Saturday, October 6, 2018

Cultural stereotyping: a licence to sneer

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and on October 3.)

A fellow columnist – one whose work I usually enjoy – recently wrote: “Americans are not like us. They don’t get irony, for one thing.”

Whoa, I thought – let’s hold it right there. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard it said that Americans don’t understand irony, I could have retired by now.

The statement is usually made in relation to humour. Somehow, it has become accepted wisdom that American humour is irony-free whereas English humour is rich with it.

But hang on. Think of a comedy series such as M*A*S*H, which ran for 11 seasons and became one of the highest-rating TV shows in history.

M*A*S*H was drenched in irony. Hawkeye Pierce probably delivered more ironic lines than any other character in television history.

That’s not surprising, given that the series was created by Larry Gelbart. Gelbart was Jewish. Jewish humour oozes irony; that’s its signature. And Jewish writers and performers are the beating heart of American humour – think Mel Brooks, Roseanne Barr, Lenny Bruce, Judd Apatow, Jerry Seinfeld, Bette Midler, Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, George Burns and Joan Rivers, to mention a few.

Seinfeld (nine seasons) and The Simpsons (29 seasons)? All about irony. Most of the talent behind both shows was Jewish.

Join the dots. Jewish humour depends heavily on irony and much American humour is Jewish. Ergo, the argument that Americans don’t “get” irony just doesn’t wash. 

But it persists because it plays to a sense of cultural superiority. Americans are supposedly loud, brash, boorish and unsubtle.

Donald Trump fits this stereotype perfectly. One of the tragedies of his presidency is that he reinforces the prejudices of people who think all Americans are stupid. These prigs look at Trump and say: “See – there’s a typical American for you.”

It’s a theme that fuels countless dinner-party conversations in New Zealand. “Look at what Trump’s done now,” someone will say. “Oh God, those ghastly Yanks.” And off they go, sniggering at what a godforsaken country America is and pausing only for gulps of Central Otago pinot noir.

In my experience, such people usually have minimal experience, if any at all, of America. It’s a country they fly over to get to supposedly more sophisticated places like Britain, France and Italy – although sharing horror stories about the supposed ordeal of a stopover in LA is always good parlour-game material too.

The reason they don’t want to spend time in the United States – unless it’s in New York or San Francisco or a tiny handful of other American cities that the cultural priesthood deems cool – is that they have convinced themselves America has no redeeming virtues.

Anyway, why spoil their fun? As long as they remain ignorant of America, they give themselves licence to go on sniggering at Americans and congratulating themselves on their infinitely greater sophistication.

Another manifestation of anti-American priggishness, besides the “Americans don’t get irony” myth, is the prejudice often shown toward country music – again, usually by people who condemn it from a standpoint of ignorance.

Because some country music is crass (which can’t be denied), they dismiss it all as tawdry and mawkishly sentimental. Essentially it’s the same mistake made by people who assume Trump is representative of all Americans.

Where does this sense of cultural superiority come from? I suspect it’s basically a British thing.

The Brits never entirely forgave the Americans for breaking away and going it alone. But they console themselves that while America might now be infinitely wealthier and more powerful, the Mother Country is distinguished by its rich history, the refinement of its educated classes, its monarchy, its glorious imperial past and its … well, its sheer Britishness.

New Zealand, having drawn most of its cultural inspiration from Britain, seems to have inherited that sense of inherent British supremacy. You might say it’s in our genes.

I’m not blind to American failings. I cringe at American excess and brashness and I’m repelled by the religious and political extremes of American society.

But while these traits confront us daily in the media, they don’t represent the totality of American society. Spend time in the United States and you quickly realise that most Americans are not brash, loud, ignorant or extreme.

Try listening to America’s National Public Radio. NPR leans to the left politically, as public broadcasters invariably do, but it’s the flip side to the America of Donald Trump: rational, civilised, low-key, informed and articulate.

And I shouldn’t have to point out that America is the source of much of the popular culture and technology that New Zealanders enjoy: the music we listen to, the films and TV we watch, the clothing we wear, the books we read and the digital devices we depend on.

So let’s ease off on the conceited and hypocritical anti-Americanism that flourishes in some New Zealand circles. And while we’re about it, let’s bury the myth that Americans don’t “get” irony.


khrust said...

In support of what you say Karl, many NZers make foolish negative generalisations about the USA out of ignorance, jealousy, etc. In my opinion the USA is the most diverse country on earth, diverse in just about any dimension you care to name. Pretty much anything and every extreme of human endeavour is present there. Generalisations are just inappropriate. In my travels there for both business and pleasure over the last 35+ years I have always felt welcome. I used to be mistaken for an Englishman, then later as an Australian and once or twice correctly identified as a New Zealander in more recent times. Culturally, the USA and NZ have a huge amount in common, so why do so many people slag Americans here? I suggest an additional reason to those you set out is that many American tourists speak quite loudly with a penetrating accent, are quite direct and can thereby come across as crass to us South Sea Poms. We associate that style of communication with blowhards and loudmouths in our country. That conclusion is usually incorrect when applied to North Americans - there are notable exceptions however, eg, Trump.

Hilary Taylor said...

'more sohisticated places like...' yeah, nah! Everywhere is unsophisticated in places, parts, portions! Everywhere that people live I mean. It's plain nuts to sneer at America(ns)...quite apart from the huge & multifarious cultural leanings, our very own PM (& plenty of her generation) speaks like one for heaven's sake. I'm aiming at a similar road trip to yours Karl...can't WAIT!!