"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 18 August 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Walking Tall



Like all the best metaphors in

American life, this one happened

off the page. Just before our

windbaggy, congenially

uncommitted president completed

his descent into the squalid

shark pit, millionaire

balloonist Steve Fossett fell

out of the sky and into the

shark-infested Pacific Ocean.

With its combination of

late-empire boondoggle,

mock-heroic debacle, and

international disgrace (Fossett

was saved thanks only to a

sharp-eyed French pilot), the

accident was a natural rebuke to

America's farcical grandeur;

what self-respecting,

global-economy refusenik wasn't

rooting for the sharks to rip

the stuffed Yankee plutocrat to

sinewy shreds?


After all, it's safer to wish

bodily harm on an American

Branson than to take out your

anti-imperial ire on a handful

of embassy functionaries (and

quite a few own-business-minding

Nairobi residents). The attacks

on the US embassies in Kenya and

Tanzania were followed by an

inquiry so familiar that by now

you have to wonder why we bother

asking, "Why do these extremists

hate us so much?" The debate

found its most logical

extension, inevitably, on

Politically Incorrect, when

performance artist Karen Finley

opined, "We've been going into

everyone else's countries,

taking their resources.... I'm

sure there is something

somewhere. There is some raid or

... something just, like,

bothers them. I mean, it can be,

like, the way the garbage is

taken out or something."


Finley has always had more than

a smack of crypto-Canadianism in

her, but an internationalist

bong hit this innocent of the

wide world could only be

homegrown, and it reveals why

our introspection is so

misplaced. Rather than asking

ourselves why the extremists

hate us, we should be asking the

extremists. In an even more

rambling, unfathomably

double-talking tirade played

last week on Iraqi TV, Foreign

Minister Tariq Aziz accused

tireless UN supersleuth Richard

Butler of "an imperial, pompous

manner, that 'We decide what is

right and what is wrong; we

decide what is enough and what

is not enough.' And you forget

that you are not an imperial




Butler, of course, is not from

the United States, but really,

what are Australians if not

Americans taken to the next

stage of yahooism? To an Iraqi,

hunched over his dwindling plate

of hummus, giving what-for to

the humorless man from Down

Under (or for that matter, even

to Jacko or the Feral Kid)

carries all the satisfaction of

peeing in Carrot Top's bottle of

Mountain Dew. Unfortunately, the

comeuppance occurs as another

international crisis is brewing.

Judith Miller, The New York

Times' questionably credentialed

Middle East expert, reported

Saturday that Khidhir Abdul Abas

Hamza, a former Iraqi nuclear

scientist turned informant, says

the Bully of Baghdad is once

again on the verge of cooking up

his first nuke. In a bit of

source defamation though, we

have to note that Hamza has good

reason to be telling his

handlers what they want to hear;

Miller concludes by noting that

the Iraqi is anxious to speed up

his green card process. Yeah,

Khidhir - get in line with all

the other freeloaders.


And why shouldn't Hamza, or

Saddam for that matter, want a

piece of the American Dream?

After all, the whole point of

life on earth is pushing people

around, and for all our

histrionic shows of Finleyan

diffidence, Americans are still

better at that than anybody

else. It's our ability to bully

that allows us to stop worrying

about the rest of the world and

focus on domestic issues. (Note

to self: Does Certs really make

your mouth cooler than Dentyne?

And if so, is it the Retsyn that

gives Certs the edge?

Investigate.) It's also what

makes the patriotism of

non-Americans seem so laughable.

If, as a recent study shows, big

babies tend to become bullies in

later life, it's not lost on

Americans, who generally find

themselves a head taller than

the local population in any

country they visit, that the

planet, for all the promise of

multinational prosperity, is

still mainly a place for us to

throw our weight around. The

incredibly durable image of the

Ugly American as an arrogant,

Big Mac-stuffed lunkhead is

still the stereotype of choice

for diminutive foreigners. We're

just not sure if it's still

supposed to be an insult.



Because frankly, after 10 years

of watching American TV

satirize, analyze, and finally

idolize Homer Simpson, you'd

think our international friends

would come up with more

inventive insults than the ones

we already use on ourselves. Or

maybe it's just a secret hope to

become what they most despise.

Remember the infamous statement

by Den Fujita, president of

McDonald's Japan during the

1970s: "The reason Japanese

people are so short and have

yellow skins is because they

have eaten nothing but fish and

rice for two thousand years,"

said Fujita. "If we eat

McDonald's hamburgers and

potatoes for a thousand years we

will become taller, our skin

[will] become white and our hair

blonde." By this logic, Ronald

himself, taller and paler than

all his fellow performers, and

with the only hair color more

rigidly Caucasian than milkmaid

blonde, can be seen as Homo

americanus made perfect. If

there is one purely American

superstition, it's the idea -

bolstered by lifetimes of

watching Americans grow taller

than their parents - that a

burger diet makes you big and

strong. Of course, we respond to

the taunts of foreigners and

nutritionists by burying this

belief, putting it into ironic

scare quotes. But in our hearts,

we know it's true.


And true it is. The biological

anthropologist Barry Bogin has

argued that differences of diet

accounts for variations in

stature not just among

individuals but for whole

societies. In the mid-1990s,

Japan's Health and Welfare

Ministry reported that the

nation's average height had

increased nearly 4 inches for

men and about 2.7 inches for

women over the last 3 decades -

a growth spurt Ministry Director

Nobumichi Sakai attributed to

the "Westernization" of the

Japanese diet. Exactly what

"Western" means in this context,

Sakai didn't say, but we're

guessing he wasn't referring to

the rising popularity of scones

or croque monsieur.



So it should give us pause to

learn that, as the nations of

the earth bow down to the Royale

with cheese, Americans are no

longer the tallest people on the

planet. That honor now goes to

the Dutch - a testament to the

nutritional value of good bud

and creamy coffee with a big

cookie on top of the cup. More

important, it suggests ominously

that if no two countries with

McDonald's have ever gone to

war, it's for the same reason

that no two countries with

nuclear weapons have gone to

war. Not because both nations

are so well-fed and

self-satisfied, but because

they're terrified of the aggro,

ass-kicking giants across the

border. With the all-important

triumvirate of burgers, height,

and aggression established, it's

easy to see that our sanctions

against Iraq - and the endless

inspections regime that we use

to justify them - are not

punishment or coercion. They're

the first sample of the

post-Cold War arms race, in

which the spread of Tony Roma's

franchises will be as closely

watched as uranium enrichment,

the CIA will measure average

height the way it once monitored

pro-Communist radio broadcasts,

and Hardees will not just be a

perk of Westernization but the

way the United States keeps its

client states strong. Thomas L.

Friedman, who formulated the

original bilateral McDonald's

theory, closed a recent column

by stating: "With all due

respect to 1960s revolutionary

ideology, the wretched of the

earth want to go to Disney

World, not to the barricades."

We agree, but as the sign says,

they must be this tall to ride.

courtesy of Bartel D'Arcy