I blinked in incredulity: had I heard correctly? Does anyone still use that kind of abhorrent language? Evidently one of our tablemates does, the sort of woman who unfortunately makes the phrase “ugly American” all too real. She and her companion, both overweight, badly dressed women in their late sixties, stuffed themselves with high-fat, caloric foods throughout the meal while enumerating cruises taken in recent years. Like boys collecting baseball cards, they seemed more intent on acquisition than experience. They could not recall ports of call, nor could they remember the contours of various cruises. Neither seemed to take particular pleasure in anything other than eating and onboard gambling. One woman dismissed most European cities with a wave of the hand: “after a while, everything blends together.” She never visits museums abroad, explaining that, “if you have the Met in New York, why do you need to see anything else?” Why indeed.
Instead they were intent on racking up nautical miles on various cruise lines, which I suppose gives them bragging rights back home. These women might not have been able to remember the difference between Morocco and Monte Carlo, but they could tell you the fine nuances of service on the Oceania liner. One announced proudly that she was “diamond class” on Cunard, which means that she’s made countless voyages, most of which she cannot remember.
The inveterate gambler of the two jumped up halfway through the meal, announcing “Bingo!” to no one in particular. She scurried off to make her game while her remaining companion proceeded to hold forth on the state of the world. She brought out the worst in us. Rod made an acid remark about Sarah Palin; I followed with equally sharp comments about Dick Cheney and Haliburton. The set of the woman’s jaw only egged us on. All the usual fault lines were drawn, from Obama’s health care reform to the federal response to the BP spill. Upon hearing her dismiss national health care, I was tempted to point out that grossly overweight people making poor lifestyle choices—as she clearly was—would be largely responsible for future spikes in costs to taxpayers. The woman did not want to spend a public dime on anyone else, but she was more than willing to cash in her social security check and add to our ever-growing Medicare bill.
In brief, the four of us, all Americans (Rod, of course, a naturalized citizen), enacted for our polite but understandably appalled Dutch dining companions the polarities that fissure America these days. Blue versus red, Democrat versus Republican, liberal versus conservative. Our mutual detestation was all too apparent.
I left feeling angry and yet somewhat ashamed. We should be better than this, I thought, able to reach across the divide that Obama urges Congress to traverse. If, as an everyday citizen, I cannot be civil to someone with opposing political views, then how can I expect otherwise from my politicians? Then again, I don’t know how to respond politely to someone who advocates involuntary birth control for prisoners or who wonders aloud why “the natives” in Africa didn’t learn “civilization” from their English masters? The problem is this: how does one tolerate intolerance? How does one enlighten stupidity of the very worst sort?