“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.