Americans: not as dumb as I thought

I have to admit something to my American readers: I have a complicated relationship with your country. I kind of see America like a big brother who’s kind of a screwup. Lots of talent, but makes poor decisions – gets drunk and picks fights, but then once he’s bailed out of jail he goes to the library and comes up with a brilliant get-rich quick scheme. And then blows all of the money on drugs. He gets into abusive relationships instead of dating that perfectly nice and cute girl (who is the one that keeps bailing him out of jail), because he likes ‘bad girls’. He’s powerful and brilliant, but erratic and dangerous.

American people, to draw large, sweeping, and unfair generalizations, seem to be willing to put up with a lot more bullshit than I would think is rational. Part of that is the fact that they believe a lot of bullshit about “American exceptionalism” and Manifest Destiny and the shining city on the hill and “leaders of the free world” and “model of freedom for the whole world” all those myths that were sort of true about a half-century ago. The remainder, however, baffles me. To think that the same country that produced the Ivy League also produced Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign is a fact that makes me have to have a little lie-down.

To put a point on it, I don’t think much of the American electorate. After the last election here in Canada I don’t really think much of the Canadian electorate either, but there’s no chance that Herman Cain would lead a national opinion poll here. I have to believe that. However, I may have to revise my impression of Americans upward slightly:

President Barack Obama’s opponents claim he’s “declared war on religion” with his efforts to require employers to provide birth control coverage for their workers. Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum even recently suggested the president was leading America into a secular nightmare where the devoutly religious will face the guillotine. He’s also stated publicly that contraception is wrong and poses a threat to the United States. As is often the case during a presidential election year, America’s steadily percolating culture wars are now on full boil. Republicans have cranked up the heat by painting Mr. Obama as an anti-religious zealot as they attempt to push through measures in Congress that would result in limited access to birth control for some American women.

And yet a pair of new polls suggest Americans aren’t buying it — not even Catholics, whose leaders have lead the charge against Mr. Obama’s birth control mandate… An average of 46 per cent of Catholics told the pollster they approved of Mr. Obama’s job performance, compared to 49 per cent the previous week. That’s within the poll’s margin of error.

So let’s recap, here. The President made a good policy decision that made some wildly irrational people go nutty-ballistic. With what I can only imagine must have been the longest exasperated sigh ever, the President made an accommodation to ensure that the crazier elements didn’t have to spend money on a part of reality they find inconvenient. Then most of the people said “okay, that is an entirely reasonable thing the President did. Thank you for listening to our objections.” Y’know, like you wish people would do all the time but never seem to manage.

So… okay Americans. Your stock is rising. You did a thing that shows that the tempest of politics have not completely blown away your good sense. You’ve managed to see through the cries of “War on Religion”:

Click for the rest of the comic

So you get a God Comic.

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  1. says

    I’m only an American because I was born here and my family lives here and I don’t want to leave them. But I look around and see what passes for the “national conversation” and “normal politics” and I wonder if everyone around me outside of my little liberal, progressive circle is just insane.

  2. michaeld says

    The only thing that really gives me hope about our (canadian) electorate is that Harper only got 40% of the vote so 3 in 5 voters were against him. Course my local MP is a conservative who’s only accomplishments in the past couple years have been screw ups.

  3. ambassadorfromverdammt says

    Similar in my riding except he’s been screwing up for more than a decade.

    I think one thing the last election showed is that a significant number of Canadians would rather have voted for a rabid mandrill than Michael Ignatief. Lacking a rabid mandrill, they split between Harper and Layton.

  4. Achrachno says

    We’re not as dumb as you thought? You must have had a REALLY low opinion of us because I’ve grown turnips brighter than some of the people that we elect to public office.

  5. Cynthia says

    You got that right! As an electorate, we suck!

    But we keep trying. And someday, we’re gonna see through the self important morons who keep getting elected and we’re gonna pick a good, competent person. Really. It’s gonna happen. Any day now.

    Actually, the only people I can think of who would be great at public office are the ones who don’t want to be in public office. Wanting the job seems to mean you are unqualified for it.

    Sad, truly sad.

