American Ignorance

Nov. 19 - Sorry for the lack of a blog yesterday... I wasted way too much time trying to write it and finally just gave up.

I'd been simmering about a question that had come up (again) over the weekend. It was a complicated question and I spent way too long thinking and writing about it without making any progress toward understanding it. Whatever angle I took, I found the thing impossible to discuss because I found it impossible to understand.

Here's what happened.

Trine and I went out for dinner downtown Saturday night, and afterwards we went out for drinks at a nearby bar. We got to chatting with our bartender, a Dane who'd attended school in Nebraska and spoke fluent English. We'd been talking about ten or fifteen minutes when the inevitable happened.

"I love Americans," he said, "and I love America, I really do, but God—it just blew me away how ignorant about the world you are over there."

He said it, I should add, with the conviction that it was a bit of terrible news—as though we'd received a nomination for some sort of Danish Bartending Guild "Excellent Country" Award that would now have to be revoked on account of our ignorance about the world.

I don't want to knock the guy—he was nothing but friendly and I enjoyed our conversation (and it's not his fault that Danish law and culture prohibit bar-buys). In fact, I don't even want to dwell on him. What interested me was how this seems to be a conversational motif in Europe.

I wondered about this on the fly, yesterday, writing about 2000 words of speculative crap on the subject before finally abandoning it altogether.

But I'm still very intrigued.

The etiquette angle used to bother me, but I think it's just human nature to treat everyone you meet from a foreign country as an omniscient ambassador. (There's a scene in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie that gets pretty good mileage out of this.) I'm happy to talk about my country—the good and the bad of it—and I don't resent anyone for asking me about it.

So it's not that my feathers were ruffled in this instance (which is different, I think, from the episode in which an Italian restauranteur no sooner learned I was American than he got into a frothy rant about George Bush destroying the global economy, as though I had not only personally appointed President Bush but had been his chief economic advisor as well).

But it left a bad taste in my mouth. It's a hell of a thing to tell someone that everyone in their country is totally ignorant about the world. And yet the guy had lived in Nebraska so I didn't want to dismiss what he was saying out of hand.

I kept examining his criticism and trying to understand what it actually meant (and I remind you that I hear variants of this pretty regularly).

Are Americans worse at geography than Europeans? Geology? Meteorology? Anthropology? Are we less aware of other cultural practices and traditions? Are Americans less likely than Europeans to be able to point to Eritrea or Vanuatu on a map? Are Europeans more likely than Americans to know how to build a Yurt?

From my conversations, I understand that one of the strikes against us is our lack of travel. Europeans are proud of the amount of traveling they do, and they have a right to be. I remember being spellbound one of the first times I met Trine as she told me about her trips to Turkey as a teenager. Young Americans don't do anywhere near as much international traveling as Europeans, and for good reason: besides Mexico and Canada, most international destinations are just too expensive for a normal high school or college kid to hop off to.

(Many western Europeans don't even realize they can fly to America for about two-thirds the price it costs us to fly to Europe.)

So when you get down to it, Europeans can't hold our limited traveling against us without exhibiting significant ignorance about our own geographic situation, which would just be too fucking ironic.

America, after all, is bigger than continental Europe. Traveling from Istanbul to London covers roughly the distance between Miami and Minneapolis. The land area containing London, Paris, Berlin, Geneva, Amsterdam, Prague, Vienna, and Brussels could fit comfortably in the northwestern cluster of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. The biggest European countries (excluding Russia) are comparable in size to our largest states, and most small European countries are comparable to our larger counties.

I've driven across the United States from coast-to-coast on three different routes and there are still about a dozen states I've never set foot in. No continental European can drive that distance without crossing several borders, encountering different languages, cuisines, currencies, and political systems along the way.

So part of the reason we're not as well traveled should be painfully obvious: a bunch of Minneapolis students cruising down to Key West for spring break won't get the "international credits" that their European peers would accumulate from a trip of the exact same distance.

It's one of the reasons we don't speak as many languages as Europeans. Yeah, there's a lot of Spanish and French taught in American high schools, but not much of anything else. Be fair: is it because we're provincial, or because those happen to be the languages spoken along our borders?

But leave all that aside. I'm assuming from the way it's presented to me that immersion in a foreign culture is considered inherently valuable. I happen to agree instinctively—but why? Presumably because it's important to understand how other people live. After all, the Great Wall and the Pyramids and the Coliseum are all pretty cool, but they're just things. I don't think my European interlocutors are exasperated that Americans don't get out to see more things. They want us to see more people, more cultures.

And that's where our own culture comes in. We are more people, and more cultures, than our European critics seem to understand. We go to school with them, work with them, marry them, have little multi-culti babies with them. We absorb them, we metabolize them, we are them.

So is it not just possible that Americans are a little more ignorant than Europeans about the world out there—if you're willing to accept the premise that we are—because America has an awful lot of the world in there?

Maybe, maybe not. I couldn't figure it out yesterday, and I sure as hell haven't got the goddam answer today. Maybe we Americans really are a bunch of ignorant isolationists, cooped up in our North American cage. Or maybe it's a stupid question that I shouldn't have even troubled myself over, and maybe it's just bad luck that I've encountered so many Europeans with the same stupid question.

But I spent way too much time on it yesterday and I'm not spending any more time on it today.

Dicte Heads

On November 18, 1477, William Caxton published the first book printed in England. The book was a translation of The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, by the Frenchman Guillaume de Tignoville. The translation to English was performed by Anthony Wodville, Earl Rivers, who had devoted a considerable portion of his life to the study of philosophers' dictes.

Wodville first formulated the theory that the length of a philosopher's dicte was less important than its thrust. He has also been credited with originating the theory that a philosopher's dicte was commensurate with his shoe size. Neither theory is given much credence by contemporary philosophers, most of whom appear to be dicteless anyway.

Postal Milestones

Seven score years ago today (i.e., November 19, 1863), President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. The speech remains an important part of American history on account of its having been written on the back of an envelope despite stringent postal requirements that addresses be printed clearly on the front.

Hard Rock

On November 19, 1620, a group of maniacal religious fanatics reached North America and stepped ashore on Plymouth Rock. Because America did not yet have a Puritan Government, they developed the Mayflower Compact while still at sea. (William Bradford had argued for a Sporty Coupe, but the more practical John Alden had carried the day.)

Eventually the descendants of these frugal and passionately religious people would invent the Internet and enable the transmission of pornography around the world at light speed.

Birthdays & What Not

The 19th is Garifuna Day in Belize, Flag Day in Brazil, Coup d'Etat Day in Mali, Prince Rainier's Birthday in Monaco, and Discovery Day in Puerto Rico.

Kerri Strug turns 26 today (November 19). The gymnast shares her birthday with Jodie Foster (1962), Meg Ryan (1961), Calvin Klein (1942), Ted Turner (1938), Dick Cavett (1936), Larry King (1933), Indira Gandhi (1917), Tommy Dorsey (1905), James Garfield (1831), and King Charles I of England (1600).

The 18th was Army Day in Haiti, Republic Day in Latvia, Independence Day in Morocco, the Sultan's Birthday in Oman, and Flag Day in the Solomon Islands.

Linda Evans turned sixty-one on the 18th, and celebrated her birthday along with Brenda Vaccaro (1939), Alan Shepard, Jr. (1923), Imogene Coca (1908), George Gallup (1901), and Eugene Ormandy (1899).

Happy Hump Day!

2003, The Moron's Almanac™

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