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

18 thoughts on “The “Dumb American””

  1. How would you rate secondary education in the US compared to the UK and Sweden? (Did you go to gymnasium?) IMHO state education in America is quite poor.

    Love that you love America. Send any like-minded female compatriots of yours my way :)

  2. I’ve lived in Japan and trust me, they have their fair share of idiot rednecks too. Just go to a Pachinko joint and see for yourself.
    Anyway, in Taiwan we have the green party and their uneducated hoard who believe that the KMT president Ma YingJyo is going to sell Taiwan to China and that he still has his Green Card and can leave for America anytime he wants. So… idiots are everywhere, its just that American idiots are rich enough to travel.

  3. I have to agree with the craziness of the stocking up on food for Japanese and the stocking up of Guns and ammo for dumb americans. I honestly believe many in the south where I live are gearing up for a civil war. I like the contrast though that the best and worst of many categories can be found in the USA. The home of the freedom of religion and the home of what is becoming the most persecution awaiting religious right this side of the dark ages. I still love this country but things are changing right before our very eyes.

  4. I would say that it the real problem is not our the educational system, so much as the culture of recreation and entertainment which pushes out useful knowledge. Kids can’t retain what they learned at school because they spend the other half of the day watching tv. Mom and dad aren’t much better. People have to have an ipod attached to their ears at all times lest they have to endure quietude and actually think. People don’t read anything other than magazines and smutty novels. And then there’s out poor nutrition which makes us even dumber. These are the real issues. You can throw money at education all you want, but until these societal problems are fixed, we’ll still be just as dumb. How do you fix laziness, self-indulgence and the cult of pleasure and entertainment in a society? I wish I knew. Prosperity has always been the death of a society, and it is for us as well.

  5. First off, isn’t calling a country of 300 million which is among the most diverse in the world ‘simple-minded’ the single greatest anecdote of what of simple-minded person would do/say?

    I have met a lot of dumb foreigners in my life time…and I mean truly dumb people. In fact, I would say the most misinformed/obnoxious/most willing to give their opinion without anyone asking people I have ever met were foreigners. Is it that dumb foreigners come to the US, or is it that everyone has their fair share of dumb people? I would guess it was the latter. I have just never met these supposed geniuses that live overseas…at least…not in any number higher than what I would expect to find in America.

    I will even give you an example of something that happened just a couple weeks ago. I was at the birthday party of a friend of a friend. It was five Americans and three Mexicans. One of the Mexicans said she didn’t like Jan Brewer. Not for the reasons you would think though. She said she didn’t like her hair style. It was a really embarrassing situation and it wasn’t a joke. No one laughed.

    As for buying guns for Y2k…I am sure it happened, but most of what I saw on the news was not about buying guns. I don’t really think that is a fair characterization of what happened.

    Also, when your people commit the rape of Nanking, it takes some gall to insinuate another society is too violent.

    Re his comments on Christianity…isn’t it the exact opposite? Christianity is everywhere. He is Buddhist…Buddhism is not everywhere. Christians go door to door to try and convert everyone…Buddhists do not.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not exactly going to say Americans are the smartest people in the world…I just don’t have that type of information at my fingertips. Even if I did, I wouldn’t know what type of information to go off of. Would the measurement of intelligence be based of off the types of people that run the country? Germany elected Hitler, which, despite popular opinion of many, is still worse than electing Bush twice. Does that forever damn the German people to the category of complete retards? Mexico has two political parties and they are both socialist, and their country sucks enough that many choose to leave. Does that mean they are dumb? I could go on and on, country by country. Every country has its fair share of stupid policies/leaders/programs that are national failures/etc.

    I don’t think test scores in school should effect the way we rate the intelligence of the general population. My mom teaches in an area where English is a second language for many of the students. Their test scores make them look stupid because they don’t understand the language. If the US was like Sweden…one language one people, America would kill those test scores too. We aren’t though. Half the kids barely speak English. There are just too many variables in test scores to consider them reliable at the international level in my opinion.

