Why Americans Love Thinking of Themselves as Dumb

When Gwyneth Paltrow, now living in London, told the press a couple of weeks ago that Britons are much more intelligent and make much better conversation at dinner parties than Americans, she may have insulted many Americans, but in fact it's the way most Americans think of themselves.

Much like Germans, who derive a perverse pleasure from thinking of themselves as having lost their identity and culture, Americans derive a perverse pleasure form thinking of themselves as less intelligent, less educated and less cultivated than other countries.

It's a habit we got into in our colonial days, when we had no museums, no universities, no artists or theater, and the streets were filled with mud. We were English then and though we treasured the opportunities the colonies offered, we also looked toward England for things of culture and were embarrassed when the homeland Britons visited us and we couldn't taker them to the opera.

It became a habit we still can’t shake. Today we have the best universities in the world, the best writers, we win more Nobel Prizes than any other country and even in the literature category we are second only to the French. We take the lead not only in politics, military and science, but in high culture, too: Philip Glass, Jackson Pollock, Robert Wilson and Philip all lead the high culture lists in any country.

But still we have the nagging suspicion that we are dumber than anyone else. In fact, I think we really like that feeling. It lets us say (as we said in 1776): "To hell with those pretentious Europeans, we don’t need them."

Not too long ago I watched a documentary on German TV (3Sat) about a German writer named John von Düffel. In one scene, he was invited to New York to introduce modern German literature to a New York audience. The master of ceremonies was an American guy who launched the evening by citing a comparative statistic about reading in Germany and in America. The average German, he said, buys 6 books a year. The average American buys 0.3 books a year. He concluded: "They have the Frankfurt Book Fair. We have Disneyland."

The (American) audience applauded. I can imagine how they felt: "I knew it! I always knew everyone here was dumb. Except me, of course."

I felt that way too, for a minute or two, then I remembered my last trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair, and the incredible amounts of American books that were on sale there. Come to think of it, any German book store sells huge amounts of American books. Wait a minute – we're the country that put a man on the moon, we are foremost in most economical and technical sectors, not to mention the Nobel prize thing.

How do we accomplish that if we are all illiterates? Isn't there a contradiction there? Can a country like America even exist if we only read so little? Where did this guy get his statistics from? Does he even know himself where it came from?

Probably not. It didn't matter. He wanted to believe it, and so did everyone there. It's like Germans who say "Look at all these McDonalds everywhere – it's like in America" but they don’t see the Kebab stands and the pizza places. They want to see it that way.

By the way, here's a more accurate statistic. According to The Economist, the average American spends $102 a year on books; the average Germans spends $120 a year on books. Yes, Germans read more than Americans – but only about 20% more, not several thousand percent more.


Robert Shapiro said…
This is a wonderful post and it's so true. I have bumped up against this many times myself and I must say, to an alarming degree the cheering crowds are illuminating the fact that dumb is in.

I don't mean to suggest that we are dumb but rather that the joy in appearing so is certainly seductive to the point of addictive.

I personally do not take any pride in such an appearance and I am pleased to note that you and I are in agreement on that point.

Well written. I love your blog.


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