Thursday, May 03, 2007

Do They Speak French?: A Guest Editorial

One of the finest students I have ever had in class took my terrorism course this semester. His name is Steve Dunkley and he is a non-traditional student. Not only is he more mature (in both senses of the word) than most of my students, he also is British, which made him doubly exotic to the mass of my students. After the semester ended, he shared something that he wrote in a communications course that he hoped would see the light of day. I am thus sharing his witty, smart, and telling piece with dcat's readers. Enjoy.
Do They Speak French?
Shortly after starting a new job, my beautifully modulated English accent attracted this question, “My Grandmother has promised me a trip to England if I graduate this year, do they speak French there?” More than a little confused I reconciled this by thinking, “Hey, this was an aberrant brain fry, no danger of a widespread misapprehension.” Sadly, just one day later a gentleman in his mid twenties remarked on my accent, “Man”, he said with a wistful look, “I’d love to go to England, but don’t they speak French there?” “Pardonez moi, je veux fixin’ to get out of here,” I muttered as I fled home to my Maison (Chez Limey) in Midland, Texas, nowhere near the rest of the world.

Let’s get one thing very clear: I love Americans and America; after all I married one and I have no regrets at all about moving to Texas after my wife and I lived and worked in England for the first six years of our marriage.

There is however no mistaking, once I start talking, that I am not from “these parts”. For two years I have been telling everybody that I am from Jackson, Mississippi, but after this caused a choking seizure to a Big Spring resident on a Southwest flight from Dallas I have been more selective in my victims. Just recently I have been telling people that I am in the United States doing TV commercials for Geiko, “Let’s not delve into the private life, love”.

There is a more serious side to this piece and that reflects a desire to want to see Americans and America become more familiar with what really goes on in the rest of the world. Sorry guys but many of you appear to have no idea what goes on outside of the United States and those that do have ideas – well many of your ideas are kind of, well –wrong!

Here are some prime examples but first let me tell you that many of these remarks came from both educated and professional people – all were sincere questions or observations.

“What do you mean you don’t have Republican and Democratic parties in England?”

“68 Euros, What’s that in real money?”

From a United States guest who stayed with us in England. “Do the people that live here have refrigerators and washing machines?”

From an El Paso CPA, “I noticed that Mexicans have a different culture to Americans, are you guys pretty much the same as us?”

Observed in a small town in England when a United States tourist wanted to buy a newspaper using a twenty dollar bill, “Don’t you people respect the United States dollar?” – imagine offering a British pound at the 7-11 in Small Town, Texas.

A visitor from Chicago overheard at the historic Windsor castle which is close by Heathrow Airport, “Why did they build the castle so close the airport, it’s so noisy?”

“Who’s your President, is it still Winston Churchill?”

Heard on the Dave Ramsey Show: “America has the best electoral system in the world; no other country in the world has elections so fair”.

From a local newspaper editorial “…No country in the world accepts the change of leadership as well as Americans because it’s the people that make those changes.”

Take it from me that there are many other countries in the world whose people are rightfully proud of their country. There are dozens of other countries that are highly sophisticated, with a thoroughly educated population and technologically advanced infrastructures. Few of these countries have elections decided by politically motivated judges in Florida – Whoops, just kidding!

Why is it that the most economically advanced country in the world has a population that is largely unfamiliar with the rest of the world? First and foremost it is education, American schoolchildren are just not taught about other countries, not their beliefs and aspirations, not their cultures, not their religion and not their economies. When America played Ghana in last year’s Soccer World Cup, I was shocked to find how many people had no idea where Ghana was located. No, it is not in the Caribbean. Most well-educated Europeans, Scandinavians, Australians and Asians can discourse knowledgeably about other nations and cultures.

