La-La Land

American Ignorance

Ryan Huang

So tell me.  Who is the prime minister of Britain?  What did Koizumi just do to his cabinet?  Do you even know what country he’s from?  What was the reelected chancellor of Germany’s stance in his recent political campaign?  What resolution did the U.N. Security Council pass in late September?  Which country stopped the shipment of five million dollars of uranium 155 miles from Iraqi borders?  Can you even point out the location of Baghdad on a world map?  Where is Arafat’s headquarters located?  Do you even know who Arafat is?  What 39-year old Asian businessman took control of North Korea’s recently opened “special economic zone?”  Why is Milosevic being tried at The Hague?  Do you know what these things, these people, and these events, have to do with the United States?  More specifically, do you know how they might affect you?

It is no surprise that many Americans cannot answer these questions.  In general, most of us aren’t interested in what happens in countries on the other side of the globe.  We feel apathetic even to domestic events occurring in states other than our own.  But that is the problem – the American public does not recognize the most basic knowledge about the current events of the world due to lack of interest.  The average adult perhaps only realizes that bin Laden and al Qaeda are hiding somewhere inside or outside Afghanistan and that Saddam Hussein may have a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction hidden somewhere in Iraq.  But this is about as far as their familiarity with foreign affairs extends – they may not even be able to point out Baghdad on a map or what territory Desert Storm covered.  They probably cannot even identify the events that occurred at Tora Bora or name our allies in Afghanistan.  Why are most of us ignorant in international affairs?  Why do peoples of foreign countries stereotype Americans as clueless?  We just don’t care!  There are, I believe, four major factors contributing to our disinterest in world relations: the actions of our government, the popular influences of media, our isolated geography, and most important, our apathy.

Throughout most of the 20th century, our government has taken a more or less isolationist stance in world relations, thereby sheltering its citizens from events in the international community.  This is due in part to the reluctance of our government to enter into conflicts or issues that bear little importance to national security or the economy.  Most foreign intervention by the government has been selective and limited mainly to European and other important industrial areas and has rarely focused on crises in the middle east or other third world countries until very recently.

Our interests in the world wars peaked only when it seemed that aggressor nations had gained the potential of threatening the United States.  If the UK fell during the World Wars, the geographical barrier of the Atlantic would be meaningless (it had just been shown by Lindbergh that transatlantic flight was possible); enemy forces could very well invade the United States using the British Isles to launch aerial attacks on important cities like New York and Washington.

Similarly, the United States government acts to protect its economic interests.  Though many view former President Bush’s 100-hour war, or Operation Desert Storm, as a successful attempt at liberating conquered Kuwait and driving Saddam Hussein back to Baghdad, perhaps the real objective was to protect precious oil deposits for the American oil industry.  Less readily known are the CIA-sponsored operations in Central and South America that secured domestic corporations against foreign competition.  Even now, the current President Bush pushes for regime change in Iraq, reasoning to the public and the world that Hussein harbors and aids terrorists and stockpiles biological weapons, when perhaps the real intention of the administration is again to protect its oil interests in fear that if Hussein obtains nuclear arms, he could again invade and conquer Kuwait and threaten, with nuclear arms, any country attempting to remove him from power.

The few interventions by the United States government in areas outside industrial and economic importance and national security interests seem to occur mainly in Caucasian-dominated areas such as Bosnia and Eastern Europe – rarely has the US focused on places like Rwanda and other war-torn nations of Africa and the Middle East.  Only recently, in the interests of national security and homeland defense, for obvious reasons, has the government turned its attention especially to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.

Though the isolationism embraced by the government may seem beneficial for the country in that it helps protect America from the troubles of the international world, in an increasingly global society, such imposed ignorance could prove harmful to foreign policy relations and detrimental for public understanding of critical world issues.

Similar side effects of practicing isolationism are also seen when the American government uses deception to achieve its goals.  Inadvertently, as David Pearson states in his article The Media and Government Deception, “deception… restricts the range of the public’s political, social, and economic alternatives.  It can limit debate, as topics are selectively removed from the public agenda or their consideration is slanted in undetected ways.”  Using a variety of tactics, the government is able to deceive the majority of the populace into believing certain opinions, thus making it difficult for dissenting voices to be heard.  As Machiavelli bluntly states in The Prince, “Men are so simple.”  If the government does not want us to scrutinize its international actions, it only needs public relations to disguise the truth (can anyone understand Condoleeza Rice?), thus confusing the populace, and skewing understandings of events.

A more physical, though not as influential, reason why the regular American is uninterested in international affairs is the geographical location of the United States.  Two oceans surround America, essentially isolating the country from the events of the world.  Compared to the jigsaw arrangement of European nations, America borders only Mexico and Canada.  This isolation has enabled America to remain neutral throughout most of its existence – while Europeans fought each other for control in the 1800s and the early periods of the world wars, America watched from the distant sidelines not concerned about the conflicts and strife riddling the continent.  The ravages of war did not touch American shores except for the Japanese bombings in Hawaii.

