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Dumber Than a Box of Rocks

by Jonathan Larson (1993)

It was one of those gray mornings so common to the far north in winter. On this late February day in 1989, the weak bit of sunlight remained hidden behind an ominous bank of clouds that had lingered for almost a week.

The smell of strong coffee overpowered all other scents among the clatter of breakfast in a tidy dining room of a Helsinki guesthouse where I was staying. A copy of The Times of London had been thoughtfully provided for the English-speaking guests.

Over a plate heaped with various cheeses, fish, and sweetbreads, I settled in with The Times searching for some familiar news item to help re-establish a link with the America I had left two weeks earlier. As a daily newspaper reader since my early teens, my travels had produced an information deprivation that bordered on addictive withdrawal. I was not especially fussy that morning in my search for a news "fix."

As the coffee slowly brought my brain into focus, I found an interesting story on the Chicago mayoral race buried somewhere deep inside the A section. The newspaper had been purchased by the notorious Rupert Murdoch, the Australian financier famous for "trashing," "bowdlerizing," "commercializing," or "dumbing-down" the news-depending on how one views these matters. Even so, The Times was still very much the official voice of the British establishment complete with a style calculated not to offend the refined manners of the gentry.

A story about Chicago politics designed to be read in the richly-paneled gentlemen's clubrooms of London was by its nature an amusing contradiction. It was about as far from Mike Royko's descriptions of the Windy City as is possible employing the same language. "Mr. Edward Vrdolyak" was characterized as a "long-time political operative" rather than a ward-heeler while "the late Mr. Richard M. Daley" was transformed into "an effective administrator" and "unparalleled political power broker."

Halfway through this very correct and formally-worded story was a sentence that brought a shock of recognition to my Midwestern American cultural perspective on the world. Mr. Richard M. Daley Jr., the son of Hizzoner himself, who was trying at that moment to rebuild the political operation that had served his father for so long in an attempt to win his first mayor's race, was described by a disgruntled old-time machine politician in a formal quotation as "dumber than a box of rocks" Now THIS was a story about Chicago.

My explosion of laughter startled the rest of the dining room into a brief silence. This was Finland, after all. These are serious people-especially after 100 days of winter's cold and darkness. If the Finns passed a law banning laughter in February, no one would notice. Slightly embarrassed, I managed to silence my outburst even though it required quite an effort.

Silently laughing, I put The Times aside to concentrate on my food. The conversations around me resumed and I noticed that two serious gentlemen at the next table were holding an animated discussion in English. Eavesdropping is rude, but this conversation was too good to ignore. I began to strain to hear it all. Under the circumstances, English speech was as welcome as an English newspaper.

The Englishman, who had just returned from a business trip to the Soviet Union, was describing the bureaucratic pitfalls of trying to get something accomplished in Leningrad to an obviously sympathetic Hungarian engineer whose English failed at times to keep pace with the speed and complexity of native speech. The Queen's English was met with the stilted response of a language learned in a textbook as a third or fourth tongue.

Even though casual and sometimes witty, my neighbor's breakfast talk was informed by some serious nuggets of information. After rapidly concluding that dealing with Russian bureaucrats was a nearly-hopeless but probably-profitable task, they turned their attention to the topic on everyone's mind-the death sentence (fatwa) imposed by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini on British author Salman Rushdie for the "blasphemy" contained in his newly-published novel Satanic Verses.

For an American, the issues were pretty basic. Censorship is bad, Khomeini is a bad guy, theocratic states are a bad idea because there should always be a separation of church and state, so Rushdie was a hero by default.

These conclusions were hopelessly superficial by the standards of the conversation I heard that morning. My neighbors had no real stake in their animated chatter-it was pleasant breakfast talk by two comfortable working partners who were not trying to score debating points. Yet, this only made their conversation more impressive in its scope and depth.

The Hungarian engineer discussed the dilemmas the fatwa posed for the West given their contradictory positions on censorship and their addiction to Iranian oil. "Which consideration," he questioned, "will ultimately prevail?"

"Look, the Iranians have you Brits in a hell of a bind. While you claim not to censor blasphemy, you certainly censor much for both political and moral reasons. And while you seldom practice capital punishment and certainly not for libel or pornography, you have a long history of doing as much. It was not so long ago that your countrymen could be hanged for high treason for the crime of slandering the king."

"God save the Queen!" saluted the Englishman with a short laugh.

"Is the life of a novelist worth roiling the oil markets?"

The Englishman launched into an impassioned defense of Anglo civil liberties suggesting that since Great Britain had lost the empire, the least she could do to show the old lion still had some teeth was to stand up for this matter of principle. British public opinion-makers were of such a mind, he claimed, that a lesson by example was worth teaching their old colony.

