Ethnocentricity and Wolf Blitzer

Every nation and culture tends to be more or less ethnocentric. That’s only natural because of the shared values, mores, and customs of its citizenry. Call it national pride; and up to a point, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s like being proud of your school or alma mater and you want bragging rights after the big game. When you’re the strongest kid on the block, however, sometimes you get a little too big for your britches. You get the attitude that your values and your customs and your mores are superior to everyone else’s and, if you take that attitude too far, you come across as arrogant and condescending – or if taken to the extreme, like the Third Reich in Nazi Germany.

In 1958 the political novel, The Ugly American, by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, was published. It depicted the failures of the U.S. diplomatic corps, whose insensitivity to local language, culture, and customs when dealing with other nations during the Cold War created big problems for the U.S.. The book describes the United States’ losing struggle against Communist expansionism due to the ineptness and bungling of U.S. diplomats, stemming from innate arrogance and their failure to understand the local culture of newly forming countries, especially in Southeast Asia. Much like the British in India and the French in Indochina earlier in the century, Americans were seen as pompous, egotistical overlords wherever they set up a diplomatic mission.

The Ugly American came as a shock to many in the U.S. who always saw themselves as the good guys. It exposed a national tendency to be self-righteous, after our victories in two World Wars. And even after battling to a deadly stalemate in the Korean conflict, we still had a chip on our shoulders in 1958. The book was so revealing that then Senator John F. Kennedy sent copies of it to all his colleagues in the U.S. Senate, warning that we had better lose the attitude.

Have we learned anything in the past fifty years? Even after being embarrassed in Viet Nam by a bunch of ragtag guerrilla fighters and further humiliated in Afghanistan by nomadic tribesmen (like the French and mighty Russians before us), in many quarters the chip still seems to be well-ensconced on our shoulders. A prime example of this hubris can be seen every day on CNN in the personage of Wolf Blitzer.

Whether he’s interviewing the King of Jordan, the Dalia Lama, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, or the Secretary General of the United Nations, Blitzer seems to think he is the most important person in the room. Regardless of their title, position, or notoriety, he badgers them for answers, interrupts them when they don’t respond the way he thinks they should, does not accept their answers to his questions at face value, and often puts them in very awkward positions. No matter how egalitarian one’s sentiments may or may not be, surely there is still room in every conversation for common courtesy and decorum, especially when those conversations are being watched by millions of viewers. Sure Blitzer is a reporter and has a job to do, but as a prominent media personality he is also an ambassador of goodwill for the United States. Besides, if you truly want to make substantive progress on bridging the gap between opposing ideologies (instead of just increasing your ratings), you do it in private, after the klieg lights have been turned off. Certainly Mr. Blitzer thinks he’s performing a great public service. But just as certainly he has no idea how obnoxious (or downright insulting) he can be to people of high standing from other parts of the globe. And right here in this country, how many times have we seen him (or his sidekick, Anderson Cooper) interrupt our own President while talking, to the point where the President has had to reproach him.

Contrast Blitzer’s style with that of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. Both are foreign born American citizens (Blitzer from Germany, Zakaria from India), but what a difference in their etiquette and sensibilities. Zakaria has a decorous and respectful manner with which he treats his television guests and the result can easily be seen in how comfortable, and thus forthright, they are when conversing with him.

Although many around the world find him despicable, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is still a formidable adversary. Wolf Blitzer’s recent treatment of him before the cameras was like nails on a chalkboard for many viewers. Again, if you want to take Assad to the woodshed, the place to do it is not before the cameras. Besides, that’s not Wolf Blitzer’s job; instead of a news reporter Blitzer has assumed the role of chief judge, tribunal, and self-righteous pompous ass. Let’s hope Wolf Blitzer never gets a chance to interview the Pope.

Even in a global economy, Americans are still very myopic when it comes to appreciating the cultures and contributions of other nations. No matter what news formats you view, unless there is a terrorist attack or natural disaster somewhere else in the world, only a minute amount of programming is devoted to the happenings in other countries. The venerable BBC should be a preset on every radio and cable setting in America because it is about the only outlet where people can find out what’s going on in the rest of the world (although even the BBC has recently succumb to trivial pursuits).

It’s a good bet that the vast majority of Americans cannot name the prime minister of Canada, our closest ally and neighbor, whereas an equal proportion of Canadians are able to name our president. We’re not talking about some back water on an island in the Pacific; we’re talking about a huge, prosperous democracy that is within spitting distance of millions of Americans. And yet we seem to care less. Talk about ethnocentricity!

On the international stage, where the United States is just one of many nuclear powers, we are perhaps just beginning to shed the stigma of “Ugly Americans”. With all due respect, Mr. Blitzer, we really don’t need you further messing things up for us with your arrogance.

Point to Ponder: Why do Americans not have more of a global perspective?

Question to Consider: Are the opinions of television journalists becoming the viewer’s facts?

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