Responses in St Paul, Minnesota
I traveled from New York City to St Paul, MN, where I set up the CD player for a group of county government employees. All of them are white, middle-class Americans: Tom Burk, business agent with public-sector labor unions, Cliff Olela, Intake Social Worker for Ramsey County at Adult Protection Intake, and Mark Galloway, Billing Superintendent for City of St. Paul, City Hall Annex.
"They're arrogant, insular and ignorant."
I ask, "But what's the bad part?"
"Ignorant because, well, we get stories over here saying things like, many Americans don't have passports. Many of them do not leave their own state, let alone their own country. They've got no conception of the world outside America. This is their insularity, which leads to them to being ignorant of the world outside and also incredibly arrogant, (they) think everything American is great. Mind you, we're the same, we think everything British is great, no, we're more self-deprecating than that." Judy, Civil Servants Equestrian Club, London
"I think it's absolutely true," laughs Burk. "I think that particularly the notion that Americans are very centered on what goes on in United States. Up until September 11, all the news bureaus had basically abandoned all of their international reporting. I think that the British, because of the nature of the Empire, in a lot of ways there's still that mentality, are very internationalist, much more so than other countries. Quite honestly, the French are pretty insular too."
"If you noticed here in the paper recently," notes Mark Galloway, "nobody here knew where Afghanistan was. In the United States. If you go on the street and ask where Afghanistan was, they couldn't tell you. Or what language do they speak."
"I think it really varies from family to family, says Burk. "There are people who really don't care what happens outside their block, there are other families that emphasize the richness of the world and all the various cultures."
"The comment that we're pompous, I believe also that people of England are also very arrogant and pompous. And a lot of them don't even know where things are. They know where all the provinces of Canada are, but you ask them: Where's Mongolia? Where's Guam? They can't tell you," says Mark Galloway.
Mark adds that he's an Irishman, fourth generation. So he's not too keen on the English, as he calls them. Even so, he says he does not contribute to the IRA.
American Writer Ian Frazier
The British often belittle Americans for lacking irony, so to make sure this story had some, I called up Ian Frazer, a writer who publishes in serious-minded magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic. As far as I can tell he's no expert on any of the issues at hand, but that never stopped an American from having an opinion.
I asked him if he would call himself an anglophile.
Writer Ian Frazier.
"I deeply disliked English people," responds Frazier, "and it was even a policy of mine that I disliked English people. And after September 11, there are many things that I use to dislike that I now like. I now like English people."
What did you dislike about them?
"Well they have conceited accents, and, I don't know. I hated the phrase 'chattering classes,'" says Frazier.
Have you been to the United Kingdom?
"I've been over it in a plane, I've looked down. It looked like the worlds oldest suitcase."
I have absolutely no idea what he meant by that. But I like it. In any case, I played some of the London interviews for Ian Frazier on the telephone. First, the recording of MP George Galloway:
"America is a giant. But its political class often seems to have the mind of a child. And a giant with the mind of a child is very dangerous not only to those amongst whom he roams but to himself."
So are we dangerous to ourselves and to the world?
"Certainly in parts of the world we're a great danger," says Frazier. "I wouldn't go so far as to say we're dangerous to ourselves in the world. I would say that we don't participate in the world enough and when we do we are inexperienced and we make mistakes. But I also think America is a very hopeful country, it has a kind of naiveté based on a belief that things can be better. And when you believe that, you're going to look silly in a wised-up world, in a world where street smarts is the prevailing kind of smarts."
Are you pro-American?
"Yes, absolutely, I think it's the best country in the world. But I also know it is a completely foolish, ridiculous country, partly because democracy is a silly looking system. It doesn't have the sleek streamlining of certain functioning dictatorships."
One thing that struck me about the interviews: people in London seemed not just ready to catalog American faults, they felt entitled to. But the Americans were generally much less prepared to pass judgment on the British. Except for Ian Frazier.
I played for him some commentary from ladies at the civil servant's equestrian club.
"They're arrogant, insular, and ignorant. Many Americans don't have passports, don't leave their own state."
"I think it's absolutely a blessing that English people do know what's going on in foreign countries because they speak our language and they can tell us what's going on in Afghanistan," responded Frazier. "I've noticed when I've traveled that there will be English people that know what's going on."
So we can rely on them?
"Yes, they speak English, it is an important thing, it doesn't sound like it but if you listen carefully you can figure out what they're saying. They write the best guidebooks to foreign countries. We're going to be a part of the world stage from now on and we can't continue to retreat as we have done, and maybe England can tell us what to do. Because they know more."
"It's also handy to go to a country they used to occupy as an imperial power because people tend to speak English."
Conclusion, with Harold Pinter
In all seriousness, this issue of world awareness came up time and again talking to Americans. Before September 11, many Americans really did not know how despised we are in some corners of the world. In London, I asked playwright Harold Pinter if he thinks Americans possess any special gift for being illiterate in world affairs.
"Well, I think we're pretty American, sorry, didn't mean to say American," he laughs. "I think we're pretty ignorant over here too."
Lots of people use those terms interchangeably after all.
"I can see that immediately, yes. I didn't quite intend that. I don't think the European continent is anywhere near as ignorant about facts of the world as your country and my country. When you say in the United States, the people I mean, that you're living in the greatest country in the world, those terms are meaningless. And if they mean anything, they're highly dangerous. Because they only lead to arrogance. And arrogance is always supported by ignorance. If you want to be really arrogant, make sure you're really ignorant."
So, the question remains, after September 11, after going to war in Afghanistan, and with the threat of more terrorist attacks always in the air, are average Americans now less ignorant about the world? Recent public opinion polls seem to say "yes." Many Americans say we have to pay more attention to international relations, and take the needs of other countries more into account. That's probably true, for now. But I'm skeptical when I'm told some big event, even a military strike on American soil, even anthrax in every letterbox; that some big event will change our society forever. After all, we sent millions of Americans overseas during World War Two, and eventually we settled back into cozy self-absorption.