The Ugly American – Part 1


Republican Presidential hopeful, Donald John Trump, Sr.

Republican Presidential hopeful, Donald John Trump, Sr.

The Ugly American, a 1958 political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, depicts the failures of the United States diplomatic corps, whose insensitivity to local language and customs was in marked contrast to the polished abilities of East bloc (primarily Soviet) diplomacy and led to Communist diplomatic success overseas. The title character, Homer Atkins, is introduced late in the book. He is “ugly” only in his physical appearance. Atkins’ unattractive features, his rough clothing and dirty hands are contrasted with the bureaucrats’ freshly pressed clothes, clean fingers, and smooth cheeks. Their behaviors have the opposite contrast: Atkins cares about the people of Southeast Asia and wants to help them create practical solutions to their everyday problems; the bureaucrats want to build highways and dams that are not yet needed, and with no concern for the many other projects that will have to be completed before they can be used. Perversely, Atkins embodies the opposite traits from the pejorative traits now popularly associated with the term “ugly American.”

Today, the term “ugly American” refers to perception of the loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless, ignorant, and ethnocentric behavior of American citizens mainly abroad, but also at home. It is a pejorative term.

Well, the “ugly American” is very much alive and kicking…and his name is Donald Trump.

I have resisted writing about Donald Trump until now, because really, why waste the ink? But it occurs to me that the reason I find him so repulsive is because he embodies everything that is said about American tourists who used to roam Europe, routinely embarrassing the rest of us – the “ugly Americans.” Donald Trump is an embarrassment. Period. Here is why.

Let me begin with Trump’s narcissism: He believes that he is “exceptional.” He insists that he is always right, and any critic is wrong, jealous, and unable to appreciate his superiority. Trump says that he is smart. In fact, in one speech he was heard to say “I’m very smart” twenty-three times in the course of his remarks. If he really is smart, he should know that such tedious assertions only suggest that he is deeply insecure about his own intelligence. After all, this is a man whose lifework has been putting up giant buildings that resemble bowling trophies, some of them in the service of one of the worst activities of our time, legalized gambling, which is based on the socially insidious idea that it is possible to get something for nothing.

Then there is Trump’s glorification of money and the delusion that he is self-made: “I’m rich. I’m really rich,” he tells us. So according to his logic, that makes him better than the rest of us, and it is all due to his brilliance. He does not owe his (exaggerated) fortune to his inherited wealth, or to his ability to avoid the consequences of bad business decisions through multiple bankruptcies, or to the “old boys” network available to the sons of well-to-do white Christian males.

Further, there is Trump’s substitution of witless name-calling for political discourse: If he disagrees with you, you are a dummy or a clown. He does not have to explain why you are wrong, or what he would do instead, or why his idea is better.

Even further still, there is Trump’s full-throated bigotry and racism: President Obama is black, so he could not possibly have been born in the United States; brown people are all illegal immigrants who are murderers, drug addicts or dealers, and rapists.

And let us not forget Trump’s downright chutzpah: He denigrates Senator John McCain’s military service, while he was taking advantage of student deferments available to the pampered and the privileged.

Even Donald Trump’s supporters acknowledge that he is brash, arrogant, egocentric, and opinionated. He believes in American exceptionalism and lauds himself as a prime example of that exceptionalism. He is never without an opinion – whether he knows anything about the subject or not. Trump sees the world in black and white, with seemingly no understanding or appreciation of the complexity of an ever-evolving geopolitical landscape.

Trump is thin-skinned and petulant, indulging in public feuds over petty slights. When it comes to judgments and criticism, he can dish it out, but he certainly cannot take it.

Trump speaks in inflated hyperbolic language, issuing grand pronouncements with dramatic, sweeping gestures and exaggerated body language. When I was in seminary, we were taught that when your sermon had a weak point, just pound the pulpit! Well, Donald Trump does a helluva lot of pulpit pounding. And he is loud – oh boy, is he ever loud!

