“Fahrenheit 9/11” auteur Michael Moore recently fueled the epidemic of hatred for America by denouncing his own country and his own people to the foreign press. The UK’s Mirror printed Mr. Moore’s observation of Americans: “They are the dumbest people on the face of the earth…in thrall to conniving, thieving, smug pricks…We Americans suffer from an enforced ignorance. We don’t know about anything that’s happening outside our country. Our stupidity is embarrassing.” (1)
That’s right. We are. In fact, we’re stupid enough to believe that we have a great country. Why? Let’s look at the facts…
In 2002, the US Census Bureau estimated that 32.5 million people, from places Moore claims our children can’t find on a map (2), lived in the United States, the largest foreign-born population in America since we started keeping records in 1850. (3) Why are all these people risking drowning, hardships, cultural barriers and possible contamination by our laziness, aggression and arrogance, incompetence, shallowness, and sexually explicit media? Why do people such as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger come here, entertain, take advantage of opportunity, and enrich our economy through business and philanthropy?
Shock time: Americans are not nearly as despised as Al-Jazeera would have you believe. In fact, the PEW Global Attitudes Project reports that in its 2004 survey, roughly half the respondents in Russia, Turkey and Morocco say people who have moved to the U.S. have a better life (natives of Germany, France and Britain who responded to the survey disagreed, but that’s hardly a surprise, even though Britain has always been a friend).(4)
None of the usual pat phrases such as “land of opportunity,” “let freedom ring,” and “democracy, democracy, democracy,” seem to explain why Elian Gonzalez’ mother died to bring him to America.
But perhaps we as Americans are stupid enough to believe that those phrases actually mean something. Perhaps we are the dumbest people on the face of the earth. “Dumb” in this case can mean “naïve,” generally meant as an insult, as in “Don’t be so naïve about why al-Qa’eda hates us so much.”
These days, anyone who doesn’t adopt the de rigueur attitude of boredom and yawning in the face of just about everything is called naïve. But Americans have always been known for innocence and openness.
Beverly West quoted actress Alicia Silverstone in Culinarytherapy. Ms. Silverstone, perhaps channeling President Abraham Lincoln’s optimism, once remarked, “Like when I’m in the bathroom looking at my toilet paper I’m like ‘Wow! That’s toilet paper!’ I don’t know if we appreciate how much we have.” (p. 184)
The idea of anything-therapy and the overuse of “like” appear to the global audience to be authentically American, impressed with our own coolness in one breath and cheerfully mangling the English language in the next, not to mention taking the words of a nubile young Hollywood actress (who starred, interestingly, in a contemporary remake of Jane Austen’s satire on manners Emma) as wisdom. Being excited about toilet paper seems, in this high-tech age, a little backward and disingenuous.
Yet all major religions, particularly the Judeo-Christian tradition on which America as we know it was founded, emphasize gratitude as part of spiritual consciousness. Gratitude for the simplest of things, like toilet paper. The great composer Aaron Copeland based his “Appalachian Spring” symphony on the Shaker song of gratitude, “Simple Gifts.”
“Simple” is often a synonym for “dumb.” Yet if simplicity means stupidity, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were prize idiots. Both of these quintessential American philosophers emphasized simplicity.
In a land of high-speed Internet, 500 channels, strip malls, and coffee companies proliferating like WMD, simplicity seems a foreign concept. Yet in America, we’re “simple” enough to believe that we live in a land of liberty, that (political correctness aside) we can pray, say, or sing whatever we want. We’re simple enough to believe that there still is a personal God, no matter what name we praise; that our kids have the right to attend church, despite the brouhaha over “one nation under God” in the Declaration of Independence; and that (reality shows and a 50 percent divorce rate aside) saying “till death do us part” still means something.
We’re naïve and open enough to believe that, “conniving, thieving, smug” CEOs notwithstanding, we can work hard, start businesses, take care of our families, and create a life that we can be proud of when we leave this world. Even the much-vilified Martha Stewart is admired as a self-made American success story, someone who has used traditional homemaking arts to build a worldwide brand that emphasizes the good life. So much for the idea that Americans are a land of instant macaroni-and-cheese and fast-food eaters. Yes, people sue McDonald’s over getting fat, but the majority of Americans work hard, try to eat well (often together as a family), and pride themselves on playing fair and upholding the law.
Despite celebrity trials, racial prejudices, judicial snafus, serial killers and publicity-hungry lawyers, we still think that “the little guy” still gets a day in court and a fair trial by jury. There is still a sense of personal responsibility for oneself, one’s fellow citizens, and one’s children.
