Thursday, February 12, 2009

On Stephen Fowler

I don't watch reality television, so I missed the shameful performance of Stephen Fowler, a British man featured on the LIFE television show 'Wife Swap.'

'Wife Swap' features two families who 'swap mums' for a fortnight. In this case, it was Stephen Fowler and his American wife, who both live in a wealthy district of San Francisco, who 'swapped' with a blue collar family from Missouri.

Fowler's wife, Renee, went off to Missouri - where she banned the family from playing paintball and organized compulsory French lessons.

Gayla, the Missouri 'mom', visited San Francisco, where she was subject to a tirade of insults from the snobbish, arrogant Fowler.

It apparently made for great television. Fowler was as snide and bitter as Basil Fawlty and cut Gayla down to size at every opportunity - lambasting her for her weight, her perceived lack of education, her patriotism and her 'redneck' ways. In the space of a forty-minute television show, Fowler managed to insult or alienate a broad range of middle Americans, from military families to NASCAR fans.

When the television show hit the air, the backlash was inflammatory. "You rude disgusting little limey prick" was probably the most polite of the comments made against him.

What annoyed me about the backlash, however, was that it manifested itself in a form just as offensive as Stephen Fowler's rants. I guess the old law is true - for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The first thing Stephen Fowler was attacked for was being British - the perrenial cry of 'go back to your own country, you limey prick.'

Then he was attacked for his lauded 'education.' The fact that he sent his kids to a bilingual French school was labelled 'useless' and people scoffed, wondering why anybody would 'bother learning French.'

Just like Fowler had labelled Gayla a 'redneck' and attacked her for traits like her weight or her patriotism, many of the people reacting to Fowler attacked him for his nationality and for other facets of who he was that had nothing to do with the despicable things he'd said.

Why is this a problem? Because I took many of them personally.

I share more than a few similarities with Stephen Fowler. I'm a British man married to an American. I have a son who I intend to raise learning French. I'm perceived as 'educated' because of my accent and my job. When outraged mid-westerners attack him for merely being all those things, they're simultaneously attacking me.

Which entirely defeats the purpose. They're ignoring what Stephen Fowler actually did wrong - berated and belittled somebody, wallowed in his own sense of superiority and insulted millions of hardworking blue collar Americans and military families.

Their reaction to his disgusting behavior is along the same lines as his. Stereotypes, jingoism and reverse snobbery are the order of the day.

It's the same old rubbish we witnessed during the election; the perrenial conflict between 'elitist' liberals on the East and West coast and the 'real' Americans who live between them.

Fowler is perceived as 'bad' NOT because he's an arrogant, rude prick, or because of his disgusting behavior. No, he's 'bad' because he's a West coast, liberal foreigner who wants to send his kids to learn the language of those 'cheese eating surrender monkeys' over in France.

When it comes down to it, is that any better than him attacking Gayla and her brood for being 'uneducated rednecks'? Merely because she didn't have a college degree and they live in the Midwest?

When you start attacking people for what they are instead of what they do, the whole point of the argument loses cohesiveness. Thanks to these middle Americans and their scatter gun attacks, the Stephen Fowler debate has descended into a bunch of 'redneck hicks' insulting an 'elitist snob.' Nobody's talking about what he actually did wrong.

As for me?l I was personally disappointed that Stephen Fowler was British. Perhaps I'm being guilty of the same judgementalism as the people I'm complaining about, but I was always under the impression that certain Brits from a certain class were raised not to behave the way he did.

I certainly wasn't - I have never considered myself 'better' than anybody else. I have friends from all sorts of backgrounds and I respect all of them equally. Growing up in Hampshire or the West Country, mixing with the friends of royalty or penniless Cornish farmers, my parents always taught me that people are defined by their actions, not their class.

So, I'm not going to be ashamed to be a liberal, East Coast, 'intellectual' foreigner with 'funny ideas' about my son learning French. If the people attacking Stephen Fowler have a problem with me because of who I am, that says more about them than it does about me.


Meghan said...

Good post, and I agree. Learning different languages and being educated is not a flaw, being arrogant and closeminded is. People need to be able to distinguish the dividing factors.