  6. Actually Buddhism is everywhere and is the fourth largest religion in the world… i fail to see how “my religion is bigger than yours” has any relevance.

  7. The relevance was that it was part of the original article.

    “…his view of Christianity – ‘exclusive and self-righteous’…”

  8. Monocellular—BA HA HA HA! We need to co-opt that adjective and make it our own! This piece is singularly articulate, observant and even-handed. As an American broad living abroad in the UK (the unwitting American cultural attaché to North West Kent) during the Lewinskly /election debacle, I had plenty ‘splainin to do. My dual-national daughters brought home social science textbooks with photos of “typical Americans:” obese, spam fed, filthy, shoeless and gap-toothed Kentucky mountain folk lounging wide –legged on a dilapidated shack porch above the caption: “The American diet is rich in fat.” The picture said the rest. My well-developed sense of humor helped me rehabilitate my daughters’ self-esteem. It’s easy to paint us with a broad brush for the same reason that our local school district uses its meager funds to support sports programs more readily than libraries: Stupid loud people get more attention. And they do love to hate us for our excesses, as you so ably explicate. But give me American efficiency over the Circumlocution Office any day!

  9. Very balanced, nice job. Yes, we may have some morons in this country, but from a results-oriented standpoint, the US boasts some of the worlds greatest achievements from within it’s ranks!

    Can I say that you picked the most ideal picture to depict this topic…I like it!

  10. I did my GCSEs and “A” levels in the UK and have no experience of the US high school system but from what I’ve picked up from reading and conversations, secondary education in Europe trumps that of America but things level out as you progress through education… certainly post graduate work in the US ranks as strongly or better than anywhere else.. I’ll keep me eyes open for a Swede:)

  11. Very valid point Tristan… American tourists range from the best to the worst… too bad stereotypes are set based on the equivalent of the English Ibiza-bound, Reebok-garbed yob.

  12. The more you tell me about things in the south, the more I want to see it for myself. It’s been a while…:) But yes, in this land of opportunity you have the freedom and the opportunity to be a stunning success or to be a xenophobic turd. How do you think things are changing? Most of our paranoia and economic drama has been worse in the past…

  13. Jonathan, the above thoughts tie well into the convenient comparisons between the US and Rome pre-crumble… decadence and lazy complacency leading to ruin… I am probably too optimistic but I am betting that the right awareness and policy effort can turn things around.. or at the very least, slow America’s decline. Globalization and the interdependency of the modern world require a strong America

  14. David, I’m with you. I’ve met shockingly stupid people everywhere. I think part of what feeds into the “dumb American” stereotype is jealousy – at wealth and facility to travel and at military and political clout… this puts Americans in the spotlight and makes people exaggerate every little fault.

  15. Oh man, I used to hate that part of British schooling… the America bashing was rampant (didn’t help that I sounded American for the 5 full years that I spent in Secondary School). I remember that I would suggest that we study American history. I remember the scoffs of “What history?!”… Sometimes I felt like Europe would be seriously disappointed if America did not turn out to be one huge set of Jerry Springer

  16. Well, for once me thinks we agree! :) As someone who has also changed a few countries that I called home in my relatively short life – I too see those opposites. Like you, I too appreciate the “git ‘er done” attitude. The solutions may not always be most elegant, but certainly practical. Compare the Main Street in any European town with the odd mish-mash of prefab warehouse-like line of stores that form the retail center of an American town, and you see what I mean. Still, access is easy (both by car and truck), parking plentiful and the stores are neat, organized and easy to navigate inside, which is not always the case in Europe.
    The bottom line is, there is room for people to grow if they wish, and the freedom to stagnate (stay dumb) if they can’t be bothered. What made America the land of opportunity is the freedom to take the risks (and yes, that means the freedom to fail), and pursue goals largely unimpeded. Recently, I am seeing a move to turn America into a “nanny state”, where there is at least an illusion of greater security (we can’t possibly allow people/companies to fail), but stifling the freedom to take the risks which have made America what it is. Whether this will make Americans any smarter or dumber (leaving all the thinking to the government indicates the later as the most likely outcome) remains to be seen….

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