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Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The Angry American

Every once in a while, a book or movie bops along and without meaning
to, drops a phrase on society that sticks. This happened a few
decades ago, when Chicago columnist Bob Greene inadvertently coined
the acronym "yuppie" (Young Urban Professional) to describe young
people as they migrated from youthful idealism into overpowering
materialism. What the hippie was to the sixties, the yuppie was to
the eighties.

Before Greene, however, there was a more powerful epithet that fell
out of a novel, and later a movie called, "The Ugly American."
Essentially, the Ugly American is the butt of European jokes today,
with roots reaching far back into post-World War Two reconstruction.
In those days, the world lay in shambles. Much of what hadn't been
completely destroyed in Europe lay in ruins -- and that only
describes the real estate.

The lives and economies of much of the planet were derailed by the
ravages of war. Let's face it, people don't just pick up their
briefcases and go back to the office the day after an armistice is
signed. So it was with no great pleasure that American tourists,
spending their dollars in post-war Europe were as much reviled as
they were welcomed. "Yes," the Europeans seemed to say, "we welcome
your money, but next time just stay home and send us the check."

The Ugly American talks too loud. Wears white patent leather shoes.
He can't figure out why the locals don't speak English and assumes if
he yells louder, they might understand him. He flaunts his wealth in
front of the less fortunate. He overtips the locals for making them
look ridiculous. He's bigger and louder with an attitude that
demands tolerance because, after all, if it weren't for America,
"everyone here would be speaking German."

Nomenclature like that doesn't stick unless there's a ring of truth
to it. The Ugly American has stuck around for over half a century.
But now there's a new character on the scene that roams the streets
at home, right here in the USA. The media doesn't see it yet, but
they will. Soon.

Every day, our senses are assaulted by the media, trumpeting the
stories and images that remind everyday Americans of how good they
can't be. Every year, our faces are pushed into special issues of
magazines devoted to the most Beautiful People we can never hope to
escape. I guess it wouldn't bother me quite so much if the faces
changed every once in a while. But each year, it seems as if the
same 100 faces, lifestyles and fortunes are shoved in front of our
televisions and magazine racks.

I, for one, am tired of reading how much money other people have.
The perfect bodies and flawless faces, none of which are even
achievable by the Beautiful People without the digital artistry of
twenty-something retouchers who don't know any better. I have no
sympathy for the endless tragic stories celebrities of whose lives of
privilege fall into quagmires of drugs and depression. Too freaking
bad for them, I say. Too freaking bad for them.

Meet the Angry American.

I'm not alone in this, you know. There are lots of Angry Americans
out there. Millions of have-nots who eye the rich and famous with
nothing more than contempt. They turn on their televisions and
radios every day, only to be bombarded with constant reminders that
what they do isn't good enough and what they have isn't quite enough.

Remember when America held up the promise of opportunity? When
anyone could aspire to a higher standard of success and even achieve
that success? Forget it. Where it used to be a challenge to see how
good you could be, now it's simply a restatement of how hopeless you
are. You need to be thinner. You need to look younger. You need to
buy more, have more, drive more and exercise more. You need to work
less and party more. Just like the movie stars and rock bands in
People magazine.

The anthem of the Angry American was penned in the early 1980's, when
Dire Straits issued their call to arms with "Money for Nothing,"
which succinctly describes Americans' frustrations with having the
Beautiful Peoples' lives of self-absorbed, easy glamor thrust in the
faces of the working class:

"We've got to move these microwave ovens.
Custom kitchen delivery.
We got to move these refrigerators.
Money for nothing and your chicks for free."

And later:

"I should have learned to play the guitar.
I should have learned to play them drums.
Maybe get blister on your finger,
Maybe get a blister on your thumb...."

If you think for a moment that's the bouncy jingle of a happy camper,
you're sadly mistaken. That's the dark, brooding anger boiling just
below the surface of good-hearted people who are becoming
increasingly angry by the constant assaults on their moral and
ethical values.

And they're right.

They're right to be angry and they're right about the message.
Raising good kids isn't easy. In fact, making the world a better
place is no joy ride, but that's what decent people do on a daily
basis out there. And what angers them most is that the Beautiful
People do nothing to help even though they could. Sure, you'll hear
about a rock star donating -- extremely publicly -- to one cause or
another. But I'm willing to bet that a much higher percentage of
charitable donations -- in both time and money -- come from Angry
Americans than from the Beautiful People. You wouldn't know it,
though, because Angry Americans don't have press agents who organize
photo opps for "Us" magazine or "Inside Edition."

Americans have a lot to be angry about, including the promotion of
completely negative ethics and values that are part and parcel of rap
music. How's a well-meaning parent supposed to compete when the
glorification of the gangster life is beamed at her kid on a 24/7
basis? For that matter, how's a person with no kids supposed to fend
off those kinds of ubiquitous mixed messages? The Angry American
asks, "How am I supposed to make the world better when all you
surround me with are messages about how I'm never good enough"? It's
a reasonable question.

Forget what they told you in grad school: you can turn off the TV,
but you can't turn off its influences.

Enrico Caruso, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley and the Beatles never had
to divulge their sex lives on the front pages of a tell-all book.
They sang their music and made their money. Can you really say the
same for Britney Spears or Madonna? Does anyone really care if Mick
Jagger ever slept with David Bowie? Then why do we have to hear
about it? Just shut up until it's time to sing. Then get off the
stage.

Americans can handle a lot of things. We pay tax dollars that are
sent to countries we've never heard of, at the expense of our own
needy and infirm. We tolerate the senseless marketing of
unattainable status on a daily basis. We even put up with the
constant denigration of our basic human values on every billboard and
magazine rack we pass.

But for how long?

Sooner or later, everyone reaches a breaking point. The Angry
Americans are out there. I suspect they've had just about enough.





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