Anonymous said...

Hi Roland,
This is the first time I've seen your blog and I love the name! I saw your comments on another blog and followed you over here to see what you had to say.

I think my take on those comments regarding Fowler's nastiness was a bit different than yours. I was raised a liberal (I'm no longer politically liberal though I still think of myself as a classical liberal in the same vein as Adam Smith and John Locke which, oddly enough, makes me a conservative.) I was raised on the East Coast, I've traveled extensively, am educated (here in the U.S., traveled is spelled with only one "L"), and know many people like the Fowlers-- minus the cruelty.

I think the comments were mostly spot on. First of all, I don't think those commenting hated him because he was educated, liberal, wealthy, or British.

I think these folks noted (with irony) that, Fowler's bragging points were his education and intelligence quotient, his liberalism (his concern for the environment), his wealth, and his European upbringing while disliking. The irony is that even though he's educated and has a high number of IQ points, that education means nothing since he has never learned to be civil, polite, or mannerly.

I think the commentary reflected the fact that even though Stephen was proud of his concern for the environment, he showed no concern for feelings or for people. He showed no empathy at all.

I think they recognized that Stephen believed that his wealth proved he was brilliant and someone to admire. Yet his personality traits proved there was rather little, if anything, to admire.

I think the commentors didn't want him to return to Britain because they believe all British are like Stephen. I think they believed that Stephen thought himself superior because of his worldliness. Yet, he showed utter contempt for so many. He made it clear that he could never live in anything other than a few U.S. cities. That all people in middle-America were the same-- overopinionated, undereducated, and obese, and that most people in the U.S. had no understanding of the rest of the world.

The irony, of course, is that the most opinionated fellow anyone's seen on the telly is Stephen himself. And, that his education is worthless since he's such a nasty brute who never learned what's really important in life. That his lean physique won't bring him a happier life, just a longer nastier life.

And, of course, his worldliness never brought him tolerance for others. . . only tolerance of those like himself OR (and this is speculation) those in the lower social class who understand their place. That is, if you're not as educated, your opinions are worthless.

What I've seen with certain people who profess tolerance, is that they lack an immense amount of tolerance. For instance, they will be tolerant with some indigenous tribal community of natives in the forest. Folks such as Stephen may even speak highly of the tribe-- and forgive the natives' lack of education, lack of worldliness, lack of experience. Those of the tribe know their place, though. So, they can be treated with a bit of condescension and that's that. Yet, Gayla, with more education than the tribe, but less education than the Fowlers, clearly didn't know her place at all. To Stephen, that was unforgivable and, goddamnit, he was going to make sure she knew her place.

I bet you some of the people on that other blog had it wrong. I bet that Stephen is very nice to his ethnic cleaning lady. She would know her place.

I don't think the commentors thought all Brits were like Stephen. They were trying to make the point that if he has that much derision towards so many people, than he is so intolerant he should leave our country. Before all this hyphenated ethnicity, Americans thought of America as the great Melting Pot. Stephen clearly doesn't believe we are a great Melting Pot. We also believe that we are all created equal with intrinsic value. Obviously, Stephen doesn't hold these values. So, what they were saying was, "If you don't like it, leave. . . go back where you came from-- we don't like you either."

That's understandable, I think.

Let's be honest, too. As you must be aware, Stephen isn't the only liberal to hate middle America, to deride the values of middle America. Many, many liberals have this view and many many middle Americans know this is true. Stephen just said what lots of people believe to be true and he said it in the cruelest and rudest way possible. His actual beliefs aren't the issue, his demeanor is the issue. His meanness. His self-professed elitism. And, I've seen this more from liberals (friends I've had for years and years), than I've ever seen this from those more conservative.

To be truthful, I don't understand it at all, but that is an entirely different discussion. I was raised admiring people such as this, my professors were people such as this. My family, my friends, my neighbors. Yet, boy, after Bush became the POTUS, wow! The names I heard, the insults I heard. . . they were unmatched anywhere. The refusal to discuss and debate. .. the ad hominem attacks! Conservatives weren't permitted to lecture at University any longer-- the protesters would have them banned. No more free exchange of ideas. If you weren't on the "liberal" side, you were considered a pariah. If you didn't buy into the liberal view, you were a fascist, a Nazi, a Hitler. I've never seen anything like it. And, it happens every day. They aren't smarter; they are just more vitriolic and louder and hate-filled.

