Friday, June 27, 2008

Cliché Criticisms Cripple Themselves

Discussing the role of the United States in World War II with a cyberfriend, I found myself sighing with the exasperation of one who could make her case ten times better, yet would never choose her terms. This happens whenever someone ventures into an area in which I feel comfortable about facts my interlocutor treats much like a bull amid eminently breakable china.

Say a European spouts clichés about the USA. "You Americans are, how do you say ... [insert cliché here]."

Or how about your gringo out of central casting who spouts something like "Well, [Latin American country here] is so backward because those people just don't know how to [insert Ugly American truism here]."

Then there's the bloody Prod who repeats some 500-year-old false canard such as "the Jesuits [add heinous act here]."

Critics often think that my reaction means they've touched a nerve. They decide that I am "emotional" (goodness, let's not spill emotion on the clean carpet, shall we?) in much the same way there-thererer men dismiss women who get legitimately annoyed.

My problem is not always that I disagree.

Americans have customs and habits of mind that may seem quaint or unusual to Europeans or even Canadians. Latin American countries are socioeconomically behind the United States by almost any conceivable measure. And even one Catholic joke has it that not even the Holy Spirit knows what the Jesuits are up to.

Nor is it that my feelings of attachment to the country of my birth, the region in which my ancestors lived or the the religion in which I was brought up (to which I no longer assent) prevent me from accepting their blemishes, scars or even fatal flaws.

Actually, the problem is that most Europeans have no effing idea of the depth of criticism to which I am capable of subjecting America. Nor do average Americans know enough to understand my exasperation with Latin American societies. Nor, finally, does the average Protestant even begin to plumb the faultlines I see in Catholicism.

To the contrary, pseudo-savants such as Bernard-Henri Lévy, the recent author of an essay on the United States, which was expanded into a book, are exasperating for the little they understand. They richly deserve every kick in the pants they get precisely because they provide the best rationale for the Republicans' idiotic renaming of French fries as "freedom fries."

That's the problem. But how does one convey this to those who feel they already know the truth and even know what I am thinking? Moreover, I am not exactly incapable of provoking a similar reaction.

Sometimes, men and women are the worst discussants in the world. I wish I could talk to my dog -- if I only had one.
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