and phoniness. Americans instinctively understand that there's no ambiguity or euphemism in the word "evil.''

"Anti-Americanism,'' as voiced by Chris Patten, the European Union commissioner for international relations, is based on what the Europeans see as fear and loathing for American anti-intellectualism coupled with power. Mr. Patten accused Americans of having an "absolutist and simplistic'' view of the world and an unwillingness to address "the root causes of terrorism and violence.'' If only we could dress up our language with appeals to upper-class euphemism.

What the Europeans fear most is that we will do what we have to do alone (''unilaterally'') if our friends choose not to help us. What they don't understand is that we have no big brother across the seas to pull our chestnuts out of the fire. A continued communications effort from the administration is fine, but the ugly American is a straw man much too beloved to let go.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS