Saturday, July 06, 2002

Ignorant Americans
          That’s right, I just wrote the phrase “Ignorant Americans” and I wasn’t being sarcastic. Americans are pretty culturally ignorant; from a Will Rogers’ point of view.

          I used to do a lot of posting, arguing, and even debating (rarely) on the Yahoo News Forums. Flames, insults, rants, raves and the occasional well-reasoned argument (a refreshing rarity) are the norm there. Two things that used to bug the daylights out of me were the claims that a) Americans only know English, so they are ignorant; and b) Americans are ignorant about Europe, The World and their cultures.

          Part of the reaction was because I took the insults personally. I mean, I know the difference between Gallicia and Andalusia. I know the names Alfred the Great, Hengest and Vortigen. I know that Carolus Magnus would have eaten trenchers for breakfast and that Chucky’s more vulgar name was Charlemagne. The insults were not, however, applicable to me, yet I took umbrage to them. Three Musketeers syndrome probably (an attack on all is an attack on one and vice versa).

          Still, something about their words felt wrong and not simply in their applicability to myself. The claim about languages was easily thought out, and though partially true, the number of unintelligible European (and The World) immigrants that I’ve met doesn’t impress me as an argument as to the linguistic ability of The World.

          The question of cultural ignorance, however, still tugged at my mind. Certainly I could silence the detractors by asking pointed questions about American culture. I mean it’s easy, American culture is so incredibly vast and diverse that even its common threads are not always obvious. Steven Den Beste brought forth one of those common threads quite well. Yet some of those detractors were Americans, unable to answer questions about American culture like “Where did the pyramid and eye on the dollar bill come from?” I thought that would be an easy one.

          The more I thought about it, the larger and more convoluted the subject became.

          For instance, saying “no” to an offer of food is a grave insult, to this day, in parts of the State of Hawai’i. Turns out that the same holds true in some of the more rural parts of Mississippi. Cultural norms within a single state can be incredibly different. People in Kern County are different than those in the Bay Area (again, this is ‘in general’), let alone the difference between someone born and raised in San Francisco compared to someone born and raised in Garlock. Differences are readily noticeable between peoples from Los Angeles and Juno or New York and Kaunakakai.

          This is exempting the fact that a large chunk of The World’s culture is part of America’s cultural mélange (yeah, I just saw Dune again and wanted desperately to use that word). Oktoberfest, Makahiki, Cinco de Mayo and others are all part of the vast, complicated tapestry that is American Culture.

          Hey! Mr. Elitist European (and/or Mr. Euro-phile wannabe). Quick, what is Makahiki? How about Cinco de Mayo? No Google searches allowed.

          BZZZZZZZ. Too slow. Don’t feel bad though. Many, if not most, Mexican-Americans don’t really know what Cinco de Mayo celebrates either.

          Americans are pretty ignorant about their own culture, but their culture is such that it is doubtful that any one person could ever be truly familiar with it. Mennonites, Hippy communes, American Buddhism, soy farmers in Illinois, ranchers in Texas or California or Hawai’i; to say nothing of the Hawaiians, Inuit, Shoshone, Hopi, Choctaw or Delaware.

          Realize that anyone saying that Americans are ignorant of The World’s cultures, though not incorrect, is being highly hypocritical.

          Though many Americans are ignorant about so much of The World, The World is far, far more ignorant about American culture.


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