And Other Fallacies
By Ryan Baker
“Zee problem I ‘ave wit ze Americans ze most is I think zey are very, uhmm, ignorant? Arrogant? One of zose words. I am not sure.”
This, as far as I gathered over my fall semester abroad, is the bread and butter of French small talk with Americans: the finer points of international stereotypes. The dynamic of these conversations is always interesting, not because of their content but because of the characters who are always so eager to engage in them. This particular individual, a relatively inebriated university student, was even more distracting than the words he was butchering. He held a Heineken in one hand, a loosely gripped cigarette in the other and wildly gestured with every syllable. But what really distracted me was the picture of Lil Wayne smoking a joint on his hoodie and his Minnesota Wild snapback hat.
Really? The Wild? He wants to buy a NHL hat and he picks the Wild?
At this point in my abroad experience, the ironic juxtaposition of my new friend’s comment and his clothing was a dull joke. The spirit of anti-Americanism in Europe is at odds with itself, and this conflict is readily apparent in its youth. The perception of Americans is one part jealousy and one part disdain. Most interestingly, this odd combination of admiration and disgust seems to have been brought on by American cultural exports that everyone loves to hate. The most unfortunate example, making me cringe every time I told someone where I was from, plagued my steps for four months: “OH! New Jersey like ze Jersey Shore!” At first it was easy to laugh such a reaction off; after a while it became a constant reminder of just how pervasive American culture has become around the globe. I found it difficult to blame those who resented America for giving them The Jersey Shore. Yet, for every European who told me how trashy The Jersey Shore is, another would recommend Geordie Shore, the UK version that everyone insists is better.
Why do people love to judge and disdain American cultural trends in consumerism, mass media or entertainment, and then proceed to adopt those very same trends into their own ways of life?
The answer is in the clichés we always hear in our own country about what the idea of America is actually supposed to mean: “You can be who you want to be.” This kind of individual freedom is the premise that our country was founded upon. At the time it was also something that, while not unheard of, had never been attempted on a large scale before. This is one of the reasons for the ambiguous love-hate persona: While the allure of America springs from its youth, so does the feeling of resentment. More than that, the freedom with which American society has evolved has created the beautiful monster that is our “culture.” We have all been raised to question tradition, root for the underdog and believe in the pursuit of individual happiness. However, without the defining structure of societal stigmas and taboos that are more prominent elsewhere in the world, our society has aged faster. America adopted values that reflected more of our individual wants and less of our moderating traditions. When you turn on MTV, the shows you see are not there because they were arbitrarily picked as quality programming. They are there because American youth enjoys watching TV shows about people getting drunk and going to crazy parties, fighting with their exes or being sixteen and pregnant.
So while these values may not be high-minded, the reasons we have them in the first place are. In a way, this makes the perception of America easier to understand. I might not like LMFAO, but if I were French and didn’t really know them very well and someone told me they were all about partying, I could probably be convinced to. In the end, the conflict of the American image is one that is not only understandable, but also unavoidable.
So, looking at my counterpart in front of me, I gave him the only response I really could: “I guess so. You know the Wild are trash, right dude? Vraiment. Le merde.”