A close, second reason is media. International news is largely ignored in provincial newspapers unless it directly involves the United States or has some anecdotal or humorous element. Worse still, almost all foreign news is “ethnically rewritten” by the news agencies so that American readers will be able to relate to it. As an exercise in supercilious condescension this “dumbing-down” is surely an insult to the intelligence of this nation. The policy infers that the people of the United States are genetically incapable of understanding anything unless it’s related to Uncle Sam and apple pie. All types of media indulge in this practice. Just as an unimportant example I saw a report about a controversial incident in the world of cricket a few months back. I can’t recall the network but very little of the controversy was discussed. In fact most of the effort was directed at poking fun at cricket in general and comparing it unfavorably to baseball. The point here is that the controversy (which was the story) was glossed over and the piece ethnically rewritten to reinforce the baseball culture of the United States. Anyone who wanted to hear more details of the issue in question would have been disappointed.

By the way, how come it’s called the World Series when only teams from America participate?

Does any of this really matter? Well the cricket and the baseball issue does not matter in the slightest but in a society that is irretrievably part of the “Global Village” the serious issues matter very much.

Unless the people and government of the United States gain more knowledge of the rest of the world and generate some sensitivity and understanding about other nations, peoples and religions, the tension so much in evidence today can only get worse. Is the Land of the Free any freer than the land of the Swedes or the French or the British? Are the electoral processes in Australasia, Canada and Europe less honest than that of the United States? If America is the best country in the world, does that mean that all other countries are inferior? If you can answer yes to all these questions – “there’s your sign”.

At a university course here in Texas the media communication instructor said that all writing for media should be composed at an 8th grade level. I thought that was pretty insulting until I heard that press releases for media publication should be written at 6th grade level – then I began to laugh. Does that mean when one form of media talks to another form of media they spell out the letters in play-dough and alphabet spaghetti or draw pictures on a board?

What is my point? I have absolutely no idea other than I feel that the education system and many media institutions are guilty of a genuine disservice to the American people. The World does not consist of The United States and those poor people that live in other places. The World is a rich tapestry of sophisticated cultures, aspiring peoples and unmitigated screwballs – sound familiar? The vast majority of this planet’s populations do not wake up in the morning worried about what the people of the USA are thinking or doing and neither do they routinely think that America or Americans are superior to them.

As a final thought, a fellow returning student said to me last year, “I know America is the best country in the world for the same reasons I know the Baptist Church is the best way to worship.” I guess I can’t argue with logic like that. And by the way they built Windsor Castle near to the airport so that the nice American tourists wouldn’t have too far to travel.


Anonymous said...

Steve Dunkley and I work together and he is as brillant and internationally informed, at work, as he is as the writer of this piece.

Tom said...

I do not mean to pick on Mr. Dunkley, but this is an all too common critique from our friends overseas (and in Canada). And I have to say, I'm not particularly impressed by the anecdotal evidence of American ignorance of the rest of the world. We can play the Jay Leno-moron-in-the-street game in any country and find all kinds of stupid anywhere in the world.

So let's get to the salient point: "Most well-educated Europeans, Scandinavians, Australians and Asians can discourse knowledgeably about other nations and cultures." First off, considering the gaps in knowledge I've seen from the intellectual classes of Europe about the United States--e.g.: ask them what they know about Ohio, not an unimportant state in American politics, and see what answer you get; or, better yet, ask them a simple geography question about anywhere between the Hudson River and the Sierra Nevadas, and see how they do--I'm not so sure that the non-American well-educated are all that caught up on other nations and cultures.

But let's grant the point, and say the well-educated can "discourse knowledgeably." Then you have to compare them to the American well-educated, at which point I think the knowledge question starts tipping toward Americans. It should be noted that people come from all over the world to study their own countries at American universities. Americans are among the foremost scholars in just about every international field--I bet the Asianists at Stanford and Cal would hold up just fine anywhere--and even less well known state schools have some of the best programs on specific areas (think Michigan State on Africa). None of this is to mention all the specialists in other fields who teach surveys in history, economics, sociology, journalism, geography, literature and know far more about the rest of the world than the rest of the world knows about the U.S.

