Just How Dumb Are We?
by Michael Moynihan
During a recent whistle-stop promo tour of England, Michael Moore was asked by a sympathetic Daily Mirror columnist to meditate on that favorite subject of anti-Americans the world over, America’s supposed “intelligence problem”—not, of course, the CIA, NSA kind of intelligence. To the apparent delight of his interlocutor, Moore answered with Il Duce-like subtlety, claiming that “they are possibly the dumbest people on the planet” (note the careful pronoun selection), citing a recentNational Geographic world geography survey as irrefutable evidence of our “ignorance” and "embarrassing stupidity." While the condescending ferocity of Moore’s hatred might mark a new low for Moore(he previously cloaked his contempt for Americans in flaccid humor, like when he told a Canadian audience there is something “charming about our simpleness.”), disparaging the intelligence of his constituents is old hat for the tactically disheveled “populist.” His bestselling anti-Bush philippic Stupid White Men devoted an entire chapter to “proving” that America was indeed an “Idiot Nation.
(Note: Moore even contradicts himself when calling Americans “the dumbest people on the planet.” In a 1996 interview with World Socialist Web, Moore uses his fellow citizens as a convenient cudgel with which to beat corporate America: “I’ve always felt that the American people are not as stupid as Hollywood thinks they are.”)
Moore understands that the American-as-imbecile shtick is far more effective when performed on foreign soil, where, according to press reports, it typically generates fanatic applause. During his engagement at London’s Roundhouse Theater, Moore, in the role of Amerikanshe Kapo, delighted the crowd when he proclaimed that "the dumbest Brit here is smarter than the smartest American,” prompting Variety Magazine’s reviewer to comment that it was “the most egregious sucking up to a British public that I have ever seen.” On his North American tour in support of Dude, Where’s My Country, Moore substituted Canadians for Britons, telling audiences that the “dumbest Canadian” in attendance could surely outwit “the smartest American.”
Again, Moore points to a National Geographic survey to buttress his claim: “They wanted to find out what young adult Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 knew about geography. What they found was that 85 per cent of these Americans could not find Iraq on the map.”
Moore has repeated America’s dismal Geographic performance —his latest silver bullet—at lectures in Stockton, Davis, Berkeley, Baltimore, Vancouver, London, Edinburgh, Berlin and, during “Dude, Where’s My Country” press junkets, in interviews with Japan’s Shukan Post (Japan), Tagesschau (Germany) and Daily Mirror(UK).
The inviolable map quiz evidence is typically followed by a limp joke: “Shouldn’t that be rule No. 1? That you’re not allowed to invade a country unless the majority of your citizens can find it on a map?” (Stockton, CA). “If you can’t locate ’em, you can’t invade ’em” (London). “There should be a rule that you’re not allowed to bomb another country unless you can find it on the map"(Berlin). “How can you bomb a country you can’t find on the map? Shouldn’t that be rule No.1?” (Edinburgh)
While we think map quizzes for teenagers are an odd indicator of intellectual worth, we concede that Moore accurately represents America’s poor results—sort of. But Moore could just as well choose, say, the Nobel Prize as an indicator of American intelligence. If the prestigious prize is any indication, American’s are far from the idiots he envisions: a full 42 percent of its recipients have been Americans (over 50% of the science prizes have been taken home by Americans), with countless non-U.S. winners conducting their researcher at various American universities and institutions, this in spite of an unofficial policy of affirmative action, aimed at “correcting” the perceived geographic imbalance. Stockholm University Professor Lars Calmfors recently told the Associated Press that the Nobel committee is “sometimes criticized by people who believe they should try harder to find laureates outside of the United States.”
Sure, Moore’s numbers might be on the level, but it’s what he chooses to ignore, namely student results from other, supposedly “smarter” countries, that largely invalidates his argument. While America placed second-to-last in the study (only Mexico was lower, though >Moore would naturally never call Mexicans a bunch “of idiots”), England and Canada weren’t far behind. Some of the results Moore ignores:
- 89% of Canadians couldn’t locate Iraq on a map, a higher “ignorance rate” than that of the United States.
- 81% of Canadians couldn’t locate Israel on a map
- 79% of Canadians couldn’t locate Afghanistan on a map
- 5% of Canadians couldn’t locate Canada on a map
- 90% of Britons couldn’t locate Iraq on a map, a figure lower than that of the United States
- 72% of Britons couldn’t locate Afghanistan on a map
- 75% of Britons couldn’t locate Israel on a map
- 21% of Britons couldn’t locate the USA on a map
- 7% of Britons couldn’t locate the England on a map
Of the Swedes surveyed—the country that won top placement in country identification—a full 70% failed to identify Iraq, while 60% failed to find Afghanistan.
Moore’s recent bout of selectivity got us thinking: in Stupid White Men, he claimed that America suffered from appallingly high illiteracy rates—numbers we have previously debunked on The Politburo—that supported the “idiot nation” thesis. Again, he offered no comparison to the other English speaking countries he often praises. A few minutes poking around in the Lexis database and >Moore’s “hardcore analysis” (his words) is full of holes. Rather unsurprisingly, education problems are hardly confined to America:
- “40% of British pupils aged 14 or 15 cannot add up properly, according to the findings of an international study published yesterday.” - The Independent,
- “[A] Unicef report on literacy, maths and science standards in 24 developed nations labeled the UK’s adult illiteracy rate of 10 per cent as a "statistic of shame" – The Independent, November 26, 2002
- “Research suggests up to seven million adults in the UK are "functionally illiterate" – BBC, August 20, 2002
- “The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) placed the UK 14th of 20 developed countries ranked according to adult reading and literacy standards.” – BBC
- “[The Basic Skills Agency Report] calculates that one in three adults cannot work out the area of a room, while one in five would be unable to find a plumber in the Yellow Pages telephone directory.” – BBC, March 25, 1999.
- “Sir Edmund Blackadder was a real historical figure and Adolf Hitler was the prime minister who led Britain to victory in World War II, many schoolchildren in Britain believe…But despite the grim findings, more than half (55%) said they enjoyed history and one in five liked it ‘a great deal’” – BBC, January 18, 2001
- “Up to one in five Australian adults cannot read well enough to use automatic teller machines or the Internet, an international study has found…The study, by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development on adult literacy in 20 countries, found almost 20 per cent of Australian adults had inadequate literacy skills to be effective in everyday life.” - Sunday Herald Sun (>Melbourne), November 10, 2002
- “Two years ago, the Scottish Executive produced a comprehensive report identifying adult literacy and numeracy needs in Scotland. Although it identified up to 800,000 adults with very low skills, the executive set a target of helping at least 150,000 people before 2006” - The Herald (Glasgow), July 16, 2003
- “Nearly 25% of adults in [Northern Ireland] have problems with everyday tasks like reading instructions on a medicine bottle, research has shown”. –BBC, April 14, 2003
- “The OECD survey which concluded, two years ago, that some 25 per cent of Irish adults are functionally illiterate and approximately another 20 per cent can perform only simple reading and writing tasks.” – Irish Times, September 10, 2002
- “The real wake-up call came last year when an international test of 15-year-olds ranked Germany 21st out of 32 leading industrialized nations in reading, mathematics and science.” – CNN, August 6, 2003
- “Low Education Rating Stuns Germany: American teenagers rank higher than the Germans in all three subjects (math, literacy and science)…30 percent of Germans dropout of university, roughly equivalent to Mexico…16% hold university degrees, compared with 35% in the United States.” John Schmid,International Herald Tribune, February 2, 2003
|Posted by: Lee on Nov 18, 03 | 10:46 pm (profile) | Permalink|