There is much more, but what I fail to understand is how a significant part of the American public – not just the Republican base – can take this delusional buffoon seriously. He is an embarrassment to the country. I cannot begin to imagine him sitting down with some Head of State and that meeting not be a humiliating experience. I remember only too well when he told Larry King on network television that he had bad breath and asked to sit farther away from him because of his halitosis! I see that kind of experience – only writ large and on an international stage were he to be the Leader of the Free World. Heaven help us if that happens.

Granted, the rest of the presidential hopefuls range from undistinguished (to put it mildly) to terrifying (to also put it mildly), but Donald Trump’s antics are so capacious as to even make Rick Perry (“Oops!”) look intellectually perceptive by comparison.

We live in a world that is complicated and increasingly interdependent. We need a leader who understands those complexities and who can analyze and debate the available options for dealing with them – not a purveyor of bumper-sticker slogans, faux machismo and belligerent balderdash.

Everything that is wrong with Donald Trump – everything that makes him such a danger to the country – emerged in the opening minutes of his announcing his candidacy for President of the United States.

On June 16, 2015, in the midst of announcing that he was running for President of the United States of America, Donald John Trump, Sr. said many horrible things about Mexico. Two weeks later, ten percent of Republican voters said they wanted Trump in the White House. What does any of this say about us? I guess it says that at least a percentage of us hate Mexicans. And immigrants. Oh, and the Chinese too. Though Trump did not call the Chinese rapists, criminals and drug dealers as he did with Mexican immigrants, he has said that the Chinese are stealing American jobs and may or may not be stupid. Now some of these immigrant-hating voters say that they like Trump because he says what is on his mind, does not hold back and is not a politician. He “tells it like it is” or so says an increasing number of white working-class voters who feel that their jobs have been stolen by those damn “furr-in-ers.”

Donald Trump had ostensibly been planning his campaign for quite some time. And since that announcement, he has been given multiple opportunities to “walk back his comments.” For those not immersed in politics, “walking back your comments” means “you now realize that something you said was wildly unpopular with or unbelievably offensive to people from whom you need something, so you make a half-ass apology or blame someone else for what you said.” But that is not the way that Donald Trump does things. Trump has not stepped away from his comments in the slightest. In fact, he has threatened to sue people who have ended business relationships with him because of those same comments. What Donald Trump literally said in his announcement that he was running for Commander-in-Chief/Head of State/Leader of the Free World was this: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” When people think about sending Donald Trump to the White House, do they think that they are sending their best? Or are they even thinking at all?

I must say, however, there is one thing about “the Donald.” Just when you think he cannot get either worse or even more outrageous, he turns around and does just that. Some say he could not get any lower than when he slammed Senator John McCain for being captured. I happen to disagree. I am not a big fan of Senator McCain, but I thought that Trump’s comment about McCain’s wartime captivity was a cheap shot. I am convinced that “the Donald” will find a way to get even lower. It is just a matter of time. I cannot help but wonder out-loud, since when did being argumentative, outlandish and totally clueless become desirable traits for the President of the United States?




Let There Be Light!

holmes22There is not enough darkness in all the world to put out the light of even one small candle. –Robert Alden, American author

Halford E. Luccock, one of the great preachers of his generation, who for some twenty-five years was Professor of Homiletics at the Yale Divinity School, made it as one of his primary goals to teach his students how to preach with wisdom and, if possible, with wit. He wrote that his goal was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” For the most part, Luccock was successful in both aspects of his objective. Luccock, always the great story-teller, relates the following account about himself.

It was December and Luccock invited his two granddaughters to spend the Christmas season at his home. As Christmas drew nearer, he asked them, “What do you want for Christmas this year?” And both young girls said, “We want the world!” He said, “You want the world?” They explained that they wanted the world on a stand, a world that spun around. It was with that clarification that Luccock understood that what they wanted was a globe.

