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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45 Responses to “The Roosevelts and the ignorant American”

  1. wbthacker says:

    “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.”

    There were very specific reasons for this, not some generalized distrust of foreign things.

    Americans have had a specific dislike of France since at least 1918, when American troops were sent to bail them out of WWI. Then in WWII they suffered a humiliating defeat by Germany. Worse, they surrendered to preserve the Vichy vassal state which spent the rest of the war as a German puppet. Their navy, which could have fled France and joined Britain, instead chose to stay in France, creating the risk that at any time those ships could be fighting for the Germans. Their colonies provided a secure flank for the German Afrika Korps and we had to invade them to turn the tide in North Africa, whereupon French troops shot at us for a while before surrendering. Soon after the war, France adopted a very hostile attitude toward the US. France is also the reason we got dragged into the Vietnam conflict. In 1966 they abandoned NATO (and didn’t rejoin until 2009).

    In 1986, after Libya openly admitted they were supporting terrorist groups that had conducted bombings in Europe, Pres. Reagan ordered a bombing raid against Tripoli. (In retrospect this was hugely successful; Libya behaved itself pretty well afterwards, and even voluntarily abandoned its WMD programs.) But France (and Spain, and Italy) refused to allow our England-based bombers to fly over their airspace, forcing them to take a long detour around Gibraltar. So when one of our bombs landed dangerously close to the French embassy in Tripoli, there were jokes that “Maybe the pilots would have had better aim if they weren’t so tired from the long flight there.” Mind you, France itself had been a victim of Libyan-funded terrorism.

    All of this was construed into a portrait of France as an ungrateful, weak, decadent nation, preferring surrender over defending their own values and country. They were seen as arrogant and living on past glory. People joked that basic training in the French Army consisted of learning how to surrender, and that like the Swiss, the French had a special army knife — the French Army Knife being equipped with several blades, a corkscrew, and a white flag.

    “Freedom fries” originated in 2003 after the French government opposed the invasion of Iraq. It was well known that French companies did a lot of business with Saddam Hussein, including selling hit military equipment, and it was discovered that people at the highest level in the French government were illegally helping Iraq buy illegal goods by abusing the “Oil-for-food program”. So France’s opposition to the invasion was seen as a sell-out to protect their profits and bribes.

    It’s worth noting that the Freedom Fries concept wasn’t a new one. In WWI, people started calling sauerkraut “Liberty cabbage” out of disapproval of Germany.

    So we don’t bash the French because we despise all things foreign. England and Germany are just as foreign, and we don’t treat them that way. It might be argued that because America was founded by the British and is heavily populated by German immigrants, we might have an ancestral dislike of France. But either way, France is a special case.

  2. Bluestocking says:

    I’ve explained to several friends from other countries that the primary reason why so many Americans are so ignorant of other cultures is because throughout much of our history, people who came from other parts of the world to live here were coming on one-way tickets — many of them had spent all the money they had for their passage and were unlikely to ever earn enough to go back. Mail and news took such a long time to cross the ocean that the vast majority of Americans, who did not have the money to travel, stopped investing their emotional energy in what was happening back in the Old Country. (In their defense, many of them were forced to invest all their emotional energies in simply trying to survive.)

    Widespread intercontinental telegraph service is only around one hundred and fifty years old. Widespread intercontinental telephone and radio service is even younger than that, and the development of intercontinental television and satellite communication has taken place within living memory. That’s actually quite a lot of change within a very short period of time — a lot of people don’t really understand how long it takes societies to adapt fully to such dramatic and pervasive changes, especially when those changes take place so quickly. Before the development of the interstate and relatively inexpensive air travel, most Americans didn’t move around that much even within this country simply because it was not that easy to get around — again, most of the people who moved had little reason to think it would be anything other than a one-way trip.

    Even these days, a significant percentage of Americans have never lived more than 200 miles away from where they were born. Neither my mother nor I fit into that category — both of us spent at least three years living in other countries when we were children, and I think it affected both her and my outlook profoundly. I can only speak for myself, but I personally find it very difficult to relate to a lot of Americans (especially these days). I find the mindset of a great many Americans to be far too provincial and limited for my taste.

