The “Ugly Americans” are the ones at home

800px-ConstantinoAriasUglyAmericanSorry to poop the party, but it’s starting to sound like Lochte was in fact robbed, and Brazilian officials fabricated a story to retaliate against media embarrassment.

This morning I listened to yet another roast of US Olympian swimmers Lochte, Conger, Bentz, and Feigen over their alleged drunken shenanigans in Rio. “Why are we still talking about Lochte?” they ask, and then proceed to rehash the worst version of allegations against him. It’s not clear what the four are actually, officially, accused of, but the public story is that Lochte “fabricated” a robbery story, and most articles claim that he “could be” charged with filing a false police report.

But there are huge problems with the quasi-official story, starting with the fact that Lochte never reported anything to the police. He did not file a police report, let alone a false one. He did not make any formal accusations in the Brazilian justice system. He — Lochte — spoke to American media and related a story that is now mostly corroborated. The story embarrassed Brazilian authorities, and in retaliation for that embarrassment they fabricated the story that Lochte fabricated his story. Then Brazilian officials detained three of Lochte’s companions, and demanded that Feigen — who up to this point is not evidently accused of anythingpay $47,000 to leave the country (they eventually accepted $11,000).

An anonymous police source initially claimed that Lochte had vandalized a bathroom, and that he and his companions amicably compensated the store manager for the damage. Later, the official (leaked) story was revised to include multiple armed off-duty police officers working private security. Later, the story was revised with the detail that one of the officers brandished a firearm and demanded an unspecified amount of money, and the athletes handed over most of their cash and perhaps wallets. That sounds like a robbery. After a few days of public outrage, an actual investigation by USA Today cast doubt on the official story and mostly corroborated the swimmers’ version. Witnesses and surveillance video back up the story that the swimmers were removed from their taxi, detained at gun point, and coerced to pay money before they were permitted to leave. There appears to be no evidence that they vandalized the bathroom, or that anyone damaged the bathroom at all.

What it does sound like is a robbery perpetrated by police, and that’s not such a shocking idea. Even if they vandalized something, neither police nor private citizens are entitled to forcibly collect payment at gunpoint. In Brazil, the laws are not somehow exotically different from US law on this point. If you threaten physical harm in order to coerce payment, unless its part of established due process, it’s robbery. Foreign tourists are especially easy targets for police who briefly detain them, quote some imaginary charges, and demand an on-the-spot fine that can be rounded down to however much you have in your wallet. Officers were accused of doing this right here in Utah, although there wasn’t enough evidence to prove it (they were collecting on-the-spot fines without recording copies of the citations, so there’s no way to know if they were pocketing the cash). What makes it more plausible in Rio is that the police there are already known to do this a lot.

So with all the outrage over Lochte’s lies and reckless behavior, what did he actually do? What are people so mad about? First, he embellished the story with a dramatic flourish: a cocked gun “to his forehead”. Evidently the gun was not put to his forehead. Oh and he forgot to tell us that he was there to pee. That monster. Honestly, who goes to a foreign country and pees there!? (Oh, right, organisms. Lochte must be some kind of organism that  needs to pee.) And somehow he “damaged” or “knocked down” a “sign” or “framed poster” or “loosely attached canvas advertisement”; the authorities can’t keep their story straight about that either. Were they really so upset over a poster? Were games moved to North Korea or something?

All of America is falling over itself to condemn these few bits of distortion or omission, but what’s most amazing to me is that people are so eager to disregard the true parts of his story (which seems to be almost all of it), and nobody seems to care that the Brazilian police, government officials and Olympic organizers have indulged in much bigger fabrications in order to punish Lochte for speech that they find embarrassing. They apparently have no sense of due process, and they haphazardly target Lochte’s friends for actions allegedly done by Lochte.

I’ve heard numerous people indulge in the bigotry of low expectations, casting Brazil as a poor defenseless third world country that’s just trying to protect its dignity after the outrageous and insulting actions of some privileged rich white “ugly Americans” trampling over local customs. I call bullshit. Brazil has the world’s 7th highest GDP and elected to host the Olympic Games, which are notorious for stimulating some of the worst official corruption and police excesses in host countries (something we Utahns have some experience with; it’s hard to find news records from that era, but this article paints a picture of the style of riot-squad crackdowns that were commonplace in Salt Lake City during 1997 to 2002). I’ll bet Brazilians also need to pee sometimes.