"Besides," joked the Brit, "the oil markets love to be roiled. They make money no matter which direction the market moves. If the fatwa moves the markets about for a few weeks, it will just save some poor trader from having to start the rumor-of-the-day."

A glance at The Times editorial page at my side proved him correct. They were taking the hardest possible line-it was absolutely intolerable for the government of Iran to condemn to death a British citizen for writing a book. They considered the fatwa against Rushdie nothing less than a call for international terrorism while employing the term "resolute" in their hectoring for an official British response.

"Of far greater importance," frowned the Brit, "is the effect the fatwa will have on the pro-Western governments of the Moslem world. This will become a rallying cry for the dispossessed who already blame their misery on the corruptions from the West. Nothing about the fatwa will cause the British government to fall-in fact it will make it stronger. I cannot say the same for the governments of the area."

The Englishman's greatest concern was for the Pakistani government of Benizir Bhutto. He was of the opinion that with all the problems facing her government, especially the hoards of well-armed Afghani refugees, it was already threatened by a military coup d 'etat. Having a Western-educated woman lead a Moslem country was a stretch in the best of times, and these were not the best of times. Forced to offend her Western supporters or her Moslem constituents, she would equivocate and ultimately satisfy neither. "If the fatwa brings down any government in the world, it must certainly be that of Bhutto's."

In the nearly five years since then, this fascinating conversation has proved essentially correct. The fatwa did temporarily roil the oil markets. The British government has protected Mr. Rushdie at some trouble and expense even though the issues of censorship versus the respect for religious sensibilities have been vigorously debated. The Conservative government saw an upward blip in their approval ratings as a result of their stand. A rash of assassinations of the translators and publishers of Satanic Verses around the world has been called state-sponsored terrorism by the Western media. Benizir Bhutto's government did fall shortly after the fatwa was issued, and the resulting complications from that event were considered significant contributing factors by most serious observers.

That morning's geopolitical gossip has stayed in my mind for a reason far more interesting than the accuracy of the predictions. What seemed so routine for those two gentlemen, was not routine at all for me-nor any other American I have met under any circumstance. Since that time, I have listened to Mideast scholars in various forums debate the issues surrounding the fatwa against Rushdie. Our scholars do not demonstrate the sort of depth of understanding of those men engaged in casual conversation. The more I think about it, the more I realize that by international standards, all us Americans-not just Richard M. Daley Jr.-are dumber than a box of rocks. Worse, the problem goes far beyond the rather narrow subject of local politics in Pakistan.

Study after study has demonstrated how little Americans know about the rest of the world. These findings are not only printed in American newspapers. The rest of the world sees the results of these studies as well. Far from respect, the American traveling abroad these days is treated with the wary suspicion accorded the arrogant, ignorant, and rude. There is no comfort to be had by assuming the problem of American ignorance is confined to the poorly-educated lower classes. Because global opinion of Americans is largely shaped by experience, the American examples of ignorance are provided by those folks rich and educated enough to travel.

In the court of world opinion, Americans are judged very harshly these days for our glorious ignorance. The worst quality of ignorance is that a person does not know what he or she does not know! Given a choice, most Americans would just as soon not be considered dumber than a box of rocks.

Folks throughout the country have spent much time, energy, and money attempting to overcome their ignorance through education. Their educations, unfortunately, have not only failed to solve the problems, in many cases, they really made the situation much worse. It was whiz-kid, Rhodes scholar, Yale Law graduate, newly-elected American President Bill Clinton who said in his inaugural address that America has the "world's oldest democracy"-a claim met with incredulous laughter by educated folks throughout the world.

The Germans believe the goal of education is the development of a weltanschauung-a knowledge about how the world works. Fortunately, a good weltanschauung can be gathered without a formal education if the goal has been well set. This is about setting and reaching those goals.

The rewards can be both personal and financial. Shedding the Great American Ignorance can lead to new friends who would otherwise have shunned you or help close deals otherwise lost for a lack of trust in your competence. Best of all, reaching these new goals is intrinsically enjoyable.

Understanding the issues will not, by itself, enable the reader to engage in the sort of enlightened casual conversation I heard while eavesdropping. That sort of geopolitical gossip requires a sound education and continuous exposure to enlightened journalism. Regular exposure to either is difficult, if not impossible, for even the most diligent or curious American. Three weeks after my breakfast in Helsinki, I was in Chicago on the eve of young Daley's election. All the newspapers and television shows together did not have one tenth the substance of that one brief, but amusing, article in The Times.

What I can promise is that someone who reads and pays attention to the issues will at least be able to listen better and understand more when conversing with folks informed by the wider and deeper traditions common outside of our borders. This may seem a small accomplishment but compared to the scorn directed by others towards the "pig-ignorant" American, it will solve significant problems. Besides, who wants to be considered dumber than a box of rocks?


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