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Americans are considered to be indifferent to both history and international news. Have current events and easy access on the Web to the views of the world changed this?
Several years ago, I struck up a casual conversation with a stranger who I guessed, from his accent and appearance, was from somewhere in South Asia. When I asked him where he came from, he replied, "Asia." When I pressed for specifics, he answered "South Asia."
At this point I dropped the matter, not wishing to be nosy about something he clearly did not wish to reveal. But as the conversation progressed, he spilled the beans that he was from Karachi, Pakistan. He was flabbergasted that I'd heard of Karachi, knew where it was, and had enough knowledge to actually question him about life in that city. He’d been so vague with his answers because in his experience, so many of the Americans he met not only didn't know Karachi from Kinshasa, but didn't know where or what Pakistan was.
This wasn't anti-American twaddle. American ignorance of history and geography is proverbial. How this ignorance compares with that of other nations’ I couldn’t say, but it does come to mind when I read some of the mail I get.
While the majority of writers seem to like the idea of being apprised of commentary in the foreign press, there're a few who say "Enough of the Eurotrash!" or "write about American stuff."
But what the "Eurotrash" are saying—what the mad mullahs think and, most importantly and horrifically within the last few weeks, what is going on in the homeland of that man from Asia—is "American stuff."
This is not some schoolmarm-ish plea for "understanding the roots of terror." Rather, I'm disturbed by the idea of clueless young Americans wandering the earth unaware of, and unable to intelligently debate or counter, "evil U.S." arguments.
Consider this article on American ignorance, published in the online magazine Salon shortly after Sept. 11. Along with apt criticisms of the state of American education, it also offers opinions with which not only ignorant persons might disagree:
"When you start asking questions," says Kelleher [a professor of political science], "like 'Who are we going to bomb? Are we going to land ground troops? What are the ramifications of these actions? Who do we alienate?' And the answer is the very people we need in order to effect an anti-terrorist policy: Arabs — to have to think through that is irritating because you need to know something, and people do not like to be confronted with their own ignorance."
But if you really know nothing about history or what "those foreigners think," how would you counter such an opinion, if you were able to have doubts about it at all?
Besides, there's a great deal more than just knee-jerk anti-Americanism out there. In Blogland, for example, you'll find guides to good stuff that doesn't trickle through to the U.S. press: righteous Canadians, right-thinking Englishmen, fearsome Vikings and the latest from India via a tree stand in Illinois. That's the beauty of the Web. Dig in, fellow Americans.
My Kennewick Jones. Good intentions, vague law, and dubious actions by the Department of the Interior still await resolution from the court of District Judge John Jelderks. The hearings on the disposition of the bones of Kennewick Man, the 9,000-plus years-old skeleton found on the banks of the Columbia in 1996, were completed in June of 2001. The decision was to have been rendered within six weeks.
I called the office of Judge Jelderks's clerk last Friday and spoke to a very pleasant woman who informed me that she had no estimate for when the decision might be handed down. As she told me, the 20,000 pages of documentation were still being plowed through steadily.
Urban Irritation. How did I miss the news about the drive to ban car alarms in New York City? 'Bout time. The article cites a survey that claims that fewer than one percent of respondents would notify the police about a car alarm. That many, huh? Have car alarms ever had a deterrent effect? I wonder if anyone has conducted a study on whether car alarms contribute to urban crime: how many sleep-deprived citizens in the metropoles of America have committed vandalism on the cars, or violence against the owners of cars, as a consequence of blaring car alarms? I, myself, have not. But I have imagined the crimes in elaborate loving detail.
David Trounce, of San Francisco, CA, writes:
Maybe you don't understand wry humor and parody. Edward Smith, who Matthew Parris is in fact quoting, is parodying British snobs' views. Mr. Parris, a thinker and a wit, is merely making his more serious point by building upon Mr. Smith's words for further humorous effect, and clearly does not hold the notions that you suggest. You might want to reread the article to which you referred.
Additionally, Barbara Amiel is Canadian, not British. This seems to make your contentions about the source of her views (e.g. parochial, "her own society", etc.) misplaced. May I suggest that you might also want to check your facts before ranting?
Jim Wood, of Bellflower, CA, writes:
Thank you for the ode to all of us bastards of history who are in need of forgiveness for the sins of history.
Matt Pletcher, of Chicago, IL, writes:
I read what a number of Europeans write about Americans. I have been on politically charged message boards and have been called Jethro by Brits. I cannot see the basis for their snide commentary on our society. Having been to the UK, Australia, British "colonies" and other European countries and outposts, I find their hypocrisy to be laughable.
Moira Breen is a native Floridian currently living as a geek/housewife/writer in Portland, Oregon. She produces the weblog Inappropriate Response.