So Luccock went shopping and found one, and put it away. On Christmas Day, he pulled his gift from its hiding place and gave it to the girls. They opened the package and looked at the globe for awhile, but then did not seem very happy at all about the present that they had received. They hardly played with it the rest of the day. That night, when Luccock put them to bed, he said, “I want you two to level with me. What’s wrong with the present that I gave you? You said you wanted the world and I gave you one.” They said, “Yes, Granddaddy, you gave us a world, but we wanted a lighted world and you gave us a dark world.”

So the next day Luccock went back to the store and stood for a long time to return the “dark world” that he had purchased for a lighted one that came with a little electric bulb. He was not successful at that store, so Luccock then went from one store to another trying to find a lighted globe. After visiting several stores, he finally found one and bought it for his granddaughters. He took it back to the girls and they were delighted.

Later, Luccock told one of his friends about that incident and the friend said, “Hal, what did you learn from all that?” Luccock thought for a moment and then with great wisdom said, “I learned one thing that I will never, ever forget. A lighted world costs more than a dark world.”

To reflect the light into a darkened world is what gives meaning to our lives as well.

To further illustrate this point, one need only turn to Steven Spielberg’s epic film, Schindler’s List, a moving account of Oskar Schindler, a Nazi profiteer who became an unlikely light in the midst of grave darkness. Working with his Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern, Schindler bluffed and bribed his way through the Nazi hierarchy to save as many Jews as possible. He had Stern produce a list of Jews whom he claimed were necessary for “war work” at his factory. It is believed that Schindler obtained well over one thousand Jewish forced laborers to perform this war work at his plant. At first, they were only making simple items such as mess kits. But then, they were transferred to another factory to make shells for the large guns. In the end, Schindler’s instructions to his workers were that he did not want any of the warheads in the shells to actually work. At first, Stern was suspicious but eventually saw Schindler for the benefactor that he really was. At one point in the film, Stern comes to Schindler and says: “This list is life.” Schindler fought to retain his employees, and on one occasion, barely saved a shipment of women who had been dispatched to a death camp by mistake. The stark black and white photography of the film shows the contrast between the darkness of the Nazis and the light that Schindler has chosen to follow and has become for the people on “the list.” We are challenged to be the same kind of light in the world to those on “the lists” of today.

Children, of course, know what Oskar Schindler knew to be true and have echoed this thought every time they sing the old gospel song This Little Light O’ Mine:

This little light o’ mine,

               I’m gonna’ let it shine,

               This little light o’ mine,

               I’m gonna’ let it shine,

               This little light o’ mine,

               I’m gonna’ let it shine,

               Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Light is the language of grace, of hope and of love. And when this language is uttered and translated into action, it becomes the most beautiful language ever spoken. It was Henry David Thoreau who once remarked: “Love must be as much a light, as it is a flame.”

Cursed By Chemistry

The salvaging of the Vasa in 1961

The salvaging of the Vasa in 1961

Last week I wrote about the ill-fated Swedish battleship Vasa as part of my thoughts on failure. Since writing those words, I have found some more information on what may be the ultimate fate of the Vasa.

It seems that Sweden’s legendary seventeenth-century warship, the Vasa, is cursed. But it is not cursed in the way that the Flying Dutchman, the legendary ghost-ship roaming the world’s seven seas, is cursed. Vasa, in fact, roamed less than a mile in its short vain-glorious life, and it has gone from being the Sunken Swede to the Sewage-Soaked Swede to the Sulfurous Swede. No, the Vasa is cursed by chemistry.

If no way is found to reverse the unpredictable chemistry taking place inside the Vasa’s planks – a ship that survived 333 years at the bottom of Stockholm’s harbor and twenty million visitors as Scandinavia’s leading museum piece – she will eventually, like a cheap paperback novel, crumble into acidic dust.

