Another Perspective

Splendid Isolation

After six months away, our correspondent finds the U.S. suffocatingly inward-looking -- and gauche.

By 3.18.11

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Returning to New England after six months away in France, I find this country suffocating in its own domestic issues, strangely unconcerned by the momentous events in the Middle East or the dual tragedy in Japan. We have always been an isolationist people but if anything could shake Americans awake, I thought, it would be the historic events unfolding today.

But no, domestic squabbles over education, healthcare, and taxation seem to blot out the world, even for President Obama.

Try watching international news on CNN -- a jerky experience at best, with ridiculous advertising spots for Japanese cars interrupting the story every few minutes, sometimes every minute. Coming from Europe, this is maddening. Fortunately my cable company provides TV5 Monde, the French-language channel for export. The commentary there is a marvel compared to the superficial U.S. choices.

Seemingly educated young Americans are turning their backs on the outside world. When I bought a cell phone at an AT&T outlet in Brookline I was asked by the clean-cut, 6-foot-3 salesman for my permanent address. When I said "Bordeaux," he looked disoriented. "Is that a town or a country?" he asked. I chastised him but he was defensive. "I have a B.A. in political science," he countered. I doubt that it was from Harvard.

A few days later I decided to have a look at the new Mark Twain autobiography, the one with the unreadable 6-point typeface. Barnes and Noble has a monster bookstore on the edge of the Boston University campus, a perfect place to browse. When I couldn't find the book, I asked the comely salesgirl with long dark hair if she had it in stock. She turned to her computer and got to work. This dialogue ensued:

"What's the title again?"

"The Autobiography of Mark Twain."

"Okay, I'll find it. Author's name?"

"Pardon?" I said, thinking I had misheard.

"Who wrote it?"

"It's an autobiography," I said.

She dug in her pretty little heels. "I still need the author's name," she insisted.

I promised her I would not repeat that to anyone. (I lied.) But out of pity I bought the book.

Taking the temperature of the U.S. on a regular basis, I have discovered that the New York Times crossword puzzle contains some pretty good clues to what's going around. One recent day a clue was "John Boehner's outstanding characteristic". The answer was a three-letter word, "tan".

Even the world of journalism seems to be going astray. Journalism is no longer sacred, if it ever was. Northwestern's Medill School, one of the nation's top five, has just changed its name to "The Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications." Come to Medill and study PR. That's where the money is.

The most surprising American cliché to emerge recently is the allusion to Proust's doorstop novel that nobody reads, Remembrance of Lost Time. The madeleine cake scene, in which the taste triggers childhood memories, has been extended, at least in the Boston suburbs, to any memory event. One Sudbury woman tells me, "A certain type of person uses it with abandon today." I read a newspaper account recently that proves her point. A Canadian Air Force colonel who made a habit of stealing women's underwear from the neighborhood and videoing himself prancing around in it was re-creating the "Proust moment, the biting into the madeleine that brings back the rich memory," rhapsodized a Columbia University criminologist. Proust was also in the background when he watched his video of himself strangling his neighbor's wife. She had caught him hiding behind her furnace.

A peek into the uptight world of newsgathering can be had for two dollars and a look at page 2 of the New York Times, the Corrections section. One can only imagine the shame a reporter suffered for mentioning GLAD instead of GLAAD (two competing gay-lesbian groups), or the reviewer of the book Red Herring Without Mustard who wrongly said a Gypsy woman turned up dead when actually she was only badly beaten. But my favorite is the sloppy cricket writer who referred to Raugarajan Sricharan instead of Sricharan Rangarajan. At least Sricharan cared.

Want to buy insurance in America? Apparently it is a hilarious experience. The Geico pig, the Aflac duck, the Allstate reckless driver, the Flo the Progressive agent all want to let you in on the fun. Insurers used to try to scare you into buying their wares. Now they pick your pocket while you're laughing.

But coming in from the outside, it's the mangling of the American language that bothers me most. Next time some divorcée tells me she is "in a better place" I may scream. If a politician or a businessperson tells me of plans "going forward" I just may say I prefer going backward. Beware of anyone who tells you a policy or a budget is "transparent." And "mashup" now appears in the public prints, even in the prose of the estimable Michiko Kakutani, who apparently was stuck for a real word to compare a new book to three other genres thrust together. Please, can we all go backward together?

Perhaps the word with the most curious history is "suck", now common parlance among the young but viewed suspiciously by their parents, who know what it really means. A few years ago, as the word was working its way into daily speech, a woman came to McGraw-Hill to sell us her magazine. She said it was worth a lot because the competition "sucked." I thought six white-shirted, tight-suited McGraw-Hill executives were going to choke. But they agreed with her and she walked away a very rich woman. The magazine was the now-defunct Byte.

Suck has a controversial history. Even Mel Brooks fell afoul of the language police when he made his movie Life Sucks. The studio forced him to change the title to Life Stinks. Now my daughter has to censor her kids when they sing along with Kelly Clarkson's "My Life Would Suck Without You." Kelly is perhaps mild compared to Cee-Lo Green, who leaps straight to the F-word. And what is one to make of his passage, "I don't know what you came to do but I came to get this thang crunk for you."

I think I'll go back to France.

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.