February 3, 1998
More foreign matter
By the way, speaking of language, do you know what this means: "One thousand, nine, one hundred, four, twenty, ten, eight."
That's what year it is in France (Mille-neuf cent quatre-vingt dix-huit"). The French have a real difficult time with high numbers. When they first got to 70, they couldn't comprehend the idea of anything that high, so they simply called it "sixty-ten" ("soixante-dix"). Then, when they hit 80, they were stuck again, until some mathemetician figured out that 80 equals 4 times 20, so they called it "quatre-vingt". And of course, by the time they arrived at 90, they were totally lost, and the best they could come up with was "quatre-vingt dix," which means "four-twenty ten".
Maybe there's something significant about the fact that the highest value the French can handle is 69, I don't know. But I'm convinced that this little problem pretty much explains the French Revolution, which happened in 1789, just before the population of that century had to cope with life in the "Four-twenty-teens". It also accounts for the fact that the French have been basically irrelevant since the 1960s. But watch out when we pass the turn of the Millenium. I predict a resurgence of things like existentialism, art nouveau, and paté, around the year Deux-mille-deux.
You know, it's occurred to me that one of the central facets of Euro-American bigotry is the presumption that higher income equals higher intelligence, and vice versa.
We hear all about the problems of racism in our country (as well as in France, Germany, the UK, etc.), and at the same time we get all of the protest from the entrenched white conservative mainstream, which claims that "racism is dead," and African or Hispanic Americans are caught up in a "culture of victimization". The reason is that most middle/upper class white people can rather honestly say that they don't automatically judge people by the color of their skin. They have a handful of black friends or co-workers, they root for Michael Jordan and Fernando Valenzuela, and they always laugh at Bill Cosby -- so they're not racists.
Well, there may be a fair amount of truth in this. But instead of racism, I suspect a large segment of the populations of both the U.S. and Western Europe are guilty of another form of prejudice: Wealthism. Put simply, this attitude says, "If you're poor, you must be stupid." Or lazy, or incompetent, or ignorant, not to mention untrustworthy, valueless, grimy, slimy, etc. The fact that ethnic minorities are disproportionately poor leads to a correlation with apparent racist beliefs. But you don't look down on James Earl Jones, just on poor blacks. And even poor whites, for that matter.
Wealthism is directed not only at fellow citizens who are lower down the economic ladder, but also at entire countries. The more poverty and deprivation, the more our own privileged elites look down on another country or culture, assuming that they must be doing something wrong, something stupid with their economic policies as well as their personal habits. That's why, if we condescend to help them out a little, through the IMF or whatever, we demand that they conform to "our" way of doing things. You know, it's like giving a quarter to a beggar, and saying "Now, I don't want you spending that on booze!" "Gee, sir, that's great advice, why didn't I think of that? Maybe I'll use it to reduce my balance of payments, instead!"
Interestingly, this view works in the opposite direction, as well. Back a few years ago, when the Japanese economy was booming like a reverse A-bomb, Americans were constantly marveling at the "superior" work ethic and ingenuity of the Japanese. Apparently, however, Japan's gotten a little dumber of late.
The fact is, I'm here to report, that Wealthism of this nature is just as bigoted and uninformed and offensive as racism and all the other evil isms. It is just so easy to attribute one's own good fortune to personal greatness, and by extension to attribute others' problems to personal flaws. But in the real world it just isn't that simple.
How were you able to go to college, get a degree, get a decent job, buy a car and a house? Because from birth you were gifted and hard-working? Or because your parents, and their parents before them, got you started with a good home, food, clothing, money, support, connections, money, and money? Can you really say you've worked harder to get where you are than some kid who came out of the ghetto, who did manual labor for 10 years, and worked his way up to Assistant Manager, at a hefty $28,000 per year? While you were pounding brews in college and puking on your roommate's record collection, he was getting up at 6:00AM to catch the bus to his $3.45/hour job. But you're more industrious, more intelligent, a "better" person?
The same goes for national wealth, too. Sorry, but is the reason the U.S. dominates world markets solely because we've had such brilliant minds as Warren Harding and Ronald Reagan devising our economic policies? Couldn't it have something to do with the fact that this virgin territory was so vast and ripe with natural resources 350 years ago, it was like a huge trust fund for 20 generations of immigrants and their descendants?
Now immigrants, there's some people to look up to. Whether we're talking about the Puritans or the Mexicans, or anybody in between, almost by definition, immigrants are adventurous, ambitious, clever, bold, entrepreneurial: all those good qualities we admire in people who star in commercials for Mutual Funds. To pick up and leave your homeland, no matter how difficult the life, and to manage to find the funds, the means (legal or illegal), the will, to move everything to another land, and somehow forge a life in that world where you don't even know the language and the cards are stacked against you... your average idiot couldn't manage that. I'll buy into that one feature of the American myth: a country built, and continually renewed, by immigrants, is drawing from the strongest stock of the populations of the world.
So why do so many Americans (and again, Europeans) look down on immigrants so much? Because, of course, they're poor. There is a hugely hypocritical and dominant strain within our societies of what I delicately call "Presumptuous Ignorant Xenophobia," or PIX. Actually, there are many variants on this attitude, such as Pompous Obnoxious Xenophobia (POX), Stupid Uneducated Xenophobia (SUX), Foolhardy... well, you get the idea.
PIX is an affliction that is evident all over the country, in the form of recent anti-immigration laws and policies, of the Ghestapo attitudes of many Immigration and Naturalization Service agents, of movements for English-only laws. Oh, sure, it would be a good thing for our country to eliminate any vestige of the Spanish language in urban schools, public documents, and government services. If they want to come here, they should learn the language, like my great-granddaddy did, by gum. So what if we're in a global economy and Latin America is a giant emerging market just south of our border? Remember, they're poor, so they must be dumb, anyway. We need to stop our kids from saying "¿Que pasa?" before it's too late. After all, the only countries that permit official bilingualism are corrupt and debased societies, like Canada and Switzerland.
You know, there's another problem with being an international traveler. It's finding yourself among countless groups of intelligent, sophisticated, respectul, dedicated people from all different countries, and trying to explain how in the United States, a country that's so incredibly rich, there can be so many stupid people.
© 1998 David N. Townsend
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