However, now that physical barriers are becoming less and less a deterring force against isolationism, and considering the ease with which foreigners enter United States territory, geography can no longer be considered an acceptable explanation or excuse for current ignorance among the American public.  Two hundred years of safeguarding homeland interests has deadened American senses to how close we actually are to the troubles and horrors of other societies.  The painfully clear observation is that Americans are now just as vulnerable as Israelis and Palestinians to the suicide bombings of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.  This erosion of geographical barriers is advanced even further with the knowledge that rogue nations and actors have the ability to obtain nuclear arms.  As if awakening from a deep sleep to the violent alarm clock of the World Trade Center bombings, the American public is only just beginning to realize the seriousness of their ignorance.

Another continuing contribution to disinterest in foreign affairs is the popular influences of American media.  Newspapers, magazines, movies, advertisements, and especially television network news are focused mainly on ratings and produce news and entertainment that sell.  Information that cannot hold the public’s interests – especially on complicated issues – is left behind and not reported for fear of declining ratings.  Edward Epstein states in his book, News from Nowhere, that events are deemed not worthy of reporting simply because they took place at inconvenient locations or times.  Who cares what happens in the Middle East?  Who would want to jump into the horribly confusing Israeli-Palestinian fray and attempt to determine which group started the conflict?  Who would want to travel to a foreign country, staying in a roach-infested mortar-shelled hotel without running water, going without ice in their drinks just to risk their lives for a story?  As a result of the unwillingness for investigative teams to pursue complex stories, the media focus mainly on easily understood domestic news covering topics such as glamour and entertainment.

The American public – any public, in general – is more likely to take greater interests in domestic news over international reports.  We are more worried about what happens to the dog that was trapped in a local well for four days than why the Israelis and Palestinians are fighting on the West Bank.  Why?  We find that news reporting a trapped dog is simple and easy to understand!  Who wants to figure out the years of strife between Israel and Palestine?  Who cares what happened to President Arafat?  We want the dog!  We want to know about its past, its owners, and its favorite dog sport!  We want to know what kind of chew toy it has and where we can buy it!  We want to know if it survives!  We want to know how it fell in the well!  We want to make the would-be rescuers heroes and plaster their faces on the front page of every national newspaper!  We, the American people, have our values horrendously misplaced, and the media is in part to blame.

Network news programs are deathly afraid of losing their viewers.  They tend to show anything, report whatever ridiculous news, dress up their anchors for sex appeal, and use hi-tech gadgets, gizmos, and graphics just to capture a few more hundreds of households each night.  Is it because they fear that if broadcasts begin focusing on news the public doesn’t care for or want to hear, they will change the channel and viewership will be lost to other networks?  Could this fear drive them to focus reports on “interesting” news like scandals in the business corporations, accounting errors by Arthur Anderson, blunderings of President Bush, cases of missing interns, child abductions, Martha Stewart’s potential downfall, lives of famous actors and actresses, periodic troubles of Robert Downey Jr., Reno’s bid for Florida’s governorship, or finding the next American Idol?  Certainly, international news is being reported, but who pays attention to them?  Who chooses to watch the mumbling Peter Jennings over Friends reruns?  Who cares about Sam Donaldson and worldwide reports when there’s a baseball game on FOX?  The ridiculous attention paid to popular culture icons drowns out the important issues in global society and thus creates an ignorant population.

Although media and government play important roles in contributing to our ignorance, the real source of such blindness is our own laziness.  We are more worried about why the 7-Eleven store down the block is closing than what heinous war crimes Slobodan Milosevic inflicted in Eastern Europe.  We care more about rising gas prices than we do about the human rights violations of Saddam Hussein.  We pay more attention to football teams and other sports than to trying to listen to the grievances sought by the genocide survivors of Rwanda.  We are more concerned with buying that 72-inch Sony HDTV flat screen or filling our gigantic walk-in closets with more dresses from Gucci than there are days in a year than we are with North Korea’s militarization of its economy.  We want to watch action movies all day long, eat Ben and Jerry’s ice cream right out of the half-gallon bucket, drive fancy BMW sports cars, booze up on Smirnoff Ice, shoot up more heroin, pay thousands for prostitutes, gamble fortunes away at the MGM Grand in Vegas, and enjoy all the pleasures of life.  We care more for that than anything else in the world.

And our government responds to that.

The media bows to our wishes.

And we grow ever more apathetic, ignoring the world around us.

Sources cited: Epstein, Edward J.  News From Nowhere: Television and the News, Vintage, New York NY.  1973, pp. 16; Pearson, David.  “The Media and Government Deception.”  Propaganda Review.  Spring 1989, pp. 6-11.