And, that's what we see in Fowler. He represents this attitude.

Just my opinion, of course.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to mention one more thing. I agree that education is a GOOD thing. To be clear, I do NOT believe that the comments on the other blog disagreed with this. I believe those folks ONLY tried to point out education doesn't make a person a good person. And, they only made fun of this because of Fowler's repeated comments regarding his own education. He is educated, yes. . . but, he is still a tosser.

And, they were also trying to point out that sending the children to the highly rated school will not make those children better people. It can help their future, to be sure, but love, family time, affection, kindness, concern for others, empathy-- all those things make children better people. Education with those other things can bring wonderful success. But, bilingual highly-educated tossers are still tossers.

By the way, middle America is filled with educated people, too. Middle America has universities and colleges and authors and physicians and attorneys and CEOs and artists. And, just like the East and West Coasts, they also have small-business owners and farmers, and construction workers, sanitation workers, waitresses and mechanics. And, they come in all sizes, races, and religions (and lack thereof).

Anonymous said...

I can understand why you would be sensitive to those comments, but clearly it was that people were intent on giving Mr. Fowler a taste of his own medicine. I do not think people were attacking him for being British or liberal.

Basil's behavior was never as bad as Mr. Fowler's!

I am from the Midwest, and Stephen Fowler is correct that many Americans lead an insular existence. Much of this, I believe, is geographical. Europeans do not have to travel very far to be in another country and learn another point of view. The same is simply not true for America.

The ironic thing is that most people here in the Midwest really enjoy the company of Europeans and are eager to learn more about their countries. They are treated very well. Also note that while Gayla certainly has no love lost for Mr. Fowler, they showed her sitting in on a French lesson with her young son at the end of the program and enjoying it. She was interested in maintaining some of the positive changes that Fowler's wife had suggested.

What people do not appreciate was that Mr. Fowler, rather than trying to expand Gayla's horizons in a city as large and diverse as San Francisco where he certainly had opportunity to do so, he focused his energy on tearing her down. I think he blew a perfectly good opportunity do what he said at the beginning of the program "to influence" America and bring another point of view. Wife Renee had much better success, because she chose a positive course of action.

What I find most discouraging is many people share Fowler's view on the Midwest. I, too, am strongly opposed to Iraq war. Obama got his start in Illinois, and Iowans preferred him over Hillary, Edwards, etc. to successfully launch his presidential campaign. Pennsylvanians and many other "flyover country" voters were even undeterred by the "clinging to guns and religion" comment to vote for a different direction for our country.

Perhaps the lesson we can all take from this is to not engage in stereotyping in name-calling, but to try to engage each other in a positive, constructive exchange of ideas and experiences.

Cantara said...

I am slightly acquainted with Toby Young, and this guy, Fowler, makes Toby look like a saint.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the comments on this blog, although I don't agree with everything said. I agree some of the backlash on the net is out of line and some of the comments made in anger certainly don't help make anyone's point. NO ONE should invade this family's home or neighborhood. I don't think the "go home limey prick" is representative of the majority of the posts I've seen. I am a well-educated widely traveled resident of the city also, but have strong family roots in small towns in Missouri. Politically and socially I am often at odds with family members. We respectifully debate and disagree and continue to enjoy and love each other. I've seen both sides of bigotry (borne of ignorance in large part) and it's ugly no matter who is delivering it. Trading insults is not the way to enlighten, and I would have thought someone of Mr. Fowler's education and experience would know that. Maybe when someone has gone as far over the edge as Mr. Fowler only something this dramatic can help pull him back to center. He'll need professional help to get there.

Anonymous said...

Well, except this blog post is slanted a bit. There are *many* more people outraged at Fowler's behavior than Midwest Americans! British people, people from all over the United States, people who have served in the military - and on and on. He insulted a VAST number of people with his scary rants.