  3. woad2112 says:

    I mostly do contract work, so I haven’t had vacation days in about 15 years. I used to fluently speak Spanish, but I haven’t spoken it in over 30 years, so it was mostly forgotten. I would love to travel and take a vacation if I had the time off or of I could afford to take it…unfortunately, the IT world is rife with companies that would rather outsource than hire an actual employee and pay benefits.

  4. WildwoodGuy says:

    Thank you Bubbles and Naja pallida! I’ve been able to watch the first two episodes… but I only have 5 days left to watch the rest. Hopefully, I’ll find the time! Thanks to both of you for the suggestion and the link.

  5. Bubbles says:

    It is almost never talked about, but when Roosevelt was young his mother had him spend extensive amounts of time in Europe: Dresden, Germany and France in particular.

    Roosevelt was fluent in both French and German. He spent one extensive time traveling all over Germany.

    All those speeches made by Hitler, Roosevelt understood them almost like a native. He also understood how the average German ‘received’ them, and the culture in general. Roosevelt was one of the guy who insisted on unconditional surrender. I think he felt that German culture would only be cured of its chauvinism by a complete and thorough defeat: occupation and division of the country, left in a smoldering ruin of their own making from their own prejudice.

  6. Bubbles says:

    For a near painless beach head into most any language, including Arabic, please check out Ear Worms. Its dialogue set to music background. It’s the closest way to painless language learning. There are two volumes (three for french) – each volume is equivalent to about a 200 word vocabulary, and very functional. If you are pressed and motivated, you can master a volume in two weeks of frequent use. If you knew you were headed to Oman a month from now, you could be fairly well prepped for that trip by the time you left. Unfortunately there is no Korean.

  7. Bubbles says:

    I was designing a complex information system for Caterpillar’s engine division. We had one “box” on the flow chart where “the miracle happens here” kind of thing. It was a problem for about 4 weeks. Then, I came in from a drunken weekend on a float trip, on a Monday morning, where that was the only problem we had left to deal with and the answer hit me in less than five minutes.

    I thought I had a wonderful career in front of me after that, but my life’s just been hell. .

  8. Bubbles says:

    I grew up in St. Louis. People from West County (Chesterfield) won’t go to North County (Ferguson) . In fact, the only reason they go down town is to see a Cardinals game. I am a geography major, and so I wanted to go to Europe. None of my friends would go with me. Why would you ever want to leave the country, let alone Missouri, let alone St. Louis county, let alone West County? My first few trips to Europe, I went alone.

  9. Bubbles says:

    I watched it exclusively over the internet because I’m, gasp, overseas.

  10. petewestcentral says:

    Yes, here I meant generally, not counting the majority.

  11. Robert says:

    1/3 of Americans having passports doesn’t really constitute “generally Americans do have passports”

  12. Robert says:

    Slightly more than 1/3 Americans have a valid passport. That speaks volumes.

  13. Yep, at least for a few more days, I believe.

  14. arleeda says:

    When I was young, I enjoyed overseas travel on my own. I even lived for a year in Strasbourg, France. However, as I age and can’t easily carry my luggage from the train station on my own, I appreciate the fact that package tours exist since I can continue to travel without too much physical or emotional stress.

  15. petewestcentral says:

    “Home” is almost a mystical word, don’t you think? At heart (Auntie Em) there’s no place like home. John’s post mentions that Americans had to be coaxed into World War II but we were isolationist prior to the Great War as well.

  16. petewestcentral says:

    Yes it is about class of course. Generally Americans do have passports and education in languages and travel. Even in the hick town there is the elite enclave who are the Americans.

  17. Naja pallida says:

    You can likely stream it at the PBS website.

  18. WildwoodGuy says:

    It is when I hear about programs like this that I *ALMOST* wish I owned a TeeVee.

  19. WildwoodGuy says:

    I understand this completely! I lived in Portland, OR for many years. Portland is divided [(by the Willamette River (East and West) and Burnside Street (North and South)] into NE, NW, SE, SW. (Yes, there’s also North Portland, mostly forgotten, but where I lived in two different homes and made a killing in Real Estate on each of them!) Most of the people I knew or worked with very, VERY rarely shopped, dined out, or recreated anywhere other than in the quadrant of the city in which they lived.

    As I had, at one time or another, lived in every single quadrant and knew all of them almost equally well, I was able to move easily in and between all of them. I had many friends who were actually afraid to go from one quadrant to another because they believed another area to be a hotbed of crime (or pick a reason) and had frequently never even HEARD of bars, restaurants or city parks where I was quite comfortable.

