Cultural relativism; civilizational equivalentism; American unexceptionalism; call it what you will, the myth that all societies are created equal seems to be pandemic in the one country that’s more equal than others.
Despite its prima facie absurdity, this misconception takes hold at an early age among US students, as a new NEF report, released yesterday, is the latest to confirm. Here’s what the lesser outlets are saying about yesterday’s announcement.
In Europe there’s an entire tradition of jokes predicated on the American tourist who operates (loudly) under the assumption that other societies enjoy the same freedoms and standard of living as “back home,” only to find out the hard way that the local culture is retrograde in some way.
A film poking fun at the phenomenon—named If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be A Vibrant Technology Hub With High Female Literacy—was the runaway hit of 2012 in a particularly backward sliver of Europe known as the Basque area.
(As trivia-lovers and Scrabble champs will attest, Basque isn’t a word we just made up. The region is very real; its eponymous inhabitants have been dubbed the Kurds of Europe, but tend to object to the comparison to Mid-eastern, and therefore even worse-off, people.)
The filmmakers stuck to English throughout production—not just for obvious reasons, but also to avoid prison. In much of the Basque-speaking world it’s against the law to speak Basque.
Our reputation for cultural naivete precedes us almost as far East as it’s possible to go in the Far East.
“You Americans are all the same. ‘Back home nobody tells us what kind of sugar to put in our coffee. Back home we get to choose what to call our dogs, who to vote for, what to think. Back home they don’t arrest people for this. Back home we get to make one last phone call, oh god for the love of humanity please, wah wah wah,’” mocks Kim, 33, who works as a Supreme Leader, just like his father and grandfather before him.
Basketball is Kim’s real passion, but under intense pressure to carry on the family profession he resigned himself to studying Economics at Yale.
College overseas was an eye-opener for the sheltered princeling, who was shocked to find that real Americans were nowhere near as cross-culturally sophisticated as their one-dimensional portrayal back home led him to expect.
He tries not to be too judgmental, however.
“Sure, my classmates were completely unable to empathize with—or even imagine the existence of—people less enlightened than themselves,” Kim reflects, “but put yourself in their shoes. In America every human being has inherent dignity, there’s no such thing as a bad question and every problem is just an opportunity in disguise. So they simply don’t know any better. Or, you know, any worse, I mean.
“Unless they’ve been abroad how are they supposed to know there are objectively godforsaken hellholes in the world?”
The gen-ed component of Kim’s degree required students to take at least one joke subject, which could be anything in the Liberal Arts smorgasbord. With his limited English, he thought Comparative Cultural Analysis sounded like a fairly rigorous class—only to come face to face with the hardline relativism that was and is the unchallengeable doctrinal fashion in bien pensant America.
“I still remember the term paper in which I argued that Western-style protections for free speech made America inherently superior to the kind of censorious slave state I came from.”
His professor failed him for voicing this heresy, however, jeopardizing Kim’s GPA.
“Fortunately my family pulled some strings or it could have been worse,” he says. “Dad threatened to de-fund the library he was endowing, so Dean Semmler allowed me to repeat the units over summer.
“Which totally screwed my Cabo plans,” he recalls with lingering bitterness. “Nazis.”
Would Kim allow his own son to choose a career for himself?
“Over my dead body. My son is going to be Supreme Commander of the People’s Army, First Chairman of the National Defence Commission, First Secretary of the Workers’ Party and Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party whether he likes it or not. Where do you think we are, ancient Athens? In this country you don’t get to choose whether you rule over this country.
“Sorry, but this is the way we do things.
“It’s not a particularly good way, obviously. But traditions are important, I think—no matter how indefensible.”
[…B]ut could the cultural pendulum be swinging the other way at last?
One sign to the affirmative is the success of Good Oranges Aren’t the Only Oranges, a children’s novel notorious for its politically-incorrect message that the community of nations is nothing if not a mixed bag.
In the book a class of third-graders who enjoy the use of both their hands and feet has to welcome Mgelele, an exchange student from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The school counselor—a well-meaning if hapless hippie in the Mr Mackey mold—preps them for the new arrival by likening amputation to any other body-modification custom, from circumcision to breast implants, tattoos or even African-American-style cornrows.
When the 8-year-old ex-militiaman first arrives his new classmates use ignorant schoolyard epithets like “differently dextrous” and “culturally marked” in an attempt to validate his heritage. But through a series of grisly lessons, Mgelele uses his guerrilla skills to teach them that cutting kids’ arms off is just wrong, period.
The theme of mutilation continues in a sequel, aimed at older children coming to terms with their increasingly non-PG bodies, called Not All Vaginas Are Normal and Healthy.
Author Jean Jones says she wanted to help tween girls stop whining about their disgusting anatomy by explaining that, for all its defects, at least it’s exactly as evolution made it. The novel’s protagonists, a trio of BFFs in the San Fernando Valley, are preoccupied with monitoring and comparing their changing bodies, and take every opportunity to do so in mirrors, puddles and other reflective surfaces.
They finally learn to get over themselves when a masked stranger, the 11-year-old Fatima, shows them that all shapes and sizes of vulva are worth celebrating compared to hers.
(Fatima rolls her eyes and says, “American cunts—am I right?” at the end of each chapter, in what has become the book’s most popular line with kids and educators alike.)
The televisual rights to Not All Vaginas were picked up by Netflix last year. A ten-episode series is expected out in March under the title My Body: The Best God Could Come Up With.