Debating current affairs
Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: They may be stupid but they rule the world

US dumbness hasn't cooled our love affair with its culture

New US Secretary of State John Kerry tackled America's image problem head-on this week, telling a Berlin audience that "in America you have a right to be stupid".

I wonder why he felt compelled to do so. Kerry's not some rube from the Deep South or the bible-belt taking his first, stumbling steps on the world stage. He's a Yale graduate, a former chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee and presidential candidate. With that background you'd think he'd know the rest of the world takes it for granted that Americans have the right to be stupid.

In fact, I suspect some non-Americans believe stupidity is compulsory in the USA, or that the right to be thick is enshrined in the Constitution: "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquillity, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do order and establish this constitution for the USA - and guarantee in perpetuity the right to be stupid. Really goddamned stupid. As stupid as (consult crystal ball) David Beckham, ie, as the droppings of nocturnal mouse-like animals with membranous wings."

There's no denying it's hard to get your head around some of what goes on in America. The gun thing, for instance. The Second Amendment, ratified in 1791, says: "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the securing of a free state, the right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed."

As no foreign soldier has set foot on American soil since the Anglo-American war of 1812-15 (in the course of which the Brits torched a fair swathe of Washington DC, including the White House), and the US has assembled the mightiest military machine in history, it seems a bit paranoid to believe that, if it wasn't for all those guns under all those beds, Nazi/commie/yellow/Muslim hordes would be rampaging through Smalltown, USA.

Likewise, this business of playing Russian roulette with the US - and therefore the global - economy every few months is wearing a bit thin.

But while some spectacularly clownish politicians get elected in America, we should bear in mind that people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. World markets went sideways this week at the prospect of that grubby old demagogue Silvio Berlusconi once again getting his hands on Italy's levers of power and plunging the eurozone into another crisis.

Some dreadful duds, shonks and dimwits have been voted into our Parliament, and their numbers will only increase since MMP means you don't necessarily have to go through the (admittedly not foolproof) weeding out process of trying to persuade people to vote for you.

The US can't seem to get through a decade without blundering into a war, but at the risk of appearing flippant, it's a dirty job but someone's got to do it. Blunder into a war, that is. The US might sometimes be heavy-handed in its role as the world's policeman, but nobody else is volunteering for the gig.

It's often said that Americans don't get irony. Having lived in the UK, France and Australia, I can attest that plenty of people in those countries don't get irony. As a columnist who doesn't mind a bit of irony now and again, I can also attest that not all Kiwis get it either.

Only people who don't watch American TV or movies, read American books, follow American public affairs or listen to American music could possibly make the blanket statement that Americans don't get irony. That being the case, it says more about them than the people they're sneering at.

The most interesting thing about the perception of Americans as stupid is that it doesn't make an iota of difference to America's cultural dominance. Indeed, it sometimes seems that the more the rest of the world patronises the US, the more voraciously it sucks in America's cultural exports, the more slavishly it imitates American fads and fashions.

The 20th century was the American century for reasons that went beyond its economic and military predominance. As the Chinese will discover, global influence is not just GDP and aircraft carriers. US popular culture caused the world to fall in love with the idea of America; stupid or not, there's no sign of that love affair cooling.

Van Morrison's song Cleaning Windows is about growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the 1950s and 60s: "I heard Lead Belly and Blind Lemon on the street where I was born/Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee/Muddy Waters singing 'I'm a rollin' stone'."

Meanwhile in London, Mick Jagger and co were listening to the same music and trying to think of a name for their band.

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