People are not angry because he is educated! Many people posting outrage say they have *more* education or *more* money than he has. It's completely misrepresenting things and doing a disservice to those he's hurt with his comments, to claim otherwise. People are upset because of his boorish behavior. Not because of his privilege. If anything people tend to say that those are not their own top values. But it doesn't mean they devalue those things in themselves.

I *have* seen some comments along the lines of "go home limey" which no one who's been on the 'net a nanosecond will be shocked to see in any debate - insults taking the place of debate. But other people also call these people out on their hypocrisy.

What is your opinion on what Fowler did, rather than seeing yourself in the mix?

Roland Hulme said...

Anonmymous, you wrote: "What is your opinion on what Fowler did, rather than seeing yourself in the mix?"

Interesting question. Erm... But didn't I answer it in the post? Like, erm, several times? Such as:

"...what Stephen Fowler actually did wrong - berated and belittled somebody, wallowed in his own sense of superiority and insulted millions of hardworking blue collar Americans and military families."


"...he's an arrogant, rude prick..."


"...his disgusting behavior."

I think my opinion was rather clear!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I would love to drop Stephen Fowler off in the middle of West Virginia and let the rednecks rip him apart like a pack of hyenas!I have ancestors from Kentucky and West Virginia and my IQ is 135! The mere thought that anyone can save this planet is ignorant. The planet is not ours it is the Lords and he is the only one that can rebuild or destroy. Nothing happens out of his control but everything happens out of our control. Human beings have always thought themselves more important than they really are. Read the Bible and learn that we are mere men.

Anonymous said...

As a San Franciscan, Stanford Ph.D. (French Lit., coincidentally) who lives in the rural Midwest, I'm taken aback at the use of the word "Midwesterner". Both my kids speak French. In fact, I'll let you guess the Midwestern university at which she is a French major. Is it is the University of Chicago? The University of Wisconsin - Madison? Washington University? Case Western? Ohio State? Indiana University? University of Illinois? Miami University? University of Michigan-Ann Arbor? Northwestern?

Anonymous said...

here is his email address....have fun.....stephenfowler@yahoo .com

Anonymous said...

I feel sorry for Stephen Fowler because, despite his massive amounts of education, he is extremely socially ignorant. While he strives for his family to learn books and languages, he fails to learn and to teach the basics in being a socially educated and responsible person. One of the greatest things we can do as humans is to treat each other respectfully and he didn't do that. While the other husband at times made me want to slap him, he at least took away something because, in the end, he was willing to listen.

To those who post his email address, please don't. It's just as ignorant to bombard his email address or home as it is for him to say what he said on national tv.

To Stephen Fowler, please volunteer somewhere in middle America and get to know the person and not their so called standing in society.

To Stephen Fowler's wife, please teach your children it's not ok to belittle others despite their seeing their father do so.

Lisa Paul said...

I think the responses you cite are not representative and, at least in the case of the "ignorant limey prick" remark, are taken out of context. (You should read the whole letter which is as well-written and ironic as Swift's "A Modest Proposal".) The vast majority of the negative response has come from EXACTLY the group Fowler purports to be in: Liberals, San Franciscans, the educated.

Why? Because at a critical time when those of us concerned about education, environmentalism and a move in America toward International thinking, he has set those causes back ten years. Especially with the people we most need to reach. Now the face of Liberal thinking and Environmentalism is going to be, in the minds of many, the sneering smirk of Stephen Fowler.

The bulk of the backlash has taken the form of the very organized letter-writing campaign to the boards of directors of the companies he served on demanding that they disassociate themselves from him. Thank goodness he has been dropped like a hot potato by all of them, who have issued public statements denouncing his actions.

The man lives two streets away from me, and he's made me feel that I have to constantly apologize for where I live, who I am and the state of my politics, even my choice to marry a British husband! He has completely played into the stereotypes that hatemongers like Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly are constantly spouting to discredit progressive ideas.

Phil said...