    Of course, most of these people were natives and I was a transplant from another state… so maybe that was the reason.

  20. Yeah I tried Arabic when I was over in Morocco for work. Found it nearly impossible to do anything with. In contrast, when I was in Japan (also for work), I brought along my handy phrase book and actually was able to learn enough Japanese to tell taxi drivers where we were going (back in the early 90s none of them spoke English), and have a mini conversation with them about who we were. It even surprised me. But in Arabic, no luck.

  21. Oh I was pretty impressed by TR, FDR and Eleanor. With that much money, you don’t have to do anything to help anyone. But they chose to. Especially the latter two.

  22. Demosthenes says:

    An excellent piece, Mr. Aravosis. Obviously it is a broad assumption that Americans don’t go far to travel. I also think there is a class component. I live in a suburb in Chicago’s North Shore, and our neighbors all have passports and travel frequently all over the place, including Europe. Our political class, of course, has to cater to everyone, and thus they can’t point to places like the North Shore, since most Americans lack the money and time to travel internationally.

    As usual, it’s the lowest common denominator for our stupid political class.

  23. GeorgeMokray says:

    Some studies show that being fluent in more than one language reduces the incidence of Alzheimer’s. I would guess it improves and exercises neuroplasticity, keeping the brain healthy and functioning. I enjoy playing with foreign languages and have dabbled in a number of them. The only one I’ve come close to fluency in is Japanese but, as I continue, I find my French and Spanish understanding improving as well. For me, it’s a hobby and I almost always have two or three books in a foreign language (poetry) that I’m working through a page at a time. Someday, perhaps I’ll even try Arabic, reputedly the best language for poetry.

  24. Silver_Witch says:

    Just as an FYI my company pays us for our vacation at the end of the year (after you have saved up 3 weeks) because they really DON’T want us to take it. When I left my last job (after being there only two years), I had four weeks vacation and 3 weeks sick leave….cause well we discouraged to take any time off. Thankfully it was a few years of not being ill at all.

    That said …you do realize MOST people don’t have the money to travel these days – add to that jobs are hard to find and I am not taking a vacation with a threat of – hey we don’t need her – see she is gone and we don’t care (cause they gave all my work to another who is now loaded by even more expectation of work).

    The world had changed…we are not longer able to find jobs where the “work – life balance” is encouraged….sorry welcome to the New America.

  25. Indigo says:

    Well, yes, all that and what’s more . . . but really, what I got out of ‘The Roosevelts’ was that educated people with an astonishing amount of personal money can make a significant impact on the American public simply by behaving intelligently in public. Noblesse oblige.

  26. Indigo says:

    My French, such as it is, is more québecois but my experience in France did not suggest that they looked down on me although they sometimes smiled with pained politeness from time to time but that was as far as it went, as far as I know. Que sais-je?

  27. Indigo says:

    There’s a lot of that going around.

  28. BeccaM says:

    Makes sense.

  29. petewestcentral says:

    In the U.S. wouldn’t the other side of the freeway be foreign travel? I used to live in Detroit — invited a guy to have dinner with me in Greektown. He had an anxiety attack because it was the first time he had set foot on a sidewalk south of Eight Mile Road.

  30. nicho says:

    I used to travel to Montreal quite frequently. I mentioned to my Quebec friends that I was thinking about going to Montreal to learn French. They were unanimous in telling me that I should learn French in France. Then, the people in Quebec would still understand me. However, if I learned Quebec French, people in France would look down on me for speaking provincial French.

  31. Naja pallida says:

    This kind of thing is what I attribute to the popularity of cruise traveling. All inclusive vacations in set time periods that fit nicely within most American’s available vacation time. Meals and activities are carefully planned for you, your hotel follows you around, you constantly have someone making sure you’re not getting yourself into trouble, and you’re taken to painstakingly cloistered tourist areas, wherein at no point do you ever have to actually be subjected to another culture, no matter where you go, unless you purposefully go out of your way to find it. Want to visit a fascinating monument? We’ll bus you there, hold your hand while you’re there, and bus you back, taking a head count the whole time, like kindergarteners on a field trip to the natural history museum. Americans like the concept of foreign travel, they just don’t want to have to deal with any of the inconveniences of dealing with foreigners.

