America the ignorant

After Sept. 11, Americans have rushed to educate themselves about Islam, the Middle East and foreign affairs. But how did we get so benighted in the first place?


America the ignorant

Almost as soon as rescue workers began sifting through the rubble at the sites of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, many Americans launched another search — not quite as desperate, perhaps, but crucial nonetheless. Citizens scrambled for information about the places the killers came from and the ideas and beliefs that could drive men to lay down their lives for the chance to massacre ordinary American office workers. Foreign correspondents with expertise in the Middle East say their phones have been ringing off the hook, and virtually every newspaper in every town across the nation has run a variation on two basic stories: “What is Islam?” and “Why Do They Hate Us?” Adding to the shock of thousands of violent deaths was the bewildering information that the people who so passionately want us dead belong to nations and groups that many Americans had never even heard of.

Why are Americans so ignorant of what’s going on in the world outside our borders, even when our own government is playing a key role in those events? That’s a question that dogged Anne Kelleher, a professor of political science at Pacific Lutheran University in Washington state, while she was lecturing in Ankara, Turkey, last year on a Fulbright scholarship. “I tried to explain to the teachers and students there why, during the U.S. presidential election, foreign policy wasn’t front and center. For them, it’s unfathomable that the most militarily powerful, the most politically influential country, with the most impact on the global economy, plus a culture that’s transformed the world via its media — how a country with that kind of far-flung influence can choose its leader with no attention to the issues that it faces worldwide.” Kelleher cited a January 2000 Gallup poll in which Americans asked to rank the importance of issues in the presidential campaign relegated the U.S. role in world affairs to 20th place.

Ignorance of history, as well as of current events, can have dire consequences. President George W. Bush’s use of the word “crusade” in describing his planned war on terrorism was a stunning misstep at a time when the U.S. badly needs to reassure the Muslim world that we aren’t on the verge of a new holy war. If that’s not disturbing enough, only a year ago the president’s national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, was talking nonsense to the New York Times and USA Today about Iran trying to spread Islamic fundamentalism to the Taliban and “doing all kinds of things with Pakistan”; Iran, a Shiite Muslim nation, is a foe of the Sunni Muslim governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. On Sunday, the Times reported that the “outline” of the U.S.’s war plan “often emerges from the private conversations” between Bush and Rice.

Eric Ransdell, a foreign correspondent for nine years in Africa and Asia and currently a documentary filmmaker living in Shanghai, China, blames the American education system for producing know-nothing citizens, people who in turn are unlikely to protest the decline in news coverage of foreign affairs. Recent surveys by such institutions as Harvard and the University of Maryland show that reporting on world events has dramatically shrunk in both the print and broadcast news media.

“For decades we’ve been reading about how American schoolchildren can’t find Mexico or Canada on a map, and yet nothing seems to change,” says Ransdell. “These people who don’t know the difference between Switzerland and Swaziland then become the main consumers of news. And in poll after poll they tell us that they want less foreign news and more of what I call ‘selfish journalism’ — which stocks to buy, sex and beauty tips, 10 steps to a healthier colon and so on. It becomes this horrible feedback loop where people are sent out of our schools in a state of complete ignorance of the rest of the world and then, maybe because they’re embarrassed, clamor for even less information on something they know almost nothing about.”

Orville Schell, dean of the journalism school at the University of California at Berkeley, says that while “Americans are ever more involved in the world and ever less knowledgeable about it,” it’s the bosses at U.S. media companies who deserve the blame. “The broadcast media has decided to cut back on foreign news coverage in its infinitely craven efforts to pander to the largest and the lowest common denominator. This last week we’ve seen what the broadcast media is capable of when they’re let out of the constraints of ratings and the bottom line mentality. I’m hearing journalists saying ‘Wow, this past two weeks we felt dignified again. We’re able to do what we want to do and know how to do. We had the time and the resources and the suits were off our backs.’”