  6. Aliasalpha says

    Quick, get one of the smarter looking ones with good leaves, put in some laptop speakers and a small mp3 player playing a loop of shallow meaningless buzzwords & see if you can get it the republican nomination.

    At this stage, it could be the safest candidate

  7. Aliasalpha says

    Okay I want cartoon-obama’s throne, that thing looks awesome. It’d probably be a bit hard on the bum but I’ll get a cushion for it

  8. nemothederv says

    I guess, with you being a foreigner, some translation is needed. Let me explain what your seeing.

    We are all witnessing the republican party committing suicide without really having a choice.
    You see, about 40% of republicans that are actually willing to get up off of their asses and vote in a primary are what we call “fundy loons”.
    None of the candidates can win the primary unless they can get the loon vote so they push their way as far to the right as possible.
    The problem is if they go that far right they will been seen as poisonous to the non loony-crowd (about 80% of the country as a whole) and lose the big election.
    So it’s a matter of win the primary and lose the election or not make it to the election at all.
    The only hope they have is that those who supported Obama in 2008 don’t show up in 2012.
    So that is why they are acting so crazy. They are trying to portray what (they think) is the ideal fundy loon candidate.

    In a country of 334 million people it only takes about 80 million to stage the biggest freak parade in world history. So pull up a tub of popcorn, watch the trainwreck(s) and feel safe in knowing that this doesn’t really mean anything at all.
    Of course, I could be wrong but I sure hope not.

  9. Just Visiting says

    Granted, your loonies (specifically NOT the coin) aren’t quite as nuts as our loonies, but I find it hard to quite fathom Canadian politics, at least from the reports we get down here. What Canadian newspaper would you recommend for following your politics best?

  10. says

    Slightly right-of-center Globe And Mail does a pretty good job of covering politics. CBC does as well. Avoid pretty much anything with the word “Sun” in the masthead.

  11. Brian Lynchehaun says

    At some point, I’m going to figure out what the American fascination with the presidency is. The president has zero legislative capability, and virtually no legal powers. The power is mainly to not-sign a bill into law, provided it has received less than a super-majority of votes.

    And that’s really it. The same powers as the Irish president (and yes, the Irish president is also the commander-in-chief).

    The role that’s (arguably) *far* more important is speaker-of-the-house, as that’s the role that’s most analogous (in terms of legal capability) to the Prime Minister in parliamentary systems.

    It’s just odd.

  12. says

    The president has zero legislative capability, and virtually no legal powers

    Um… yeah that’s not even a little bit true. The power of the presidency has grown by leaps and bounds over the past century, and insofar as the president sets foreign policy and marshalls public support he has a great deal of de facto legal power. Yes, under a strict constitutional interpretation the president doesn’t propose legislation, the Congress does. I can’t remember a time when that was exclusively true, though. Speaker of the House does wield a great deal of power, but the closest a Speaker ever came to wielding more influence than POTUS was New Gingrich, and that blew up in his face big time. The President exerts a great deal of power over the national electorate, which is what is happening even in Canada’s system – parties are being identified with their leaders far more than with their policies.

  13. Desert Son, OM says

    Americans: not as dumb as I thought

    Hey, c’mon! Give us a chance!

    As an aside, am I in the minority who find “American” an insufficient and somewhat misleading term for “citizens of the United States?” Technically, Canadians, Mexicans, and citizens of the other nations all the way down to Argentina are Americans, too, no? By virtue of continental landmass? Or is my thinking much too “early 16th century European” on this matter?

    I kind of see America like a big brother who’s kind of a screwup. Lots of talent, but makes poor decisions

    With ya so far.

    – gets drunk and picks fights,

    Sometimes it seems like this. Sometimes it seems more like . . .

    . . . have you seen the movie Enter the Dragon?

    Spoilers if you haven’t seen it.

    There’s a scene on the boat carrying the protagonists to Han’s island. An Australian martial artist is bullying his way among the crew of the boat. He threatens the calm, cool, collected Bruce Lee character. Lee’s character bests him in a contest of, essentially, wits (rather than fists).

