In 2004, the rest of the world collectively thought, “Uh, yeah.”
On September 11th, 2001, author Susan Jacoby wandered into a bar on the Upper East Side and overheard two men comparing the day’s tragic events to Pearl Harbor. When one man asks what Pearl Harbor was, the other responds, “That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War.”The exchange prompted her to write The Age of American Unreason, a book recently profiled in the NY Times for its assertion that modern American culture is anti-intellectual. The article was accompanied by a general question posed to readers that quickly sparked over 500 responses in a matter of hours:
“Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?”
It’s trendy to beat up on Americans, even in America. The reputation of the Ugly American continues to precede us in all manner of global affairs, and not without reason: for starters, we have publicly embarrassed ourselves in the past two presidential elections, we consume a shamefully disproportionate amount of energy and fossil fuels in comparison to other industrialized countries, and the advent of YouTube allows people from Lahore to La Mancha to type in the words “Miss Teen South Carolina” and watch this video:
(which they understand because they likely speak our language, though we may not speak theirs) affirming their belief that we are a nation of imbeciles, the type of imbeciles who also start wars they can’t finish. And we still don’t use the metric system! Fine. Guilty as charged.
But are we hostile to knowledge? Obviously this is a deliberately inflammatory question. However, I’ll answer in earnest, because there may be a kernel of truth wedged into such a smug grin. Most of this reputation has to do with our limited knowledge of geography, our inability to speak other languages, or recently to other Western European nations, the fact that as a modern superpower, we have a politically influential populace that practices Christianity and votes based on “religious” issues like abortion, gay marriage, and the death penalty. (“Don’t we have a separation of church and state?” they ask.)
The American mentality has always been this: me and mine first. Now before you bob your head condescendingly, consider that this is the mentality that has resulted in our country becoming arguably the most desired patch of real estate on the planet for the past two hundred years. Post-World War II modern America became the leader in global commerce, higher education, free-market enterprise, and the locus of innovative creativity from art to technology. We’re responsible for both Mickey Mouse and the computer mouse. My point is that more than being anti-intellectual, our culture is simply self-absorbed.
My Norwegian friend Nils Olaf points this out when he sees something as innocuous as a bottle of antibacterial hand soap in my bathroom. It’s not uncommon knowledge that while it might help my palms stay germ free in the short run, antibacterial soap will ultimately assist in breeding more powerful, antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the long run. The American mentality, this implies, is that hopefully I (the antibacterial soap consumer) will be dead before then. But at least my kids and I will be safe. Screw the rest. Never met ‘em, never liked ‘em.
How did we get to be like this? As much as I like to think Reality Television is the root of all evil, I think it’s a chicken and the egg theory. It’s easily argued that this has always been our culture, and that it’s just become more pronounced because we enjoy an uncommon influence on the rest of the planet economically, militarily, culturally, and environmentally speaking. However, I think it’s become more extreme because we live in an age of runaway decadence. We enjoy infinite variety in access to lifestyle choices, consumer products, and food and cuisine. We want what we want, and we wanted it yesterday (I’m waiting for Amazon.com to have a ‘Get it Yesterday’ option available for a nominal fee). And given the massive geography of our country, plus the expense involved in traveling abroad, it’s easy to see how the average middle-class American would have no need or desire to leave America, in comparison to a Swiss or Belgian who can leave their country without a passport for the weekend and needs to speak two or more languages even within their own national borders. In comparison, our Joe Six-Pack would seem frightfully provincial.
The good news is that we Americans are programmed for change. It’s what forms the basis of our Constitution and informed our earliest national mythologies; from Ben Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac” to the earliest Puritan work ethic, our primary national principles have always been self-improvement and Free Will over Divine Providence: if you don’t like it, change it. The fact that we will have a non-white male presidential nominee for the first time in our nation’s history speaks to the powerful undercurrents of change happening right now. One of the reasons I love the idea of a President Obama is that having lived in Indonesia as a child, he understands and respects growing up on the flip-side of a culture, not to mention a Muslim one at that. Personally, I believe our government should subsidize any American student who wants to study abroad in high school or university regardless of race or socioeconomic background. It’s the least we could do to encourage international exposure.
In my own travels, I’ve met quite a few people who assumed that as an American, I would have the IQ equivalent of whatever they ate for lunch that day. But I’m happy to report that the majority of Americans I’ve met abroad have been wonderfully open-minded, curious, well-read, bi or multi-lingual, humorous, and generous in spirit. Most importantly, they knew they wanted to know more. (Now if I could only meet more of these within our own borders!) So yes, maybe we have an unhealthy obsession with celebrity. Yes, perhaps we have a horrifying obesity rate. Yes, in comparison with the rest of the world, we suck at math. But we also have a history of promoting and instituting massive social change within an incredibly short period of time. And I think we’re slowly, ever so slowly moving back in the right direction. So don’t give up on us just yet. Maybe it won’t happen in my lifetime, but you never know. Hopefully that antibiotic-resistant super bacteria won’t get to me first.