Perhaps I'm setting the well-educated bar too high. I think we could still make a pretty solid case for educated Americans understanding at least parts of the rest of the world as well as their educated counterparts in Europe, Australia, and Asia. Speaking of one of cited examples of stupid Americans, I do not know for sure, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Martin Gilbert sold more copies of his single volume biography of Churchill in the U.S. than anywhere in the world. And I will virtually guarantee that the two volumes Manchester completed on Winston sold better here than anywhere else. The same could be said for any number of books on Napoleon, Hitler, and Nazi Germany. Or how about Robert Massie's work? Barbara Tuchman's? Jung Chang's? The current number one NYT bestseller in hardcover is a biography of Einstein with significant sections taking place outside the U.S. Number 11 is a memoir of a Somali-born Muslim woman. Number 7 in paperback is Night, by Elie Wiesel. British fiction (Harry Potter, Bridget Jones' Diary, Nick Hornby's books) regularly sells well in America. To go even more lowbrow, British films (Harry Potter, Snatch, Hugh Grant's stuff, Hot Fuzz) do pretty well, too. Zhang Yimou has made a good size industry out of his very Chinese films playing here (Hero made 53 million dollars in the U.S.).

It is all well and good to come up with examples of Americans making ignorant or stupid statements about the rest of the world (some of whom, I hasten to point out, were making stupid statements while visiting places outside the United States--strange, that), but it is another thing entirely to use those examples as evidence of ignorance or stupidity being behind American policies. Indeed drawing that connection is the most damning evidence of all about a serious and pervasive ignorance on the part of supposedly well-educated Europeans, Australians, New Zealanders, and Asians about how America works in the first place.

dcat said...

I dunno, Tom. I know it's only anecdotal, but in my experience, the average American knows a lot less about the rest of the world than the average Brit. Asking a European to know about Ohio as a counterexample to knowing about a European nation state is simply a nonstarter as an argument. The comparison, of course, would be knowing about a comparable sub-unit in a foreign country. And I'd still be willing to bet that a shockingly higher percentage of Brits would identify Ohio on a map than Americans could identify, say, east Anglia.

Yes, I agree that there is a reason that the rest of the world would know about the US and not, say, Belgium. But again, just in my (reasonably extensive) experience, ask about Africa and you'll get more blank stares from Americans than from Europeans.

I'm not certain, I'm afraid, what the assertion about buying Martin Gilbert books has to do with the discussion. I would guess that Brits do pretty well comparable to the US on a per capita basis when it comes to book buying. The large British bookstores are almost inarguably better than the major US chains by just about any measure, though US bookstores are more widespread.

Plus, I'm not certain you are addressing the gist of Steve's argument, which I would argue holds up pretty well. His is hardly an anti-American screed -- far from it. And I just have no idea what purpose it serves to deny that Americans could probably afford to learn a lot more about the world. That we may travel there is probably not as much of a stinging argument as you think it is given how so many Americans act when they are abroad and in a lot of ways the defensive tone of your piece tells us a great deal about precisely the phenomenon about which Steve is talking. The very act of criticizing the US appears to have gotten your ire raised when I would argue that his larger points still stand.


Steve said...

Tom - the humor was there to disarm an immediate defensive reaction from a piece cleverly designed not to offend, obviously ineffective from your perspective. I guess my defensive response would be "methinks he doth protest too much" but I am not defensive and will not say it! American historian Will Durant, “I think America is richer in intelligence than any other country in the world; and that its intelligence is more scattered than in any country in the world.”

dcat said...

It's all well and good to put ourselves up on a pedestal for being richer in intelligence, and yadda yadda yadda, whatever such an ultimately empty phrase means. But it would be more useful if Americans, say, had the highest literacy rates in the world (we are not in the top 20) or if we had a higher rate of passport ownership than other nations -- we don't -- in order to validate our "yeay us!" assertions. Never mind, say, global math and science scores, or geography scores, or almost any other measurement that indicates that the most alarming part of all is that we might think we are the smartest and yet we test out as being far from it. Maybe just a little American humility would go a long way. We are fundamentally a good and great country, but frankly telling the rest of the world as much at every turn proably gets a bit annoying given that maybe we are not alone in our goodness or our greatness.


