Thursday, September 11, 2008
It's Not the Yanks who are dumb
Back in September 2001, I wasn't blogging and so there was no 'Wally of the Week Award'. But had there been, I've no doubt I would have awarded it to a certain 'Thomas Smith' from Bristol.
These extracts from an article of mine from The Spectator, written to mark the first anniversary of the Twin Tower attacks in September 2002, explain why.
'I am 25, a graduate who has travelled extensively after university and a Labour voter. To people of my type, across Europe and the English-speaking world, Americans are a laughing-stock, known mainly for their vacuous culture and profound ignorance. We all have a “dumb Yank” story on our travels. This is why Americans are so hated by us on the Left, however much we condemn the outrages.'
Such were the thoughts of Thomas Smith of Bristol, in a letter to the Daily Telegraph not long after the events of 11 September.
I am 35 - ten years older than Smith. I am also a graduate, and I, too, have travelled 'extensively' - to more than 30 countries at the latest count. I, too, consider myself to be 'on the Left', although, unlike Thomas Smith, I actually stopped voting Labour when, in 1995, it ditched Clause Four and thereby ceased to be a party of the Left. Why, then, when our backgrounds and viewpoints appear so similar, did I feel such anger and indignation on reading Smith's letter?
It would be nice to think that Smith's views are just the unrepresentative opinions of a rather arrogant and puffed-up young man. Yet sadly, he is probably right when he talks about how people of his 'type' see Americans.
Although Smith's assertions, thankfully, did not go unchallenged by American readers of the Telegraph, one can only wonder what greater commotion would have been caused had our young Bristolian used the term 'dumb' to describe, for example, Nigerians or Pakistanis instead of Americans. If he had done so, he would probably have been visited by officers of the Commission for Racial Equality, and all prospects of a glittering postgraduate career would have been nipped in the bud.
Moving on to the dreary 'Dumb Yanks' jibe, I write as one who has taught both American and British students for more than ten years. While it is true that knowledge of European geography is not usually the American student's strong point, once again, one can't really press this too hard when only 8 per cent of our own schoolchildren have heard of Winston Churchill and 12 per cent believe Tony Blair to be a football player. And while we castigate Americans for their ignorance of Europe, how many Britons can name the capital of Nebraska, or know which states border Iowa?
All in all, unthinking attacks by the Left on Americans are not only nasty but they don't add up.
Does that mean, then, that we all have to love Uncle Sam? Not a bit of it. I have written thousands of words condemning US foreign policy, most of which were considered too strong to be published in mainstream publications. I have organised petitions for the indictment of Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright as war criminals for their role in the illegal bombing of Yugoslavia, and have taken part in vigils and demonstrations outside US embassies at home and abroad. I have resolutely opposed President Bush's never-ending 'war against terrorism' since day one, and am appalled at the prospect of forthcoming US military strikes against Iraq.
Yet I have never personalised the strong feelings I have regarding US foreign policy into attacks on individual Americans or Americans in general. Refraining from doing so does not constitute a cop out or appeasement of the enemy. Slobodan Milosevic, a man who has more cause than most to feel bitter about Uncle Sam, shows that he understands this nuance perfectly when, after a long, arduous day at his US-financed show trial, he unwinds each evening with his collection of Hemingway's works and his Frank Sinatra CDs. Similarly, no more scathing critiques of American society have been written than Brave New World and After Many a Summer, yet their author, Aldous Huxley, liked America and Americans so much that he spent the last 30 years of his life living in California. By the same token, there have been few more devastating critics of US foreign policy than Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal and Ramsey Clark, American citizens all.
It is important for all of us who share that distinguished triumvirate's world view to continue to break bread with individual Americans, for it is not with individual Americans, or indeed with America in general, that our argument lies. If we do otherwise, and start to label whole nationalities as 'dumb' and 'ignorant', we are already one small step away from the undeniably racist mindset of those who perpetrated the atrocities in Manhattan 12 months ago. By all means refer to US foreign policy as 'dumb', Mr Smith, but please not its people.