The Roosevelts and the ignorant American

If you travel much, you’re bound to hear the complaint (from foreigners) that Americans are woefully ignorant of the world.

We talk loud, don’t speak foreign languages, we can’t identify where European country X is on a map.

I was watching the PBS special “The Roosevelts” this last week (it’s wonderful), and one of the things that struck me was how FDR had to slowly and slyly coax the American people into World War II.

As the show explained it, Americans had had enough of war and foreign entanglements. Not only was the country still licking its wounds from World War I, but people came to America to get away from the very places, and the very conflicts, that were now front and center in Europe and Asia.

God gave us two huge oceans, and we were going to use them to stay far the heck away.

It’s always an interesting question about how much national policy is influenced by national temperament. And it’s ironic that a country viewed as quite interventionist by the world is actually, at its core, quite skeptical of all things foreign.

There’s a reason that Republicans attacked Democratic president candidate John Kerry in 2004 for speaking French. And who can forget “Freedom Fries”? Bashing the French works in American politics because Americans, on right and left, have a bit of a hangup about all things foreign.

It’s a bit foofy, for example, to speak a foreign language that you didn’t learn from your grandma. And traveling abroad (anywhere beyond Puerto Vallarta) is considered a bit of a luxury in America. Again, those pesky oceans come to mind.

After all, someone who lives in Paris or Brussels has only a two-hour train ride to get to the next world capital. In Chicago, that same two-hour ride won’t even get you to the Mississippi. Visiting Amsterdam for the weekend just doesn’t have the same cachet in Paris as it does Peoria.

Another big factor in Americans’ indifference to life outre-mer? We don’t have passports. 63% of Americans don’t have a passport. And that’s a record low. And it’s because they don’t need one. The same reason they don’t speak French, or Spanish, or German. Because they don’t need to.

I speak five languages. Because I wanted to learn to them. Not because I had to. As an American, you don’t have to speak anything but English. The same reason most foreigners learn English is the reason most Americans don’t speak anything but. Asking an American to study French is a bit like asking them to study organic chemistry. It’s difficult and unnecessary, and in any case, we already speak the lingua franca of the world.

It’s a decidedly different experience growing up American. Which language exactly should we study (if only out of politesse)? And which country should we use up one week of our two weeks’ annual vacation to visit? That’s another thing, Americans get lousy vacation time on the job. It’s not uncommon for my friends in France to have six weeks vacation a year (one, who just turned 30, has nine weeks). My American friends? Two, three if they’re lucky. And considering that a trip to Europe takes anywhere from six to twelve hours (or more), depending on what coast you’re leaving from, and costs in the range of $1,500, we can’t simply jaunt over for a weekend.

And flying to Asia? Forget about it. I did a 14 hour direct flight to Asia once, and don’t want to repeat that never-ending PITA for a long time coming. The distances are so great that you really can’t go anywhere outside of Mexico, Central America, and Canada (which Goldie Hawn famously proclaimed, in the movie “Protocol,” not-foreign because “it’s attached”) without taking some real vacation time, and paying a pretty steep cost. And that is prohibitive to most Americans, far more than it costs for a Frenchman to bop over to Belgium for the weekend.

There was an article a few weeks ago that I wanted to write about, but never got to, about how Americans on average have 11 days of vacation they don’t use, in part because they feel they shouldn’t, their office frowns on it, and they know and they know they’d have a ton of work to return to.

About 57% of working Americans had unused vacation time at the end of 2011, and most of them left an average of 11 days on the table – or nearly 70 percent of their allotted time off, according to a study performed by Harris Interactive for JetBlue.

Of course, in France, you’re really supposed to take your big vacation in August, so that the entire office is relatively empty for the month as everyone is traveling simultaneously — rather than having a single employee disappear for a month in, say, March. That means, I would presume, that when you come back to an office that’s been nearly empty for a month, there aren’t a lot of emails and memos waiting for you. In an American office, imagine being gone for “only” two weeks. You’d be swamped when you got back. Again, there are multiple ways in which the “don’t you dare go on vacation” culture is reinforced in America. (There’s also a culture of travel in France that we simply don’t have in America.)

And that’s why Americans are — ironically, for a people who came from literally everywhere — so insular in many ways.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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