    Sometimes it seems like the U.S. is like that Australian character in the film (as he’s characterized, not as actual Australian, to be clear). Sort of like “goes out with every intention of finding a fight, even if he has to manufacture one, regardless of booze intake, in some sort of strange ritual to try and remind himself that he’s tough.”

    but then once he’s bailed out of jail he goes to the library and comes up with a brilliant get-rich quick scheme.

    I’m still sort of with ya, except I’m not sure the U.S. has ever been sent “to jail,” in that sense. Seems more like it’s been scolded by a parent and sent to its room where it continues to whine about how mistreated it is for having been sent for a short period to its room.

    And then blows all of the money on drugs.

    Which it simultaneously loves while going to great lengths to persecute as indicative of “derelict of character.”

    He gets into abusive relationships instead of dating that perfectly nice and cute girl

    Or guy, and would also then go to great lengths to persecute as “morally reprehensible.”

    He’s powerful and brilliant, but erratic and dangerous.

    To be fair, that could be said about so many nations, but yeah, I definitely see what you mean.

    I wonder if part of the problem is not just in the vagaries of the electorate (and it is a huge potential electorate, regardless of how many actually vote, so there are many potential “screw-up brother” voters), but also in the way the media interacts with and then distributes information to, for, and about that electorate.

    A few years ago on Pharyngula I posted a comment about how it seemed like general national (U.S.) sentiment was fairly conservative, and another poster (and I’ve looked for it and can’t find it, unfortunately, as I wish I could acknowledge the other poster who correctly pointed out my error) called me on it. So I went looking into some polling information on several topics (abortion, drug legalization, capital punishment, etc.) and found that there was actually, among polled populations, a somewhat center-left leaning on many of the issues that seemed decidedly less “screw-up brother.”

    But there sure are some very, very loud voices on the “screw-up brother” side, and there are some very eager outlets to hand those voices a microphone and a forum.

    Not that they shouldn’t have the forum. Free speech is essential. But a large part of the mainstream media doesn’t seem particularly “liberal,” accusations of such to the contrary. And, of course, I should qualify by noting that not all of the issues relative to good national behavior on the world geo-political scene are strictly limited to a liberal-conservative continuum.

    So… okay Americans. Your stock is rising.

    Wait ten minutes.

    Actually, as I mentioned above, I suspect there’s a gap between a fair amount of what the U.S. electorate thinks/feels/wants, and what gets done in office or gets presented by the media. Some of Mano Singham’s recent posts have been dealing with issues of greater disconnect between popular opinion and the actual business of government, especially vis-a-vis influence of large scale corporate dollars or individuals with extreme wealth (or as a dear friend of mine puts it, “wealth beyond reason”).

    And from nemothederv’s post at #7:

    what we call “fundy loons” . . . None of the candidates can win the primary unless they can get the loon vote

    The critical Gavia waterfowl vote has long been a linchpin of the U.S. political system.

    Thanks, enjoy the dinner, two shows on Saturday!

    Still learning,


  14. Just Visiting says

    I admit I was looking for something a bit farther left 😉 but have already learned about the “Sun” phenomenon. Thanks!

  15. says

    People tell me CBC is left-of-center. I don’t know that I agree, but the Globe and Mail is to the right of me, without being crazy. I think they handle national politics pretty well, insofar as I am nodding in agreement about as often as I am tearing my hair out in frustration.

  16. Desert Son, OM says

    It occurs to me as I’m reading your other posts about “good news week,” that this post is also the good news category and that I basically came into the room at post 9 and said, “Yeah, but just wait! It’ll go wrong again!”

    Instead of offering a cheer of support, I tipped over the recently potted plant of positivity, spilling topsoil onto the rug.

    I wish to tender an apology and will now spend a few minutes with a broom and dustpan, then hie my cynical ass away to the sitting room of “compose, walk away for a bit, re-examine post and consider context, edit if needed, THEN post” for a while.

    “Everyday takes figuring out all over again how to fucking live.” -Jane Cannery, Deadwood

    Thank you for your blog posts and continued good work.

    Still learning,


  17. davidbrown says

    am I in the minority who find “American” an insufficient and somewhat misleading term for “citizens of the United States?”

