Tag Archives: America-bashing

Why People Lecture Americans

The world loves to lecture Americans.  It can come as a bit of a shock to US citizens the first time they travel.  After months of planning and excitement in the lead up to a big international trip, the giddy American is just getting used to the routine in the new country.  Then he or she mentions being from the US and someone has a question about the “crazy politicians” or why so many Americans are fat or why Americans always stick their nose in everyone’s business.  As much as you may try to diffuse the confrontation that ensues, things can easily get ugly.

The abuse can be worst from people from small countries.  I’ll admit to having been one of these nitpickers, especially when I still lived in Europe.  Unsuspecting Americans would come over to Europe and I would take my frustrations with parts of American foreign policy and culture out on them.

It works in _________ country so it should work in America

One thing I would frequently do was to insist that something that worked well in a small country like Sweden, would work well in the US.  Welfare policies that worked in Sweden and allowed for very generous policies on education, health care, vacation time, etc made perfect sense to me.  So what if you had to pay more taxes for it?   It was a better system, more enlightened and more compassionate.  Or so I felt.  Strongly.  And I would argue with Americans about what I saw as a heartless, greedy system where the rich got richer and the poor, weak or otherwise disadvantaged were largely ignored.  Sometimes Americans would listen.  Other times they would get upset and we would launch into huge critiques of each others’ countries.

Americans don’t seem to expect it

This is definitely not true for all the Americans I have met.  But for many it is:  the abuse they take abroad is not expected.  As much as most Americans have some knowledge of the anti-American sentiment out there, a lot do not quite understand the extent of it.  The anger directed towards America in large parts of the world is palpable and it only gets worse when Americans get defensive or act shocked at the abuse.  It’s a vicious cycle: people shout abuse – American tourist/traveler/expat is caught off guard/upset – people shout more abuse.

Stereotypes

As much as we all deny it, everyone loves to stereotype.  It prevents excessive thinking and fits so well into the modes of thinking that we have been able to construct for ourselves.  Americans have been pegged as loud, ignorant about the rest of the world, spoiled and, nowadays, increasingly as citizens of a fading superpower.  This is a hard stereotype to shake and unfortunately, there are enough brash American tourists out there with entitlement complexes to keep this image alive and ruin things for everyone else.

Jealousy

This is not one that most people admit to but, as a non-American, I definitely feel that much of the lecturing and abuse aimed at traveling Americans comes as a result of international jealousy.  Yes, it is true that America is not quite the same gleaming promised land of past decades.  The recession and serious foreign policy blunders have hurt the US image but America is still the big kid on the block – the richest and the most powerful nation on earth.  That is enough for some to want to make life difficult for Americans.

What to do?

So what do we do about all of this?   If you are an American, how do you brace yourself against the onslaught of haters.  I am not even American and I have had to take abuse for sounding like one.  I have found that overcompensating with false humility or forced praise of other countries comes across as trite.  Too many oversensitive tourists have tried this in the past.  Defending yourself doesn’t really work either.  The critics are not going to miraculously change their minds because of your sensible talking points.  Generally the only thing I have seen work is developing personal friendships with the critics and challenging their viewpoints from an experiential angle rather than a philosophical one.  If they like you, at worst they may simple label you “the one good American.”  Be happy with yourself even if you only get this far.  You may even get lucky and introduce the idea that Americans are a very diverse bunch that don’t fit into any boxes.

 

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Bjorn Karlman

The “Dumb American”

“I like Americans, but they tend to be simple-minded,” Ichiro Ozawa, a key figure in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, said recently in a speech to Japanese lawmakers.  To be specific, he used a Japanese idiom that, taken literally, means “monocellular”.  “I don’t think (Americans) are very wise… but I highly rate their ability to put their choices into practice, “ he said, including the helpful tidbit: “They chose a black president for the first time in U.S. history,” adding that he once thought that would never be possible.

If you thought this a bit of a strange bout of pontification, consider this:  Last November, Ozawa graced the world with his view of Christianity – “exclusive and self-righteous” – and shared that U.S. and European societies were at a “dead end”.  Charming guy, huh?

A review of chipper Japanese commentary on the US would not be complete without input from former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, who referenced Y2K panic to illustrate the differences between Japan and the US.

“When there was a Y2K problem, the Japanese bought water and noodles. Americans bought pistols and guns,” Mr. Mori said. “If a blackout happens, gangsters and murderers will come out. It is that kind of society.”

As a Swede who now calls America home, I’m conflicted about how to react to this kind of commentary.  Accusations of American simple-mindedness and overall dumbness are obviously launched by more than just the Japanese. Most of my life (with the exception of the last decade), has been spent outside the United States.  I will admit to frequently agreeing with worldwide sentiment regarding the “dumb American”.  Whenever treated to the sight of portly American tourists with their fanny packs and white sneakers, bumbling onto the wrong train on the London Underground, butchering orders in French restaurants or offering unsolicited political opinions at Filipino dinner parties, I would shake my head in disbelief and wonder why they didn’t just stay at home.

Stateside we’ve all heard some variation of the stats that say the same thing: the quality of American education is slipping and much of the American population is spectacularly uninformed. In Just How Stupid Are We, Historian Rick Shenkman looked at how American ignorance affects the health of American democracy.  Some of his findings: Only 2 of 5 voters could list the three branches of the federal government. Forty-nine percent of Americans thought the president had the authority to suspend the Constitution.  And only a third of Americans realized that much of the rest of the world was against Bush’s invasion of Iraq.  Quite apart from the oft-cited stats on slipping science scores and math ability, the above stats directly affect the health of the American democracy and how its citizens interact with the rest of the world.

The flipside is of course, that for every worrying smear of damning statistics, there is an equally bold sign that American world dominance is not going away in a hurry.  As Barack Obama frequently reminds us, despite the need for educational reform, American schools and universities are still the envy of the world.  No place draws as many international students as do the American shores.  I know it is anecdotal but I have personally experienced the draw of American tertiary education.  I left the UK (where – by the way – everyone is convinced the UK has the best schools) to come to the US to earn my degree.

A real look at the strength of the “dumb American” epithet has to look at the duality that defines American society.  The fittest and the most sickly obese human beings are Americans.  The worst polluters and the most ardent tree huggers find their home here.  And, circling back to our opening thought from Mr. Ozawa, while the average American may have troubling deficiencies, there is something damn impressive about American can-do-it-ness.  For all the refinement and world knowledge citizens of other countries may have, some of the largest leaps of progress in civil rights, personal prosperity and world influence (military, economic, cultural) have been American.  As embarrassing an image as extreme American idiots create for this country, America is still defined by extraordinary opportunity and this makes up for a multitude of sins.

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Bjorn Karlman