Despite increasing pressures that erode childhood, our kids still have faith in parents to set limits, to be an example, and to lay the foundation for a good life. Certainly many of the young men and women we have seen interviewed in Operation Iraqi Freedom represent the best and the brightest. Our children exhibit the unique dedication to serving others that so many of our leaders, from President Kennedy to Eleanor Roosevelt to Colin Powell, extol. Ms. Stewart advocated teaching disadvantaged women how to start their own businesses. In America, even some of our high-profile so-called criminals want to improve life for others.
We’re simpleminded enough to believe we can make a difference abroad and in our own communities. We have a strong commitment to preserving the earth for future generations. From Thoreau to Rachel Carson to the eco-friendly celebrity spokesperson of the week, Americans show a love for the natural beauty of the earth, a beauty that we celebrate in our own homeland. Many of our citizens support recycling, controls on pollution, wilderness/rainforest conservation, and wildlife preservation. As the riots at the 1999 WTO Summit in Seattle show, Americans can be quite over-zealous when supporting their causes. In short: Americans care.
This should come as no surprise. Our ancestors banded together to secede from British rule. Even in our fight for liberty, we held opposing views, contrarian views amongst ourselves. The Whigs who supported the Revolution and the Tories who supported England clashed with the fervor of their descendants, demonstrators with opposing views on wars from Vietnam to Operation Iraqi Freedom.
This passion for ideas, this devotion, may seem to undermine the unity we boast of. We’re naïve enough to protect the free expression of ideas, even sometimes seemingly at great cost. You don’t see death squads breaking into antiwar protesters’ homes. For all the controversy over the Patriot Act, people who disagree with the US government do not simply disappear without a trace. Case in point: “Fahrenheit 9/11.” It has made over $1 million (the first documentary to do so), yet people coming out of movie theaters don’t get dragged into unmarked cars and interrogated. You can’t be more critical of the government than Mr. Moore, and yet he won an Oscar for “Bowling For Columbine.” Unlike Soviet artists who criticized Communism, Americans are not forced to flee their homeland–the rest of us won’t stand for it.
Lest we forget, it was recently-deceased and much-praised former President Ronald Reagan who uttered the famous phrase, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” His administration was hardly free of controversy, and yet “the Gipper” maintained a cheerful optimism, an openness to the “Evil Empire,” and yes, a naïve belief that America was “a shining city on a hill.” Reagan was actually dumb enough to believe that America would prosper long after he left office. From this standpoint, “the Gipper” personifies Mr. Moore’s idea of American idiocy.
In that case, the countless mourners, including children too young to have heard of President Reagan, who streamed by the casket in the Capitol Rotunda and at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library all suffer from a collective lobotomy. For that matter, so do the world’s most famous figures, including Mr. Gorbachev and Dame Margaret Thatcher, who all responded to President Reagan’s uniquely American character.
At this rate we’ll be a nation of Forrest Gumps, which wouldn’t be all bad if it meant we could have his decency and kindness (not to mention Tom Hanks’ sense of history).
Oh wait…maybe we do. Perhaps that’s what Mr. Moore means when he calls us “the dumbest people on the face of the earth.” By that standard, we’re an entire nation of “Jeopardy” champions.
So the next time people here or abroad say, “You Americans are the world’s dumbest people,” we can say with pride, “Yes, we are. God Bless America!”
(1) June 26, 2004, http://www.newsmax.com/archives/ic/2004/6/26/103545.shtml
(2) Michael Moore pointed to a National Geographic survey of American children, http://geosurvey.nationalgeographic.com/geosurvey/. NAEP and Gallup have also reported geography deficiencies. However, it should be noted that in 2003, 84 percent of eighth graders could puzzle out the motivations of a character in a Langston Hughes story, cf. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/reading/results2003/. Also, there was an overall gain across all grades in mathematical since 1990, cf. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/mathematics/results2003/
Movie reviewer/screenwriter Kristin Johnson composes personalized poems, speeches, toasts, vows, and family memories. Visit http://www.poemsforyou.com to order your personalized memories. She is also co-author of the Midwest Book Review “enthusiastically recommended” pick Christmas Cookies Are For Giving: Stories, Recipes and Tips for Making Heartwarming Gifts (ISBN: 0-9723473-9-9). A downloadablemedia kit is available at our Web site, http://www.christmascookiesareforgiving.com, or e-mail the publisher (firstname.lastname@example.org) to receive a printed media kit and sample copy of the book. More articles available at http://www.bakingchristmascookies.com