    When I taught English in Czechoslovakia (the Slovak half) before the Velvet Divorce, one of my students said to me, “You live in North America, so you must be an American.” I demurred, pointing out that Canadians think of themselves as ‘Canadians’, Americans having pretty much taken over the term. “No, it is so!”, he replied. I said, “OK, that means because you live in Czechoslovakia, I can call you Czech.” He narrowed his eyes and pondered for a moment before replying, “OK – I get it.” (Slovaks hated being thought of a Czech.)
    I don’t know any Canadian who has a ‘continental’ identity, but that’s just me.

  18. says

    The President, in addition to what Crommunist said, also has the power to nominate Supreme Court justices, who serve for life. These are the people who handle the big cases, like Citizen’s United and Roe vs. Wade. So if a President gets a chance to nominate a Supreme Court justice, he can influence how the law is interpreted for years after his actual term is over.

  19. Desert Son, OM says

    davidbrown at 9.1:

    Thanks for your reply.

    Americans having pretty much taken over the term.

    Yes, that’s the part that seems odd to me.

    “OK, that means because you live in Czechoslovakia, I can call you Czech.” He narrowed his eyes and pondered for a moment before replying, “OK – I get it.” (Slovaks hated being thought of a Czech.)

    I’m not sure I understand this in relation to the continental landmass location vs. national boundary location identity. Would it be inaccurate to refer to a Slovak as European, or to a Czech as a European? Is there one particular country in Europe that calls itself Europe, and the other nations in Europe also call that nation Europe, while referring to themselves as French, Portuguese, Hungarian, etc.?

    I’m not expecting it to change any more than I’m expecting the U.S. to adopt the metric system. It just seems odd to me that the U.S. has apparently appropriated the continental title for the national one, so much so that many other nations refer to the U.S. by the continental title, too.

    I don’t know any Canadian who has a ‘continental’ identity, but that’s just me.

    That’s kind of my point, too, I guess, or at least thought it was, but I’m often not clear. I don’t know any citizens of the U.S. who have a “continental” identity, but the continental title gets used all the time, including by other residents of the continent who are not residents of the nation.

    As you said, I’m probably in the minority, so maybe it’s my own annoying pedantry that’s preventing me from adapting to a convention of language. Maybe it isn’t a big deal?

    Still learning,


  20. Flex says

    In an interesting convergence, Language Log has just posted a piece about the origins of the term ‘American Excepionalism’.

    It’s not as old as people think, and it has had a number of differing meanings over the years. It’s origin apparently began as a American Communism doctrine in the late 1920’s and into the 1930’s as a reason why the Marxist doctrine that class warfare was inevitable didn’t apply to U.S.A. society. The term was adopted by some historians in the 1950’s to refer to the idea that because there wasn’t the long history of class struggles in U.S.A. society (unlike the centuries of class divisions in Europe) there was something unique about the way the U.S.A. developed as opposed to European society.

    The modern idea of ‘American Exceptionalism’ really started in the Reagan years (although it wasn’t called that then), and it seems to be mainly an ultra-nationalist idea that the U.S.A. is allowed to operate outside of the community of nations because the U.S. is a nation with higher moral and ethical standards than any other nation on earth. It often appears to go in hand-in-hand with the belief that the U.S.A. is more favored by god than other nations. It also is a very clear dog-whistle for anti-immigration policies; one subtext of this idea being is that if Americans let all those foreigners in, Americans (and America) will no longer be exceptional.

    Interestingly enough, while conservative writers have used the term as describing a positive characteristic of the U.S.A., there are plenty of sarcastic and derogatory uses of the same term from non-conservative sources.

    Consider also the phrase ‘Politically Correct’ which appears at about the same time, and in my mind these terms are two sides of a single coin. While ‘American Exceptionalism’ says that Americans are better than any foreigners, ‘Politically Correct’ says that some citizens are better than other citizens. Packed within the phrase ‘Politically Correct’ is the idea that any effort to improve opportunities for minorities is anti-American. I find it interesting that the phrase ‘Politically Correct’ is almost always used as a derogatory term, by both liberals and conservatives alike, while ‘American Exceptionalism’ is used positively by many conservatives.

    In both cases, however, the phrases are currently used as a way to re-enforce and justify bigotry.

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