Patriot Acts

by Dennis Baron  

“The Ugly American” is the title of a novel about the arrogant, bullying Americans who were giving this country a bad name in the Southeast Asia of the 1950s. Republicans, in power at the time, tried to reverse this negative stereotype, deciding that our foreign policy could be, dare I say it, a little less boots on the ground and a little more sensitive to local conditions. But today’s Republicans call such a kinder, gentler approach, weak. For them, the ugly American is a true patriot. I just ran into one of these true patriots recently in Chicago.

I was hurrying through the crowded lobby of a Loop office building, one where everyone is screened and those who don’t belong are summarily turned away. A figure approached me from the opposite direction, hurrying as well. We were both preoccupied, and we both looked up just before colliding. There was no room to my right, so I veered left to avoid a head-on crash. He went right, which brought us to a second impasse. But instead of engaging in the traditional politeness dance of “After you.” “No, no, after you,” this ugly American scowled, elbowed me aside, and sneered contemptuously, “We’re in America.”

He didn’t call me blind, clumsy, or dumb. I was worse, a foreigner who didn’t know enough to keep right. And he was showing the flag by bullying aliens. For backup, he had the USA Patriot Act as well. The Patriot Act, passed 45 days after 9/11, permits the questioning and jailing of foreigners simply on suspicion of misconduct. He could have stopped and frisked me, or turned me over to the security guards stationed at the escalators. “We can’t let these people loose in our lobbies,” he might have told them, “even disguised in a suit and tie and a proper visitor’s badge.” “Go back where you came from,” he probably thought.

It's true that I'm not from Chicago. I come from New York, which even to the INS is not another country. But the Patriot Act now emboldens patriots to call any behavior that they don’t approve of foreign. My misstep lined me up with those enemies of the state who come from abroad to spy or to blow us up. If I had actually collided with him, I might be writing this from Gitmo without benefit of counsel, an abridgment of civil liberties that also comes to us courtesy of the Patriot Act.

The ugly American was right, of course: we’re in America, and if he’s got any say in the matter, the country will keep on moving to the right, while I stumble leftward along with the Brits, the Japanese, the Irish and the Indians. Bahamians and Bermudans and Australians also go left. They are all our friends. Some are even our allies. In contrast, terrorists on the axes of evil from North Korea to the Middle East, not to mention our traditional foes in Cuba, Russia and “Red” China – all of them keep right in traffic. Are they just trying to go undetected?

“We’re in America” was not an imprecation to obey the law – walking on the right is not mandated either by the Illinois “Rules of the Road” or by the 342-page long Patriot Act. And it was hardly a call to follow local custom: this ugly American would never do as Italians do if he found himself in Rome.

I didn’t have a chance to apologize for my pedestrian gaffe. Instead I bowed before the unstoppable juggernaut of a patriot with a flag pin in his lapel who was intent on showing me that he was ready to roll. His message was simple: If I want to get on his right side, I need to do a whole lot more than watch where I walk. That’s because at home and abroad, we have come to see it as the ultimate patriot’s act to seize the right of way and bulldoze everyone else off the path. That misconception of what it means to be American is what Dwight Eisenhower – whose war record is unassailable – once tried to correct. And today George Bush, wrapped in the Patriot Act, is doing all he can to revive it.


Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois