Monday, March 31, 2008

Letter from an American in Russia: "Americans Are Not Stoopid"

Various Russian commentators expressed irritation or dismay earlier this month when a Pew Research Center survey indicated that a majority of U.S. citizens could not name the province that had just proclaimed independence from Serbia. You can see why this rankled. The Kosovo issue is important to many Russians -- historically, politically, even emotionally -- and the United States has played a key role in its divisive endgame. But for Russians, the Pew story actually got worse. Fully 9 percent of the U.S. respondents believed that this newly self-proclaimed ex-Serbian republic was called, um, Chechnya.

To Russians tempted to denounce Americans as stupid, let me offer some conciliatory advice: Bite your tongue, take a number and get in line. Denouncing American ignorance is a venerable tradition among many peoples of the world, especially Americans. And this Kosovo-Chechnya gaffe is, trust me, small potatoes.

Consider some other recent survey data: 20 percent of U.S. adults think that the sun revolves around the Earth. And 25 percent of U.S. teenagers, fresh from studying their nation's history, believe that Columbus arrived in the New World after 1750. Even allowing for the absurdities often produced by multiple-choice polling formats, the obtuseness of America's vox populi, smugly belittled for centuries by elite Europeans, may now be reaching truly awesome proportions.

Media accounts of a new wave of "serious intellectual trouble" and "stunning ignorance" among the rising generation point out that President George W. Bush's ill-conceived education program, called No Child Left Behind, has predictably left most children behind. It does not require schools to test pupils in "noncritical" subjects such as geography and history.

What has this produced? A lot of dumbness, as an internationally popular YouTube video -- with nearly 13 million viewings and a rising ranking among the most-discussed videos in history -- deftly illustrates. Ironically titled "Americans Are NOT Stupid," the clip features deadpan Australian "reporter" Julian Morrow intoning, "A lot of people give Americans a bum rap for being stupid and knowing nothing about ... the very world their country runs." Morrow then "refutes" this canard by posing questions to random Americans on the street.

Asked to name a country that begins with the letter U, these citizens of the United States answer Yugoslavia, Utah and Utopia. One young fellow can't name the location of the Berlin Wall; another can't identify the religion of Buddhist monks (after first guessing Islam); a third maintains that Fidel Castro is a singer; a fourth locates Italy in the Middle East. A nice middle-aged woman recalls that the United States won the Vietnam War. Asked how many sides a triangle has, a thoughtful gent answers four, which is later disputed by an even more thoughtful teenager who initially claims none and then settles on one.

Now, would anyone else like to share dismay over Americans' confusion about Serbia, Kosovo and Chechnya?

Lest you fear that these responses signal a U.S. breakaway in some imagined "Cold War II" stupidity race, let me remind and reassure you of Russia's many demonstrations of ignorance as strength. This country celebrated its national reincorporation in 1922 by expelling 160 of its finest philosophers, scientists, scholars and writers, thus becoming the first modern state to voluntarily lower its national IQ.

That this end had been well met was impressed on me in 1978 and 1979, when I spent seven months on a U.S. cultural exhibition here talking daily with thousands of average Soviet citizens -- the late-'70s Russian equivalent of Morrow's interviewees. Having weathered comments from them about the Americans faking moon landings, wearing transparent blue jeans and dressing cows in pajamas during cold weather, I know from stupid Russians.

As to the new millennium variety of Russians, whose vast majority either blandly acquiesces or positively revels in a "sovereign democracy" -- now famous for its phony parliament, phony judiciary and phony elections, all glowingly hyped in phony newscasts -- would you call this a nation of rocket scientists?

That said, I remain confident of America's near-term superiority in dumbness. While it would be, well, stupid to blame our tsunami of young dullards solely on one old one, consider the wise Russian saying, "The fish rots from the head." For another eight months, America will be guided by one of the stupidest fish heads ever washed up by the Potomac.

Of course, I could be wrong about Bush. I'm an American and may well be stupid.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.

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