But even Schell can’t claim that any more than an “elite” of American news consumers craves reporting on world events. “Other people would prefer just to read the ball scores,” he concedes. Ransdell recalls, “When I was at U.S. News & World Report I heard about these focus groups we did with our readers where almost every time foreign news came in dead last in terms of what our audience wanted us to deliver. Mike Ruby and the other editors I was working for at the time all wanted more foreign coverage, more overseas bureaus and a bigger foreign news hole, but what could they do? The fact that as much foreign news finds its way into print and onto television as it does today is, frankly, a miracle given the yodeling ignorance of the American public.”

Editors of Web sites, who can track the actual number of readers who click on each story, confirm that foreign stories simply don’t draw readers. “Until the current crisis, our foreign news stories have generally attracted disappointing numbers of readers,” says Salon executive editor Gary Kamiya.

This national indifference has its foundation in a lack of the most elementary facts. When Osama bin Laden emerged as the prime suspect behind the attacks, demand for maps of Afghanistan and Central Asia reportedly skyrocketed. Kenneth Davis, a writer who has found a niche for himself by filling in the gaps in readers’ knowledge with his “Don’t Know Much About …” book series (including “Don’t Know Much About Geography”), says such rushes are nothing new. “We don’t usually know where these places are when the troops hit the beaches. It was no different in 1945, when people were scrambling to learn about Normandy.”

The roots of Americans’ global cluelessness are tangled. Davis traces a recent worsening of the problem “over the last 30 or 40 years” back to our educational system. “Geography is no longer taught in a lot of schools. It got morphed into something called ‘social studies,’ along with history and political science. As less actual geography was taught, we then had a lot of teachers who don’t know geography.” Although Davis feels geography is currently enjoying a revival at the elementary school level, most adult Americans were educated during the decline. “A vast number of Americans are utterly lost when it comes to knowing where we are in the world,” he explains.

Davis also blames the traditional “dry, boring” method of teaching geography — the old “principal products of Peru” approach — for the disinterest many people feel in the topic. Combining geography with history and other subjects into a dumbed-down category called “social studies” may have been a well-meaning attempt to make it more interesting, but the truth is that many Americans are also sorely lacking in rudimentary historical literacy. Kelleher, who at her “midsize, midlevel, comprehensive university” sees a great many average American college freshmen, says, “You find that a large cross section of students, even when you mention major events of world history — and I’m just talking about European history, things like the Renaissance — will give you blank stares.”

Some outsiders see American’s lack of interest in world affairs as springing from our national character as well as our educational shortcomings. Jonathan Clarke, a former British diplomat who is a foreign affairs scholar at the Cato Institute and writes a syndicated column about foreign policy for the Los Angeles Times, observes that some of this disregard results from the country’s “geographical isolation between the two oceans and with friendly neighbors. In Britain, you’re up against foreign affairs all the time. In America, you can go about your business without relating to the rest of the world, at least on the level of detail. You have to have some reason to know about foreign affairs and most Americans don’t need to.” Not, at least, until Sept. 11, when a nightmare version of “foreign affairs” showed up at America’s doorstep.

It’s also true, says Davis, that a certain isolationist tendency “goes back to the beginning of American political history. Washington and Jefferson talked about the dangers of foreign entanglements.” Clarke sees that vein of thought as a key part of America’s identity: “The first waves of people coming to the U.S. and many of the subsequent ones were people fleeing conflicts. And so when they came to the U.S., they said, ‘We don’t want to hear about that stuff anymore. We don’t want to be involved with choosing between, for example, Catholic and Protestant. We left that behind.’ People don’t want to carry with them the woes of Cambodia or wherever. The U.S. is an oasis, a cultural escape from quarrels that, when you get to the U.S., seem a bit petty. When the former Yugoslavia broke up, we said to them ‘Come on, grow up. Your differences are not that significant.’ Americans think they are beyond that sort of thing.”

But not, as we have bitterly learned, beyond the reach of those conflicts. In fact, the U.S. has long been deeply involved in the political affairs of the regions that the Sept. 11 hijackers hail from. Past U.S. actions have contributed to conditions that have allowed terrorism to flourish. In Afghanistan, for example, the U.S. withdrew from the region entirely once Soviet troops left in 1989, ignoring pleas from Afghans for help in getting their war-devastated country back on its feet. In the resulting anarchy, the Taliban took over, and Afghans continue to resent the U.S. for letting them bear the brunt of Western efforts to contain communism.

