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A nation of idiots?

June 25, 2007

American ignorance perplexes me: I struggle to understand how people in a wealthy country, with access to unlimited information, can know so little about the world.

We’ve all been there.

My favourite question, which I’ve had more than once from Americans, is “like where is South Africa anyway?”.

Personally, I can’t think of anything more obvious.

Another common one, encountered while chatting online, is “wow, so you’re like from [insert country]. You guys have computers there?”

No, doos, we use telepathy to access the Internet.

Yes, we do practice cannibalism in Africa – I ate your brain last night.

Then there is the usual confusion between Austria and Australia, Serbia and Siberia. Also the fact that Americans can’t distinguish between any English accent that isn’t American: when I worked in a pub in Edinburgh, the American tourists thought I was Scottish (for the record, I sound South African, bru – like Leonardo in Blood Diamond).

OK, so I’ve got to ask: are you really all as ignorant as you sound, or is this some kind of elaborate practical joke you’re playing on the rest of the world?

It’s not that average Americans are more ignorant than the rest of the world – although I think they are – it’s the fact that they’re so unashamed of their ignorance. There are some pretty thick people in the UK as well – people who don’t know the difference between Australia and South Africa, who see both countries simply as a source of barmen for their pubs. But they’re not in your face as much.

There’s plenty I’m ignorant about, but I am embarrassed when I don’t know something, and keep my mouth shut, following my grandfather’s advice:

“Rather keep your mouth shut and let people think you’re a fool than open it and remove all doubt.”

Americans have no such qualms. I see it all the time in Scotland. American tourists – the ones exploring their Scottish ancestry are the most cringe-worthy – spouting off their ignorance at the top of their voices.

Instead of doing even the most basic research about the country they are going to visit, Americans seem to be content to wonder around in blissful ignorance.

Ignorance seem to be seen as some kind of virtue, marking you out as ordinary, decent and down to earth, innocent of intellectual sophistication and chicanery.

Of course, having a clown for a president doesn’t help.

A few days ago I was on the Glasgow underground, and overheard (I couldn’t help it) some American student explaining to his visiting parents about how he lived in the neighbourhood of ‘Patrick’. I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about, until I saw him get off at Partick station. He didn’t even know the name of the area he lives in! Does he think the whole of Glasgow is dyslexic, and spells the name wrang?

Of course there are plenty of intelligent Americans around, unfortunately you don’t really notice them, as they keep to themselves, blend in or claim to be Canadian. This must all of this must be so unbelievably embarrassing for them.

I’ve been to the States, and although I met some pretty dense people, some of the most well-informed people I’ve ever come across were there too. Also, I like the fact that the counter-culture is so well-developed, that people have more freedom to live alternative lifestyles than they do in the disapproving UK.

Please, this is not meant to be an anti-American post. There’s plenty I admire about America and Americans. According to my user stats, a third of my readers are in the US. I don’t know whether or not they’re all South African expats, but I genuinely want to know what’s up with this. How is it possible for people to know so little about the world?

And if they know so little, how has American culture come to be so dominant? And what does this say about the rest of the world? Do we have such little self-respect that we feel we need to emulate the Americans?

My own suspicion is that it’s down to a kind of arrogant parochialism that sees the rest of the world as some kind of theme park designed for their amusement: Come see Scottishland! Hear the pipers! Wear the kilts! Fun exciting rides for all the family!

There seems to be no understanding that the country they are visiting is anything more than a quaint sideshow designed for their amusement, no attempt to engage with the people of that country on their own terms. They also seem to assume that absolutely everyone in the world wants to come and live in the US, and can’t fathom that some people might be perfectly happy where they are.

I blame Forrest Gump.

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