Posts Tagged 'michael mcintyre'

Dumb Yanks and witty Brits.

A while back I found myself getting nettled by a video posted to the comment section of Steve Sailer’s blog. Given the number of kooky conspiracy theories and racist rants to be found there, it might surprise you that the cause of my irritation was this clip of British TV personalities Jeremy Clarkson and Michael McIntyre joking about crosswalk signals.

I’d never heard of McIntyre, and Clarkson’s name I only vaguely knew – it seems he is the former host of a long-running TV show about automobiles. In view of the hundreds of cars of various makes and national origins which he must have driven, I suppose I must defer to Clarkson’s expertise when he asserts that,

American cars always have the words for what it is written on it, on the switches – it says “cigarette lighter”, “horn”, “lights” – whereas everywhere else in the world, where there are other languages, it’s symbols.

I’ve never noticed this, but I can’t say I’ve paid all that much attention to the labels on the dashboards of the various cars I’ve driven over the years – except when I’ve had to consult the owner’s manual for an explanation of a baffling warning light.

But what I found irritating was Clarkson’s crack that the use of written words instead of pictograms was an illustration of “how stupid [Americans] are”.

I know, I know. The two Brits were only indulging in a bit of mild national stereotyping: Germans are control freaks, Frenchmen are pretentious and chic, and Americans are dim-witted boobs. If it were the Americans who used pictograms, while the rest of the world used text, that too would be adduced as evidence of their dim-wittedness. “Americans – too simple to read four letter words,” Clarkson would declare, and the audience would cackle happily.

My fellow Canadians are equally happy to pass rude comments about our southern neighbours, and it annoys the hell out of me – especially since, unlike the Brits, proud possessors of a rich and largely self-sufficient national culture, we import most of our TV, movies, music, and literature from the States. That jackass you overheard at Second Cup sneering about Walmart-shopping, Big Mac-addicted American morons probably spent the weekend watching Better Call Saul, listening to Lana Del Rey, and reading Slate.

***

In a recent essay I discussed a very politically incorrect old story by G.K. Chesterton, featuring his amateur sleuth Father Brown.

The story, “The God of the Gongs”, concerns a Jamaican boxer who is secretly the chief priest of a voodoo murder cult. When we first encounter the boxer he’s done up in fancy attire and swanking out the door on his way to a big match. Chesterton comments,

And in the way he carried his cane in one hand and his cigar in the other there was a certain attitude – an attitude we must always remember when we talk of racial prejudices: something innocent and insolent – the cake walk.

This “attitude” is so provoking to Father Brown’s friend and sidekick Flambeau that he comments, “I’m not surprised that they lynch them.” (The priest gently rebukes him.) You see what I mean about the story being politically incorrect.

Anyway, in my earlier essay I glossed over the bit about the cake walk. Nowadays the expression is usually used as a synonym for “a piece of cake” – a task so unchallenging that you don’t even break a sweat.

But it originated as a dance performed by black slaves in the American south, supposedly in mocking imitation of the dances of white folks. These slave dances were organized into contests where the winner would receive a cake.

The dance survived at least into the 1920s – jazz fans may be familiar with the old Louis Armstrong number “Cake Walking Babies From Home”. How well-acquainted an English audience would have been with the cake walk, I’m not sure. I suspect Chesterton used the term to vaguely signify all kinds of energetic black dancing.

If I’m understanding him correctly, when Chesterton refers to the “attitude we must always remember when we talk of racial prejudices” he means that racial prejudices are rarely wholly false. In this case, the “innocent and insolent” attitude of the boxer is illustrative of some widely shared racial characteristic of black people, also exhibited in the cake walk.

Before you get too mad at Chesterton, I’d point out that back in his day, German and French were also considered “races”, and that he’d use a similar argument to defend the ethnic stereotyping in that BCC talk show clip.

I have no idea, by the way, whether Chesterton believed that racial characteristics were inborn or culturally transmitted. At that time, remember, it was progressives who were obsessed with harnessing the new science of heredity, while fusty old reactionaries like Chesterton (and, over in America, William Jennings Bryan) insisted that all men were equal in the eyes of God.

(But I’m sure whatever Chesterton’s opinion, it would have been expressed in terms that would outrage the same audience that found Michael McIntyre’s stereotyping of Germans and Frenchmen hilarious.)

