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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.


Roland Hulme said...

Brilliant stuff, Neil.

Tommy Schmitz said...


- tommy in iowa

Anonymous said...

Yankees are stupid, ignorants, and barbaric. they speard hatred miserey and disasters wherever they go.
Even if you said otherwise, they know we detest them.

Neil Clark said...

roland and tommy: thanks.

anonymous: you should have written 'American foreign policy makers in recent years have been stupid, ignorant, and barbaric. they spread hatred, misery and disasters wherever they go.' You can't say the same about the American people en masse. Queestion: have you ever been to America? I'm sure that if you had been you would not have written such a comment.

Anonymous said...

You are trotting out the argument that 'not all nazis were bad'.
the americans elected bush twice.
when is enough enough?

Anonymous said...

prof favdi Ray Griffns new article on 9-11:

Was America Attacked by Muslims on 9/11?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, there are quite convincing arguments to say that Americans in fact did NOT elect Bush either time.

Anonymous said...

Bob's absolutely correct.
In fact, we could go further and extend his argument to our own shores thus:
Given that the UK electorate comprises something around 60% of the total population, and that only about 40% of those eligible to vote ever actually do so (on a good day), that the British govt. (whichever party is in power) is actually only elected by, even with a "massive landslide" of 40%, one person in fifteen. Although we don't hear, as we did during the last US elections, of vanloads of ballot papers being taken away by armed men in vehicles marked "Vote Bush" (or whichever politician is under suspicion of electoral misdeeds), we have no firm basis for believing that similar criminality is not rife amongst out own Ruling Class. It is misleading and unfair to castigate Americans, or Brits, for their electoral choices, since the electorate really plays only a token part in the process.
I've met many intelligent, thoughtful and liberal-minded Americans in my travels, none of them in any way resemble the stereotypical "dumb yanks" of the popular imagination. Their militaristic and deeply unpleasant governments do not represent them, any more than ours represents us.

Neil Clark said...

davros: absolutely. The govts and in fact the entire ruling elites of both Britain and the US are completely unrepresentative of the general population of both countries. In Britain and the US ordinary people are talking about the rising cost of living and how difficult it is to make ends meet. And what are the govts and ruling elites of Britain and the US talking about:- the 'threat' posed by Russia and Iran.

Anonymous said...

On that logic, anonymous 4:58 & 12:46, the British too are stupid, ignorants, and barbaric. We went in to Iraq, Afghanistan and just about everywhere else too remember. And we voted for the government that did it - 3 times!

Anonymous said...

This article is, of course, correct.

The one proviso I would give is that what would otherwise be unforgivable xenophobia can be justifiable, or at least understandable, when one's own country is being culturally colonised. When debating these issues with Europhobes I have a killer line: "yes, but how many British people wear lederhosen?" They always go quiet then.

Bigotry against entire nations is always wrong. But some bigotries *are* more understandable.