Tom said...

Let me pause from reading Briton Philip Pullman's fantasy bestseller The Golden Compass (soon to be a major motion picture!)--wherein, conveniently, the heroine travels from Oxford to London to the fens of good old East Anglia and on to Lapland and Svalbard--to clarify my response.

Of course Americans should learn more about the rest of the world. (For that matter, Americans should learn more about the United States.) But saying that is not the same thing as using a variety of anecdotes from the ignorant as evidence of across-the-board American ignorance about the rest of the world. And, more important, there has yet to be any evidence presented here that shortcomings in American knowledge of the rest of the world are what have led to any tension the U.S. may (or may not) have with other countries--which was the key argument in Steve's essay.

And that brings me to my main point, which is that among the well-educated, Americans stack up pretty well against the rest of the world when it comes to knowledge of the rest of the world (they read about other countries, travel to other countries, read novels and watch movies from other countries, etc.). (Not incidentally, the only American-esque character in The Golden Compass is a cowboy-aeronaut from Texas, and he is every bit as badly cliched as that sounds.) Those well-educated Americans also make American policies, and, believe it or not, do not make those policies out of ignorance, but rather by balancing what they understand to be American interests and ideals. Obviously they take into consideration what the rest of the world thinks, but they do not and should not let international opinions dictate American policy.

Which leads to the most important issue with the original posts and the follow-up comments. Even if we grant that less well-educated Americans should become more educated about the rest of the world, it really is absurd to insist that Americans not believe in and proclaim the greatness of their country. Why shouldn't we? Because it hurts the feelings of others? Please. I would hope and expect that the English would love and celebrate their country, as should the Canadians, French, Italians, Chinese, Indians, Australians, and South Africans love and celebrate their's.

Do I think that the land of the free is freer than Sweden or France or Great Britain? Honestly, I doubt too many Americans have thought about free democracies in such terms, mostly because the comparison is not very useful, but if that's the question, then yeah, I sure do, and I can explain why if you would like. The same goes for the rest of the rhetorical questions in the original post. Sure, I prefer our electoral system to Canada's, Australia's, and the systems of Europe. And I also think the United States is the greatest country in the world, which by definition makes everyone else inferior in comparison to the United States, but does not make everyone else inferior in absolute terms. Great Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Australia, New Zealand and so on are wonderful in their own ways, and they all do quite a few individual things better than we do them in the United States, but I'm terribly sorry if as an American I do not think that even adding up what those countries do better than us makes them as wonderful as the United States. If I did, I would move to one of those places.

Here's the rub, I say all this as a very well-educated American who has more than a passing knowledge about the rest of the world. That knowledge has only increased my appreciation for the greatness of United States, and, as you might be able to tell, my willingness to say so--which, according to some, is a source of tension with the people of other countries. Since we all agree that less well-educated Americans should learn more about the rest of the world, are we willing to accept the horrifying potential outcome that a large number of Americans might end up being stronger and more vocal in their love of the United States?

In any case, until we can improve everyone's knowledge of everyone else, let's make a deal that will alleviate international tensions. I'm not going to judge the British based only on the behavior of authors who think Americans are all bad John Wayne characters, rugby fans who call American football players wussies because they wear pads, college students who compare the Boy Scouts to the Hitler Youth (no doubt unaware that the scouts started in their own country), or those who think all Americans in the midwest are knuckle-dragging farmers motivated only by money and who have never seen a building taller than two stories. And you don't judge Americans based only on individuals who think that French is the primary language in England, that all Brits must be bad guys in movies, that cricket is vastly inferior to baseball (when we know it is only moderately inferior), and who can only express their pride in their country in knee-jerk terms.


dcat said...

Tom --
Many fair points, some with which I still disagree. At a certain point anecdotes do mean something. My sample group is not merely from having lived, worked and travelled in many, many countries and seeing these Americans who travel who you think make such a great case for American inquisitiveness (there are no uglier or more insular groups than Americans abroad -- just being abroad is not a sign of openmindedness; and of course we have passports at a far smaller rate than just about any other country on earth that is in our economic strata) but also from having taught hundreds of students. At a certain point, you leave the realm of anecdote and hit a sample size that becomes more than anecdotal if less than scientific. I think I passed that realm some time ago.