  32. BeccaM says:


  33. Ah yes, those damn blameless Spanish falling coffee mugs….

  34. There was an article a few weeks ago that I wanted to write about, about how Americans on average have X number of days of vacation they don’t use, in part because they feel they shouldn’t, work frowns on it, they know they’ dhave a ton of work to return to, etc. Of course, in France, you’re really supposed to take your big vacation in August, so that the entire office is relatively empty at once — rather than having employees 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, multiple ways in which the “don’t you dare go on a vacation” culture is reinforced.

  35. GarySFBCN says:

    Yeah but…you learn a lot about culture, including your own, when you learn other languages. For example, in Spanish, and many other languages, a person doesn’t drop an object; the object falls on its own, and the verb reflects the action of the object. It is kind of ‘blameless.’

  36. BeccaM says:

    That’s because our plutocratic lords and masters have managed to enforce a cultural norm where “work, especially to excess = good” and “leisure, even when desperately needed = sign of weakness.”

    This wasn’t always the case. A century ago roughly, the 40-hour work week and the no-work weekend were touted as the necessary and due rewards for increases in productivity and advancing civilization. There were serious proposals already underway to reduce the standard work week from 40 hours to 35 and/or 4 days instead of 5.

    Repeated modern studies have even shown that when people are constrained in how many hours they’re allowed to work, especially when those hours are less than the 40-hour full-time, people can concentrate on their tasks and they tend to get more done in less time. Yes what do we do for anyone working more efficiently in less time? We penalize them.

    But the concept of leisure time as a human right quickly eroded, and by time WWII happened, we Americans became locked in the cultural mindset that more work and more hours spent on the job equaled more virtue. Vacations first became luxuries, then they became dispensable, then they became suspect. “Jenkins took a 2-week vacation! And left us holding the bag on this project!” It’s no accident that the act of taking a vacation here in the U.S. is not only expensive in the literal sense, it can even harm one’s career.

  37. BeccaM says:

    Actually, in many places there can be a practical point to learning at least one other language. One of the most common choices being to learn Spanish. But for example, if one lives near or often travels to Quebec, it can be useful to learn Quebecois French.

  38. True. Though I think it’s cheaper for the French, at least, to fly here. They always gasp when I tell them it costs $1500 to fly there from here. And, in France at least, they really do have a culture of travel, international travel. My friends, who are decidedly middle class, are always flying all over the world in August — usually they pick two vacation spots, like Brazil and India, or something equally exotic. So there is a cultural element too, but a large part of it is probably the cultural element of vacation time. They have it, we don’t.

  39. nicho says:

    I can see where time, money, and distance is a problem, but that doesn’t stop millions of Europeans and Asians from making the trip here every year. The time, money, and distance are the same in both directions.

  40. goulo says:

    That’s a pretty depressing anecdote, considering how popular Fox News is. :/

  41. keirmeister says:

    John, that was a very good perspective on the issue. I’m married to a foreigner and it’s definitely something I hear from people in Europe. I admit I have my own views of American provincialism, but what you wrote about the isolation, vacation time, and cost of travelling makes sense…and I hadn’t thought of that aspect of it.

    Five languages? Sheez! All I keep hearing is, “when are you going to speak more French with us?”

  42. nicho says:

    A friend of mine got married in Barcelona a couple of years ago. His family are Fox News addicts. it’s their sole source of information. His mother and a brother came over for the wedding. His father wouldn’t because it was a same-sex marriage. Anyway, his mother was stunned that they had highways, just like in the US — and tall buildings. She was also amazed to find out that people actually worked. She thought that it was a socialist country, and the government just gave them money. She was also unprepared for the fact that they had modern hospitals.

  43. nicho says:

    Hardly pointless. You have no idea how much it affects the quality of your interaction with someone if you at least try to speak their language — even if you’re not that good at it. They really appreciate the effort.

  44. emjayay says:

    I was visiting a friend in Holland once and she said everyone there speaks three or four languages. I said really, why. She said “Think about it.” Oh. Right. Of course it’s the opposite here, and today you can go just about anywhere and be understood in English. I took German in school and really like the language, but guess what: just about any German under 80 (40 for Osties) speaks better English than my German. Hence, pretty much pointless.

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