I enjoyed your post a great deal. I feel that you've summed up my platform as well as anything I've seen written on the issue.
My one suggestion is that, while I agree that the backlash has been quite ugly, there is an underlying reason for it. People attacked his education and his nationality because these were the cudgels that he attempted to beat Gayle down with. I agree with you that the real issue is that he was despicably rude, but when people are attacked, they don't always have the patience or the skills of rhetoric to get to the heart of the issue. I was disappointed that Gayle didn't do a better job of explaining to Fowler that he's welcome to celebrate international awareness and the value of education without being a pompous ass and using his preferences (which I happen to largely agree with) as a means of attacking other people and trying to make them feel small. He appeared to be a bully, nothing more or less. The underlying issue seems to me to be that Fowler has severe and deeply buried self-esteem issues that have manifested themselves in this manner. I hope he does get some help because if he's as smart as he claims to be, we need people like him in our country to help right the economy. We just don't need the divisiveness and artificial arrogance.

Again, enjoyed the article and I look forward to reading more of your stuff. On behalf of this American, your education and international awareness are more than welcome. You appear to use them with compassion, which is greatly appreciated.

Vanity said...

i think you've made this situation more complex than it is. stephen fowler is a dick plain and simple. people in the world will always backlash with more strength trying to out do the other party. this isn't a political topic and stephen fowler is not the victim here. thats complete bullocks and i would suggest you reevaluate your supposed empathy.

Anonymous said...

Err, if I may. You seem to be ruling out arbitrarily any sort of causality between who Stephen Fowler is and what Stephen Fowler does, and more broadly, between liberalism (with all its trappings) and arrogance. Stephen Fowler's actions did not spring up out of the void any more than did Stephen Fowler himself. What he does is produced by who he is, and no division between the two can be made. Further, who he is logically cannot be separated from his experiences, which have helped to shape him. It's time for a little more liberal introspection, because it grows increasingly apparent to those of us who endure your tyranny in academia that your ideology breeds contempt for those who do not hold it. Physician, heal thyself.

Shirley said...

I wanted to say that first - I agree that no one should be taunted, teased, humiliated, or viewed in a negative manner just because they are of a certain nationality, have a higher education or lower education, etc... However, you stated in your post about Stephen Fowler that you took the insults that have been posted about him very personally because of the fact that you share many similarities with his lifestyle. Being British, married to an american woman, teaching your children French, etc.... Those are visible traits, things in our lives that are visible to all. I did not see in your manner, your approach, or your comments ANY similarity with the man that everyone is attacking, Stephen Fowler. Yes, people attacked his nationality - because he attacked theirs! People attacked his views on educating his children - because he attacked their educational levels and/or values. Although tv programs often edit to make the most extreme, outrageous shows that they can for ratings - I do not believe they had to do much editing to find the material they needed with this gentleman. I never watched this program and only just heard of this man today, but I feel ashamed for his wife. I would hope that she feels ashamed that she has such a man for a spouse. I do not think that your family would EVER need to feel that shame - given the little of your posts that I have read.
This man berated American midwest, American culture, American military - and by doing so, everything that they have ever stood for. He is an American citizen, in my opinion that means you should have some pride in your adopted country. Not to be blinded by the faults of that country, but this man literally insulted an entire nation. Obesity, medical problems, education, military, midwest or southern culture (a.k.a. rednecks).
I have traveled quite extensively within the United States and elsewhere. I do not make a lot of money, but I do well for myself. I am self educated and have a Bachelor's degree. I would love to learn other languages, and I feel that this will be a necessity of our culture in the near future. I feel that Western medicine is not the be all end all of health. Yet, if Mr. Fowler had me in his home I would be labeled much the same as he labeled Gayla. I am from the Midwest (Illinois - the s is silent), am obese, and choose to have some fun in my off time. His opinion, however does not make me an "overweight, undereducated redneck." I think when you look over the posts you should keep in mind all of what Mr. Fowler said and did - for it is with that in mind that others post that he should leave this country if he finds such fault with it. It has always been my opinion that it is fine to have political values, social values, educational values that may not be the same as others - that is part of what is suppossed to make America the country it is. To hold your own values above that of others, in such a rude, cruel, hateful manner is what most people took offense with.

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