For the moment, even as a dredged-up wreck, the Vasa is a startling and beautiful sight, its masts almost piercing the museum’s dark ceiling, and its bulk seeming afloat until one gets close enough to look down at the cradle supporting it – and to spot all the telltale red dots pinned on to mark decaying wood.

But for a loser, the Vasa was lucky. It went down in the Baltic Sea, whose isolated, glacier-fed waters are not salty enough to support the ravenous shipworm Teredo navalis. Moreover, it sank in the path of Stockholm’s sewers. The putrid waters nourished sulfur-reducing bacteria whose byproducts penetrated the wood and made it poisonous to underwater fungi and rot.

And there the Vasa lay, the greatest damage being done by the dragging anchors of modern ships, until it was found again in 1956 by a Swedish marine technician and an amateur naval archaeologist named Anders Franzén.

The Vasa underwent an underwater restoration, including the replacement of five thousand rusted iron bolts, some five feet long. On 24 April 1961, The Vasa was raised – an event so thrilling to Swedes that factories closed and newfangled televisions sold out. Inside the hull and scattered on the bottom of the ship and the harbor were fourteen thousand broken-off pieces, a giant jigsaw puzzle that carpenters managed so skillfully that ninety-five percent of the restored ship is original.

For seventeen years, the Vasa was sprayed with a mist of polyethylene glycol, a water-soluble wax, to prevent drying and cracking. This solution makes the ship feel slightly wet and waxy. In 1990, the Vasa was moved to a former dry dock and became Scandinavia’s most visited museum.

Then, after the wet summer of 2000, conservators noticed something new: yellowish stains with crystalline green and white streaks.

Tests showed that some had a pH of 1, more acidic than lemons, and the wood beneath them was crumbling. About seven hundred such spots have been found.

Here is what had happened. The umbrellas and raincoats of visitors had pushed the museum’s humidity up to seventy percent. Deep in the wood, sulfur was reacting with oxygen, catalyzed by the rusting iron bolts, to form sulfuric acid. The moist air speeded up the reaction and drew the acid to the surface and precipitated the streaks of sulfate salts – gypsum, and the iron sulfates, jarosite and melanterite.

Core samples indicated that the ship had three thousand pounds of sulfur locked inside, enough to make five tons of acid.

The process is slow – actual disintegration will take decades – but the crumbling can already be seen, especially on softer pine objects. The sulfur seeps more quickly from them than it does from hard oak sides.

Diagnosis may be easier than treatment, however.

As a first step, the museum has put in a stronger climate-control system to keep humidity near fifty-five percent.

Conservators are now going over every inch of the ship with litmus paper, finding the worst spots. Where it is feasible, they lay down cloth soaked in bicarbonate and soda to neutralize the acid. Compounding the problem is the reactivity between the bolts inserted in the 1950’s and the preservative. The Polyethylene glycol-electrolyte solution (PEG) makes iron bolts rot, and the iron makes the PEG decompose. The solution is to remove a bolt and soak the wood near it with chemicals to draw out the iron. Moreover, there are many hidden surfaces where the bolts are holding planks together, and core samples suggest that there is more sulfur there.

Theoretically, the ideal solution would be to dismantle the ship, soak each piece in a polyethylene glycol bath – this time either heated or treated with hydrogen peroxide or another mild oxidant – to filter out the sulfur and change it into acid quickly. That would be washed away, and the ship would be rebuilt using five thousand new bolts made of nonreactive metal. Titanium would be best.

But this is the Vasa, not NASA, so there is no budget for any of this.

But even the theoretical work may help more recently raised vessels, like the Mary Rose, King Henry VIII’s flagship in Portsmouth, England; the Belle, a supply ship for the French explorer Robert de La Salle, now in Matagorda Bay, Texas; and the Batavia, a Dutch East-Indiaman on display in Fremantle, Australia.

There is sulfur in all of them. Eventually, they will all have acid. Sadly, it appears that chemistry will have the last word.