And it’s nonsense to argue that those pious Brazilians were upset by some rowdy hard-partying Americans. I’ve seen how Brazilians party. This can’t be that shocking to them. And, most importantly of all, these were not “offended locals,” they were police working in an unofficial capacity. They were the authorities, and that matters in a big way. When a notoriously flaky athlete revises a few details in his story, it’s annoying; but when a nation’s justice system changes its story after already detaining people, collecting large sums of money, and throwing world opinion into a flurry of outrage against mostly innocent people, that’s fucking serious. Let me be clear: I don’t care one bit about swimmers or really about sports in general, but I have no stomach for false accusations, abuse of power, or mob justice.

So why are Americans in such a hurry to join the Lochte hate party?

A lot of Lochte’s critics attack him and his friends for “drinking all night.” It’s conspicuous to me that nobody has attacked the French athletes who hosted the party. Nobody is asking what other countries were represented at that party. Maybe we expect that kind of behavior from “the world,” but we Americans are supposed to be shining puritanical beacons on a holy hill, right? That’s so hypocritical of us. About 27% of American business travelers engage in binge drinking while on official business. About 50% of American college students “drink more alcohol” while studying abroad than they do at home, and 11% of them get “black out drunk.” Even if frowned upon, this is not really unusual behavior, especially when people are placed into intense situations in new contexts, and especially in competitive atmospheres where they might have something to celebrate.

Maybe the real reason for this outrage is that people love to see the mighty brought low. Deep down, a lot of Olympic viewers are watching because they are hoping to see some dramatic failure. Perhaps a horrifying injury or a tantrum. Under the surface, they resent the great talent and extraordinary dedication of Olympic athletes, and they’re hoping to see some evidence that they’re not so great after all. “You may swim fast but you’re not better than me.” This resentment is easily concealed in the excess baggage of moral expectations routinely placed on Olympians. We love to draw oppressively tight lines around athletes, and when they step outside those little boxes it gives us an excuse to completely destroy them. It’s an especially sickening pattern considering that many of these athletes will have nothing else of note in their entire lives. They have completely devoted themselves to honing skills with little economic value other than their potential sponsorships or endorsement deals, and most of them will not get very substantial endorsement opportunities.

Maybe another reason is that we Americans secretly don’t like each other very much. Maybe we don’t like ourselves very much. That could explain why, at seemingly every Olympics, people find an excuse to start talking about the “Ugly American” — a stereotype from the fucking 1940s — before beatniks, hippies, the civil rights era, before the cold war, around the time when Hillary Clinton was born — about how we privileged Americans plod carelessly around the world, mocking and offending the locals, carrying our entitled belligerence wherever we go. It’s why “the world hates us”. But it’s a steaming crock of shit. Everyone who’s traveled internationally seems to have a story of how they observed or encountered some “ugly Americans” in their travels (I do too). And maybe they’re also in someone else’s story. But this stereotype is not really based on anything.

But there are simple explanations for the “ugly American” perceptions: First, the Americans you encounter while traveling are usually just randomly selected upper middle class persons from anywhere. The odds are pretty good that you won’t make fast friends with a randomly selected upper middle class American from anywhere. Go to any airport, pick a random person in expensive clothes. I bet you won’t like them very much.  In my experience this trend is quite robust. Second, Americans stand out to you because you understand their language. Unless you’re proficient in a lot of other languages, you probably have no idea what other travelers are saying or doing or the ways they might be insulting to the local culture. But your ears hone in on those American voices, and perhaps your instinctive reaction is to think “please, please don’t embarrass me here.”

I might add that, almost everywhere I’ve traveled, from San Diego to Vancouver to New York to Fort Lauderdale; from Australia to Japan to France and Sweden; in nearly every place I’ve observed someone peeing outside. It’s an epidemic, almost as though people have developed an urgent physiological dependence on it.

So, yeah. This story, everything about it, is triggering my spidey sense. I could easily be wrong, but a lot of things aren’t adding up. In fact, the one thing in all this that adds up best is Lochte’s story, the one for which he’s being crucified.

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