Nowadays nearly everyone, besides a few dissidents like Steve Sailer, professes to believe that behaviour is determined solely by culture. I’m sure Jeremy Clarkson would be appalled if anyone interpreted his comments about the stupidity of Americans to mean that he thought Americans were hereditarily predisposed to have lower IQs.

No no no, he’d say, it’s their stupid culture that makes Americans stupid.

***

There’s a shortcut I sometimes take that passes by the side of the library. Often you’ll see groups of homeless guys hanging out on the benches there.

One day a few weeks back, the homeless guys were amusing themselves by heckling the passersby. “Hey, watch out,” one of them said as I approached. “This guy’s gonna beat us up. Are you gonna beat us up?”

“I’ll try and restrain myself,” I replied genially, walking past them.

Then one of them came up with a heckle that was surprisingly on-the-nose. “D’joo do the – the – the New York crossword puzzle?” he yelled after me.

I just kept walking. I was, in fact, on my way to the coffeeshop to read the paper and do the crossword.

Maybe the guy had noticed me before doing a crossword. I can often be spotted on coffeeshop patios around here doing just that.

But the fact that he specified the “New York crossword puzzle” – by which presumably he meant the New York Times crossword – made me wonder. In this guy’s mind, what did the New York Times crossword signify?

I have a friend who used to watch the filmed-in-Vancouver fantasy show Supernatural. As near as I can tell, it’s like Buffy the Vampire Slayer if you replaced all the cute girls with dreamy floppy-haired boys, then made the scripts about 50% dumber.

My friend told me about an episode where a character called Sam was working undercover as a bartender. A co-worker was intrigued when she noticed Sam doing a crossword puzzle – “the notoriously difficult New York Times Saturday crossword”, as Supernatural Wiki glossed the scene – from which she concluded that this mysterious stranger was “obviously highly educated”.

My friend scoffed because she knew that I did the Saturday puzzle all the time, and she also knew that – well, first off, that I’m far from highly educated; but more to the point, that I’m kind of a dummy.

I’m trying to be delicate about this because there are people out there who’ve never managed to finish the Saturday puzzle – I used to be one myself – and who will be annoyed if I disparage it as an unworthy intellectual challenge. They’ll assume that I’m snobbishly flaunting my high IQ.

So listen: I’ve never taken an IQ test. I assume that if I did I’d score around the middle of the pack.

I read a lot. I have a decent memory for certain kinds of trivia. But I struggle with tasks requiring the most elementary math, like doing my taxes, or figuring out which size of M&Ms package has the lowest per-M&M price.

I can’t tell a joke to save my life. I can’t give an intelligible account of the plot of a movie ten minutes after I’ve finished watching it. I’m hopeless at games of strategy like chess or Risk. Words and names I remember. It’s sequential thinking that trips me up.

Which is probably why so many of my blog posts – including this one – consist of a series of short, disconnected thoughts, thrown together with only the most half-hearted attempt at organization.

The point is that my extremely middling intelligence is sufficient for me to solve the “notoriously difficult” Saturday New York Times crossword, usually in about twenty minutes.

And if I’m feeling smug after this feat, all I have to do is flip over to the London Times cryptic to be reminded again how stupid I am.

saturday new york times crossword july 4 2020 sunday times cryptic crossword july 26 2020
Compare for yourself: the New York Times crossword and Sunday Times cryptic in the Vancouver Sun, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020.

***

I have a theory. If you don’t like it, don’t worry, there’s another one coming along in a few paragraphs.

My theory is that outsiders tend to think American culture is dumb because we’re subjected to so much of it. Hollywood so dominates the global entertainment racket that we can’t escape from its products – from middlebrow costume dramas to CGI superhero epics right down to the latest direct-to-Netflix masterpiece Adam Sandler farted out over the long weekend.

It’s not that American culture is dominated by dumb garbage. Every culture is dominated by dumb garbage. (Sturgeon’s Law: “90% of everything is crud.”) It’s just that no other culture has so much power to sluice its garbage directly into foreigners’ brains.

The British produce all sorts of garbage – tawdry reality shows, formulaic sitcoms, vapid pop music. On this side of the Atlantic, we see only a trickle of it. It’s crowded out by American garbage, which is no better or worse than the British variety, just easier for us to absorb, because it speaks to us in homey accents and familiar slang.