“I remember when that happened,” says Clarke. “We had people in the British diplomatic corps going to the Americans every day saying you can’t just walk away. They got absolutely no response.”

One of the ugly ironies of Osama bin Laden’s declared war on American citizens is that he is, in a way, calling us on one of our points of pride. Although many Americans aren’t fully aware of their nation’s policies, and the impact of those policies in the Middle East and Asia, if ours truly is a government “of the people, by the people and for the people,” then aren’t we responsible for its actions?

If more Americans do decide, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, to get up to speed on geopolitics, they’re in for a rude awakening. Vivienne Walt, a South Africa-born U.S. citizen currently living in Paris and covering international news for a variety of American newspapers, sees Americans’ understanding of their role in world affairs as hobbled by political naiveté. “Americans have an extremely positive view of their country and political system,” she observes. Unfortunately, though, most Americans aren’t paying close enough attention to object when U.S. policy goes against that view. There’s a big gap between what many starry-eyed Americans perceive to be their nation’s noble role in world affairs and the routine self-interest that guides most governments’ foreign policy — including our own.

“One of the great grievances about America is that they’re supporting the Saudi [regime],” says Walt. “The Saudis themselves feel that America is supposed to stand for democracy, yet here they are propping up the totally repressive government they live under as long as it supports their economic interests. Here’s this huge power built on notions of freedom and democracy, yet they are living in an awful country with a terrible government and there’s no American support for change there.” (Most of the hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 attacks appear to have been Saudis.)

Walt thinks Americans get a bad rap for having the kind of provincial outlook common in other Western nations (“if you go to some little town in Burgundy or in the heartland of France or the middle of England, people are exceptionally parochial”), but she nevertheless feels that “America sets itself up for its own fall. It proclaims freedom and democracy as central to what it stands for, so when they’re propping up someone horrible it’s very glaring. The French support the worst people in the world, but no one makes a fuss about it.”

Most observers agree that once the American public can be convinced to pay attention to problems in other countries, their concern is genuine. “When they do get exposed to the issues,” says Walt, “Americans seem to care very much. They get intrigued and want to help. In France, people are so blasé and cynical.” But even that practical impulse has its drawbacks. “Americans like straight answers to problems,” says Kelleher. “They’re the activist problem-solvers of the world. If there’s a problem out there, Americans think it should be fixed. And Americans like a situation that can be fixed in the foreseeable future. Look at terrorism: Does it lend itself to that kind of fix? No.” The complicated, delicate, sometimes centuries-old political conflicts of the Middle East seem custom-designed to exasperate an impatient people with little interest in the past.

In the past, the American public’s response to the maddening complexities of geopolitics has been to turn away, leaving the nation’s diplomatic elites to craft and execute U.S. foreign policy in a nearly scrutiny-free zone. That attitude now seems woefully outdated. With their own safety on the line, will American citizens finally give geopolitics the attention it deserves? Clarke hopes so. “If you look back to the most ill-informed action in U.S. foreign policy over the past 50 years,” he says, “I’d have to say it was the [Gulf of] Tonkin Resolution, and it was the elite who did that. All the guys you thought would take a more measured approach didn’t. So you can’t lay all the blame on ignorant Joe Six Pack.”

Kelleher sees the response to the current crisis as “going in two different directions. Some moderate, well-meaning people want to get their minds around the issues in the region. The second reaction will be a strong ‘Let’s bomb the Middle East. This is Christian vs. Muslim. Why bother to understand the people and why bother working with all the nations in the region to build a political position and strategize with them?’” She calls this second reaction “almost a glory in ignorance. It’s a pride in not understanding complexity in political issues,” arising in part from a long-standing anti-intellectual strain in American society.

Now, with the 21st century off to a shaky start, that prejudice may be one more dangerous luxury we can no longer afford. “When you start asking questions,” says Kelleher, “like Who are we going to bomb? Are we going to land ground troops? What are the ramifications of these actions? Who do we alienate? And the answer is the very people we need in order to effect an anti-terrorist policy: Arabs — to have to think through that is irritating because you need to know something, and people do not like to be confronted with their own ignorance.”

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site,

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