Failure Need Not Be Fatal

The Sinking of the Vasa by Andrew Howat

The Sinking of the Vasa by Andrew Howat

On 10 August 1628, the beaches around Stockholm were filled with spectators eager to watch the maiden voyage of the Vasa, the mightiest battleship ever built. The complete crew of the Vasa was about 450 men, of whom 300 were soldiers.

The Vasa was not the largest ship built in this period, nor did she have the most cannons. What made her perhaps the most powerful warship in the world up to that time was her broadside, the combined weight of the shot that could be fired from one side of the ship, more than 600 pounds in all. She was a truly fearsome machine of war!

On that August day some 387 years ago, the Vasa set her massive sails, fired a salute and made her way into the harbor. But after only a few minutes of sailing, the ship began to heel over. She righted herself slightly and then heeled over again. Then, to everyone’s horror and disbelief, the mighty warship suddenly sank, killing about fifty of the 150 people aboard.

It sank! The mightiest battleship ever built sank!

Why did the Vasa sink? Deep down in the Vasa, several tons of stone were stored as ballast to give the ship stability, but it was not enough to counterweight the guns, the upper hull, masts and sails of the ship. The plans used for building the Vasa were intended for small ships with only one gun deck. Because the Vasa had two gun decks with heavy artillery higher on the ship than ever before, the standard calculations did not apply. When the ship began to heel over, water poured through the open lower gun ports and quickly sank the ship. The Vasa saga was by almost any criteria an utter and colossal failure.

But that is not the end of the story of the battleship Vasa.

The Vasa lay in the shallow waters of Stockholm harbor for centuries.  Early attempts to salvage it remained fruitless.  The wreck was located in 1956 and finally raised in 1961, a full 333 years after the Vasa sank.

Usually, organisms such as worms eat away the wood of ships over time but not so the  Vasa.  It remained in the same condition in which it sank, due to the inhospitable waters off Stockholm.  The adverse environment preserved the Vasa so well that it was even able to float with its gun-ports sealed and after water and mud were pumped out of the hull!

Vasa Museum

The Vasa Museum, Stockholm

The Vasa is now on display in Stockholm and housed in a dedicated museum specially built for it.  Modern day Swedish children can see this ancient vessel that was supposed to be the most glorious warship of its day, but instead it became the biggest failure of its day. The museum is one of Sweden’s most popular tourist attractions. It is rather remarkable that there is such a museum – a museum to failure; a museum that celebrates the glory of the grandest battleship that never saw a battle.

I tell the story of the Vasa because our society has become so success-oriented that we have very little tolerance for failure. But I am convinced that if we live long enough and attempt much, we will run up against failure. You can take that to the bank. We know from experience that failure is hard to cope with in a world like ours. When we fail at something, most of us think of it as the ultimate and irreversible tragedy of all time, but people fail every day.

In his book A Theology of Failure, John Narrone writes, “A theology which takes failure seriously does not encourage fatalism, passivity, indifference to the world; rather it affirms that the man who cannot freely lay down his life is one whose ideals and values are already compromised.”

Failure can often lead to better things. The failure of the caterpillar is the birth of the butterfly. Our failures can be the door to a new success. John James Audubon will be forever associated with the magnificent paintings that he made of the birds of North America. No one else has so accurately painted the birds and the natural environment in which they are found. Such art might never have happened had Audubon not been a failure in business! In 1808, he opened a store in Louisville, Kentucky. It was after he went bankrupt in 1819 that he began traveling and painting birds. We are all richer because of his business failure.

Thomas Edison’s teachers said he was “too stupid to learn anything.” He was fired from his first two jobs for being “non-productive.” As an inventor, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was just an invention with 1,000 steps.”

In his address delivered at the Sorbonne, Paris, on 23 April 1910, Theodore Roosevelt remarked: “It is not the critic who counts; nor the one who points out how the strong person stumbled, or where the doer of a deed could have done better.

“The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who does actually strive to do deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotion, spends oneself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at worst, if he or she fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

Amen to that.