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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Dumb Americans?


After reading yet another article in the New York Times about yet another author who has penned yet another book about how dumb we are in America, I decided to do the dumb man’s excuse for research: I queried “dumb Americans” on Google. Guess what I found? I found dozens and dozens of web sites devoted to exposing dumb Americans. I found that I have some fellow adult countrymen who don’t posses the sort of knowledge one would expect from a modestly educated ten year old. There are stupid people in America? I was shocked! From the un-ironic manner in which Americans were mocked by people from other countries it seems that we have a monopoly on stupid people.

There used to be an unwritten rule in my neighborhood when we were kids: I could pick on my little brother but if anyone else did they did so at their peril. I sometimes feel the same way about America. I am an extremely vocal critic of all things from the United States of America, but I often get irked by people from other countries pointing out our faults. To all of the people manning web sites which chronicle the stupidity of my fellow citizens, I have to point out the irony that they are doing it on a mostly American-made technology. Wozniak and Jobs and Gates were also American, if my shallow mind and poor memory serve me.

This essay isn’t out to defend America against her critics; it is meant to ask the question, “Am we stupid?” “Why is we stupid?” “Stupid bad?” “Stupid cool?” In short, the answers are “yes,” “long story,” “yes,” and, “no.” It seems like the rest of the world is obsessed with America’s collective IQ so I will try to shed some light on this topic from my uniquely America-in-exile perspective.

Let me start by saying that, for the most part, Americans are herd animals, like just about everyone else in the world. The difference is that we think that we are all lone wolves, people who buck the system, fiercely independent free-thinkers, and rugged individualists. Few of us will admit to being conformists. We got these ideas about ourselves where we get a lot about how we feel about the world: from movies and television. Cowboys represent a very small slice of the American demographic pie yet we have been told that this is the archetypical American male. Many of us see the cowboy as the embodiment of all the best qualities a man should posses. If you look at this breed closely you may wonder why we see him so fondly. Cowboys were, after all, uneducated itinerant farm workers, often prone to violence and alcoholism, rarely in the company of women, and, for the most part, filthy.

They don’t make too many westerns these days, thank fucking god. Hollywood has replaced the cowboy with a new American model: the unapologetic dumb fuck. Whenever I am in a discussion about film* I ask people if they can name a single movie protagonist who is an intellectual and portrayed in a favorable light. Take your time. I can wait. Get back to me tomorrow or the next day on that one.

Now name a movie protagonist who is “cool” and almost completely stupid. The entire Adam Sandler filmography comes to mind. You could say the same of the movies of almost every other alumni of Saturday Night Live. The stoner character Sean Penn played in Fast Times at Ridgemont High was stupid because he smoked way too much weed. Filmmakers copied that archetype but made their creations stupid without the excuse of marijuana. As far as I know, Keanu Reaves almost always plays a dumbshit who is drug-free. He was just naturally and willfully stupid.

The new cowboy in American pop culture is the hip-to-be-stupid male. Instead of a Stetson he sports a spiked haircut, falling-down-around-the-waist jeans, and a been-there-done-that attitude without having gone anywhere and without having done anything. Too cool for school, too lazy to read, our new hero gets the girl and the money without ever trying very hard. Trying hard usually means having passion for something and that isn’t cool—unless it has to do with sports. In the classic battle of the slobs against the snobs, it’s the slob with whom most of us seem to identify. Hollywood doesn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable for being dumb. They make movies that reinforce the idea that we are all ignorant, video-game-obsessed infants who can’t be bothered to read a book or actually know anything outside of the ephemeral tripe known as pop culture.

If smart people are favorably viewed by Hollywood they are usually freakishly intelligent people who had no control over their intellectual development, or they are comic-book smart. Movies like Goodwill Hunting, Rain Man, James Bond, and A Beautiful Mind are examples. Intellectuals and smart people are often viewed as effeminate or wicked. It is interesting to note that villains are often portrayed as bookish and artsy. They often listen to classical music or actually appreciate fine art.

Smart to us often means something other than intelligence, at least in the new way of rationalizing our stupidity. People are fond of saying things like, “He’s book-smart but not really smart.” Our definition of smart seems to be at odds with the rest of the world. Americans even view the smart car as being anything but smart (this at a time when gas prices are skyrocketing). We see the Humvee as smart because you can crash it into a tank and walk away unharmed.

It is rare to find films where ordinary people, through personal diligence, have challenged the limits of human intelligence. Physical perfection is constantly thrown in our faces in America. You can’t pick up a magazine without some chick’s ass air-brushed to within an inch of her malnourished life staring you in the face. Intellectual perfection is about as unknown as northern Alaska to the average person. We don’t seem to have a map to get us to intellectual perfection. Here’s a secret: books are the map. Health clubs and gyms sprout like mushrooms in every American city; libraries are either downsizing or closing and are being replaced by mega-bookstores. Mega-bookstores guarantee that there will always be a big pile of copies of The Da Vinci Code and The Nanny Diaries for your reading enjoyment. If you go to the library you’ll probably find that some other retard has checked out those two books forcing you to make a wiser reading choice.

Books are viewed as an optional accessory in modern-day America. My brother and I used to keep track of how many times we came across an interview with an American celebrity who admitted to never reading. If you look at pictures of the homes of celebrities in magazines like In Style and Architectural Digest you often find that they don’t have a single book, or perhaps a couple of coffee table books just for show. I guess this aversion to books is nothing recent in American culture, William Dean Howells wrote about it in The Rise of Silas Lapham in 1885. The noveau riche family is deciding on how they will adorn their new mansion. The think that books would be a nice touch and are told that they can be bought by the yard for decorative purposes, or even fake books can be substituted.

When I was deciding on a photo for this essay I tried to think of an American who represents an intellectual ideal, an emblem for the educated, an icon of the “cultural elite.” We so undervalue intellectual sophistication in America in this age of stardom that no one came readily to mind. I don’t know about you, but it freaks me the fuck out to go into someone’s home and see that they have absolutely nothing to read.

I hardly would hold myself up as any sort of example of the intellectual ideal, but a few of my personal habits serve as an illustration for this topic. I try to read at least 40 pages in Spanish every day. If I don’t read a lot in Spanish every single day I feel like I am not improving in my language skills. I think the same thing holds true for reading in general. Without a daily dose of reading you are just getting dumber and dumber.

*Talking about movies is a lot more common in most social circles than talking about literature, seeing how so few people read these days. I love it when people claim that they don’t have time to read but will sit through every piece-of-shit blockbuster that passes through the lower intestinal tract of the multiplex.

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