When we in North America think of British culture, we’re not thinking of the whole of British culture. We’re thinking only of the small selection of it that American media companies thought we’d be interested enough to pay to see. It’s not all great – a lot of it, like the Harry Potter books, is in fact pretty dopey. But most of the low-quality, instantly forgettable junk has been filtered out.

It’s like how when we think of movies from Hollywood’s golden age we tend to think of immortal classics like Casablanca or All About Eve, rather than the hundreds of movies Hollywood churned out every year that were forgotten before the stars’ names came down from the marquee. If we were to travel back to the 1940s and go to the pictures a couple times a week we’d quickly realize that, actually, most of those pictures were crap. But time has filtered the crap out.

There’s a similar filter hanging across the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Most of Britain’s crap gets caught in the filter. But America’s crap is projected with so much force that a fair bit of it squeezes through.

(I’d add that American cultural products that are projected less forcefully – by which I mean those that don’t have big money behind them – get caught in the same mid-Atlantic filter. Thus a lot of the more idiosyncratic stuff that might force snooty Brits to adjust their stereotypes about America, they never get a chance to see.)

Okay, that’s one theory. Here’s an alternative one: Brits think American culture is dumber because American culture is, in fact, dumber.

This isn’t necessarily because Americans are dumber than Brits – though it should be mentioned that, both in comparisons of international test scores and in estimates of mean national IQ, the UK comes out a little ahead of America.

However, the same Brits who sneer at American stupidity are likely to be made extremely uneasy by the presence of a bunch of Third World countries at the bottom of the international test score rankings: that’s not the kind of stereotyping that gets big laffs from BBC talk show audiences.

So let’s throw out all that nasty psychometric data and concentrate on what’s really at issue here: creationist theme parks, non-socialized health care, the Second Amendment, and other such cultural manifestations which we shall prove scientifically to be, you know…dumb.

***

A few years back I embarked on what I thought was a straightforward project to determine whether, in the previous decade, there had been more movies made about World War II or the Global War on Terror.

I spent countless hours skimming the Wikipedia plot summaries of obscure films and recording my results in a tidy spreadsheet. Eventually I came to the conclusion that my question was meaningless. Depending on how I defined “movie”, how I defined “about”, and how I defined the conflicts in question, I could jigger my data to achieve whichever result I preferred.

If I wanted to tilt my results in favour of World War II, I could limit my database to the kind of big-budget productions that could afford period costumes and special effects. If I wanted to include more War on Terror movies, well, that conflict was usefully amorphous – any number of vaguely terrorist-themed shoot-’em-ups could be lassoed in.

I consider this abandoned project to have been an invaluable use of my time. It has taught me to be extremely skeptical of any study whose results might be used to prove a political point and whose data set the researchers have the leeway to define.

terrorism falling furniture graph slate star codex

Image source: “Terrorists Vs. Chairs: An Outlier Story”, Slate Star Codex, 2016.

Imagine that one were to attempt to prove the statement, “British culture is more sophisticated than American culture”. Every single term in that statement is open to interpretation – even, to get Clintonian about it, “the meaning of the word is”.

After all, a national culture doesn’t consist only of the literature, music, and art that a nation is producing at this very moment. It extends backwards into time. The modern Greeks, by virtue of having had Homer and Plato and the Parthenon passed down to them from their distant ancestors, enjoy a far more elevated culture than they would if they were forced to fill up their libraries and museums from scratch.

Likewise, modern Britain gets a good deal of elevation from having Shakespeare in its past, even if the average Brit can quote more lines of Love Actually than of Hamlet.

Since we tend, when we think of culture, to think first of symphonies, poems, and cathedrals, rather than advertising jingles, taqueria menus, and big box stores – although in fact culture comprises the chintzy and transient as much as it does the glorious and immortal – Britain’s culture appears richer than America’s simply because of its thousand-year head start.

Does the UK enjoy an unfair advantage from having all those monuments and leatherbound books lying around radiating classiness?

Or does all that mossy old junk actually disincentivize achievement, by making young people feel that everything’s been done already, so why bother trying?

***

Forget the past. Let’s stick to what’s being churned out right now. How might we go about comparing the sophistication level of modern-day British and American culture?

