Americans living in a fantasy world

Agrabah

Americans are famously ignorant about global geography. While many are apologetic about this deficit, it often gets waved off as a cultural gap that doesn’t really need filling — a bit like learning the metric system: useful in theory but something that most people are quite content to live without.

One of the latest widely cited examples speaks to the fact when it comes to acquiring knowledge about the world, the tutor that too many Americans rely on is Hollywood.

An editorial in Abu Dhabi’s The National (the English-language newspaper from the Gulf that mustn’t be called Persian) says:

A week of international ridicule over a poll that found about 30 per cent of Republican voters supported military aggression against the fictional Arab city of Agrabah has not sent the story away on a magic carpet. In a new poll conducted by WPA research, 44 per cent of Democratic voters questioned would support the United States taking in refugees from Agrabah, a made-up location from Disney’s Aladdin. Roughly 28 per cent said they were indifferent.

The latest poll sheds additional light on the mainstream American sentiment about the Middle East. It is clear that ignorance about the geography and people of the region extends across party lines.

It doesn’t just cut across party lines; it also unites some experts with those who naively view them as being reliably informed.

For instance, in an article on Clausewitz and ISIS that I posted here recently, David Johnson, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, was quoted, saying:

If you go to Istanbul and look south the Caliphate is right there. You can point to it. It’s a state that views us as an enemy. What’s the mystery?

Before joining RAND, Johnson had a 24-year U.S. Army career “in a variety of command and staff assignments in the United States, Korea, and Europe,” so maybe he never went to Istanbul. If he had, he should have known that if you look south you will see the Sea of Marmara and beyond that, the southern half of the Marmara region of Turkey.

The territory under ISIS’s control is nowhere near in sight, being hundreds of miles off to the east-southeast, beyond Turkey’s borders in Syria and Iraq.

Call this an instance of matter-of-fact ignorance — which might be seen as an American specialty.

Ignorance is not a crime. Indeed, nothing is more important than recognizing the limits of ones knowledge if that knowledge is to be advanced. The worst mistake, however, is to imagine one knows (or be willing to pretend one knows) what one does not.

That is what leads to ill-conceived pronouncements on the fate of Agrabah and its imaginary residents.

Just imagine how much less raucous the internet would be (or how many more don’t knows pollsters would count) if everyone applied a bit more caution and discipline in differentiating between the known and the unknown, distinguishing between fact and opinion, and in acknowledging that what they may have chosen to repeat is merely hearsay.

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2 thoughts on “Americans living in a fantasy world

  1. Syd

    This is what drives me crazy about you liberal hawks. You see American ignorance and malevolence (e.g. our current blockade of millions of malnourished Yemenis), and you nevertheless say that America can make things better.

    This would be difficult to do even if our knowledge and intentions were good, but not having either is certain to lead to disaster. Or are you hoping that — in our ignorance — we might end up doing the right thing?

    BTW, your point on ignorance is well taken.

    “Genuine ignorance is . . . profitable because it is likely to be accompanied
    by humility, curiosity, and open mindedness; whereas ability to repeat catch-
    phrases, cant terms, familiar propositions, gives the conceit of learning and
    coats the mind with varnish waterproof to new ideas,” — John Dewey

  2. Paul Woodward Post author

    This is an argument about a non-existent ideology: interventionism. Ideological anti-interventionists are numerous and vocal, but there’s no evidence that they camp they believe they are fighting against actually exists. The interventionist would by default assume that in any conflict around the world, the United States, having the choice of intervening or not intervening, should always intervene. In reality, America’s overseas entanglements have run the gamut all the way from having been the instigators of conflict to disinterested spectators. The degree of entanglement hasn’t been a mere reflection of the measure of power held by interventionists in Washington.

    August 29, 2013, should be celebrated as one of the great victories for anti-interventionists, that being the day on which Britain’s parliament voted against joining the U.S. in military action in Syria. (It’s debatable whether such action would have taken place even with UK support, but the loss of that support marked a political tipping point.)

    There can be no definitive answer to a hypothetical question, yet one can make an educated guess. Let’s suppose that at that time, Russia had not contrived a way to help Obama avoid imposing his “red line” and that the U.S. had not only responded directly to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, but having crossed the military threshold, he had been persuaded to go further and to have imposed a no-fly zone across Syria. The U.S. could have effectively grounded Assad’s air operations from that point onward.

    That wouldn’t have ended the war, but are you going to tell me that in that scenario the situation in Syria would now be worse than it has become absent such an intervention? To make such an argument would seem to be based on some kind of quasi-religious conviction that America always makes things worse.

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