I have a hard time also believing that our policymakers are always well informed. Sorry, but President Bush simply was not well versed in world affairs when he came to the office. And the American policy of firing those exact people who knew Arabic because of their sexuality indicates to me that far from a concern with trying to understand the rest of the world, we often only care to understand what we think. Our misadventures in Africa throughout the Cold War are example enough of an almost willful unwillingness to understand the very people we think we know best about. Let's further keep in mind that during the Rwanda genocide there were members of the State Department who could not get Hutu and Tutsi straight. I'm simply not that sanguine that our foreign policy apparatus is deeply committed to understanding the world we stand astride like a colossas.

As for stereotypical or cliched Texans, I live in Texas, and sometimes I wonder how far off the stereotype is. I'm not sure what point it proves to find insularity among Brits as well about perhaps our most easily attackable stereotype.

But beyond that, I thought that Steve's use of these sorts of cliches, a stream of which I frankly cannot replicate from Brits or Irish or Africans of many nationalities, was even the most important element of his argument. the reality is that there is a higher burden on the United States given our tendency to enforce our will abroad. We cannot have it both ways -- there is nothing especially edifying about a global power that
is so arrogant in its greatness and so convinced that it understands the outside world that it is unaware to look at its shortcomings in the very areas that it claims as its strengths.


Tom said...

Indeed, in our case familiarity with ignorance ought to breed some humility. I would be the last to claim that our schools are filled with students or teachers who are particularly interested in real knowledge. (Although it is my experience that our educated get more curious and better about learning once they get out of college and grow up a little.) Likewise, I am not saying that at the policy-making level Americans are somehow omniscient, just that they do have a working knowledge of the rest of the world--one that is at least as solid as the policy-making classes of Europe, Asia, and Australia. Sure, the United States has made foreign policy decisions with a poor understanding of situations on the ground, but no more so than any other country, and a whole lot less than most.

Let's be honest here: this really boils down to how friends handle criticizing one another. None of us are unaware of the issues Steve raises--it was of course two Americans who wrote The Ugly American way back in 1958, and we've all met Texans, so we know how that goes. I have no problem with trying to educate Americans; one could even say I have dedicated my career to that very object. I'm just not so sure that furriners holding up examples of America's worst and dimmest as a source of international tension is all that useful, interesting, or even true.

I'm sure that the dumbasses among us offend our friends overseas, but I hope the offense is pretty low-level--more an irritant than a real point of contention. In that sense Americans can kind of be like the friend who suggests a road trip to the nearest Olive Garden for a good meal--we're annoying, but we've got a good heart. More important, we're still a great friend who will give you the shirt off our back if ever you needed it. Do Europeans, Asians, and Australians really mean to say that our poor taste in restaurants diminishes our friendships?

If not, then don't say so, because it's one thing to give a friend some good-natured ribbing to help make a point about a superficial annoyance. It's quite another to say that the superficial annoyance is evidence of a fundamental character flaw that threatens the friendship.

dcat said...

Tom --
I think this strikes just about the right tone. There are problems, we should all know more and try to understand one another better, but in the long run, the US is more of a force for good than for ill and our alliances are important to us. The reality is that for all of the myth of how unpopular the US is, at least in most of the world they hate our current policies but love the idea of America. I run into very, very little true anti-American hostility when I am abroad, and when it has happened it has usually taken about one minute before someone has come up to me and said "ignore that guy, he's an asshole."


greg said...

There was a British guy at my wedding and he wore pink suspenders and a pink shirt and he couldn't handle the little alcohol he had and every time I talked to him all he could talk about was how much more sophisticated Brits are than Americans. His knowledge of the politics of water rights in western American history was nil. What does this tell us about Brits? Nothing. Except that one of them has no idea how stupid a man looks in pink.