One approach might be to estimate the level of intelligence needed to comprehend cultural products that occupy a similar niche in each country. Is it true, as my own experiences would lead me to suspect, that you have to be substantially smarter to solve the Times cryptic crossword than you have to be to solve the Saturday New York Times crossword?

If so, does this prove that British crossword puzzlers are smarter than American ones – or merely that British puzzle page editors are more elitist than American ones?

Whichever it is, crossword fans and puzzle page editors are hardly a representative sample of the wider population. Let’s expand the scope beyond the puzzle page. Suppose you were to conduct a textual analysis of a year’s worth of stories from the ten highest-circulation newspapers in each country, comparing vocabulary, grammatical complexity, the frequency and type of literary allusions, and so forth. Would this analysis be more meaningful?

us versus uk newspapers by circulation

Top newspapers by paid circulation, USA and UK.

The Yanks might easily come out ahead in such a contest: many of the biggest papers in the UK are lowbrow tabloids, a market niche that is served in the States primarily by magazines.

However, a motivated researcher could easily widen or narrow the data set to give the British side a leg up. Maybe instead of circulation figures, you could look at the most influential newspapers – defining “influential” by incoming links, or Twitter mentions, or journalism prizes, or whatever.

And if that still doesn’t lead to the results you want, well, who pays any attention to newspapers these days? Maybe a side-by-side comparison of primetime TV lineups would be more pertinent…or the most popular podcasts…or the most-followed celebrities’ Twitter feeds…

***

Suppose an unimaginably powerful A.I. could somehow hoover up and analyze all the text, speeches, tweets, Instagram captions, comic books, signage, infographics, computer code, mathematics, movies, music – every product of human intelligence emitted by each country over a clearly defined period – average it all out, and assign a numerical grade. Would even this number be meaningful?

Consider music. Some of the most “sophisticated” stuff – at least measured by the apparent IQ level of the people who claim to enjoy it – is uncomplicated to the point of banality: droning classical of the Philip Glass and John Adams variety; purposely sloppy art-rock in the tradition of the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart; even the swaggering rap lyrics whose untutored exuberance our cultural betters swoon over.

I can’t understand their enthusiasms, but then, neither can I understand people who are into Wagner. My best guess is that some people regard music-listening much as I regard solving the crossword puzzle – it’s only rewarding if there’s some level of difficulty. Any bozo can hum along to a Beatles tune, but to enjoy Tristan und Isolde or Trout Mask Replica you must conquer your body’s natural resistance – boredom in the first case, annoyance in the second – in order to discover the patterns and variations that, in “easier” compositions by Bach or Duke Ellington, are apparent at first hearing.

Apply this logic to other cultural artifacts and it leads to hilarity. Sure, Boris Johnson can quote from memory, in the original Greek, sizeable chunks of The Iliad – but only a middlebrow would be impressed by such virtuosity. Any bozo can learn a few lines of verse in a foreign language – heck, I’ll trot over to the mall food court and round up a half-dozen Chinese immigrant kids who know all the words to “W.A.P.”

On the other hand, the genius of a Trump rally speech, assembled on the fly out of schoolyard taunts, self-promotion, and Seinfeldian observations about life’s minutiae – that’s visible only to the cognoscenti.

***

But I’m getting off track. After piling up a couple thousand words attempting to disprove the proposition that British culture is in any way more conducive to sophistication than American, I might as well admit that deep down I suspect that the proposition is actually true.

It’s not that Brits are smarter. It’s just that British culture seems to offer a bit more headroom in the upper range of the upper middlebrow – the area somewhat above my own browline, where you’ll find perfectly ordinary, unpretentious, bright folks like the ones who solve the Times cryptic crossword.

I can’t prove this proposition. It’s just a rough guess, based on intuition and anecdotal evidence – the kind of shaky conclusion you’d expect from a guy down here in mid-middlebrow territory, among the other New York Times crossword people.

M.

Speaking of pictograms as a marker of intelligence, a few weeks back I pondered the meaning of the elephant of Han Fei. In 2018 I considered the role of the thesaurus in helping authors create the illusion of effortless verbal fluency. And in 2015 I contrasted Bertrand Russell and G.K. Chesterton’s opinions on the “narrowness” of small-town life.

 


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker