ignorant America
February 11, 2012 12:34 AM   Subscribe

In a fascinating discussion on PBS News Hour, Zbigniew Brzezinski, (US National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981) promoting his new book, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, criticizes the American public's understanding of world affairs as the least-informed of the developed countries of the world.

We see the consequences of an American public's ignorance of world affairs in America's foreign policy. How did this happen and what can be done to turn the tide? To enable real understanding of world affairs by the American public?
JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think the American people, the American political system is prepared to respond to this crisis you're talking about? You're talking about when you use words like diminishing power or a partner, rather than leader, balancer, these are sort of new terms that I wonder if people are prepared for or are able to respond to.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think you're really raising the fundamental question, because the part that's dealing with America focuses not only on our economic social problems, but very much on what you have just right now said.

We are a democracy. We can only have as good a foreign policy as the public's understanding of world affairs. And the tragedy is that the public's understanding of world affairs in America today is abysmal.

JEFFREY BROWN: Abysmal.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: It is ignorant. It is probably the least-informed public about the world among the developed countries in the world.
posted by gen (171 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
Is it really so badly informed or is it based on a Nationalistic Worldview that is so counter to reality that it dares not be informed? Not misinformation, but DISinformation, and who benefits from this break from reality? (I'll give you three guesses)

Or to paraphrase a famous movie line: We can't handle the truth.
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:48 AM on February 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


I know it's a super popular stereotype, but I do have to wonder how true this is in a meaningful sense. Certainly in microcountries like Europe a certain knowledgeof your neighbours is relevant, but i do really wonder if the average Australian, Chinese, Brazilian or Canadian is indeed much more informed thant the average American. As news sources continue to both become more atomized and progressively more resource starved, this will continue to be worse not better. The prevalence of lobby groups contributes to this, of course, as it does to growing ignorance and misinformation in all public issues.
posted by smoke at 12:49 AM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Who won the Vietnam war?"
"We did...wait, were we even in the Vietnam War?"
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 1:04 AM on February 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


This will change naturally as American economic and political clout wanes and other countries begin to influence America as much or more than America influences them.

"It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion about them.

On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever. "
-Douglas Adams
posted by pseudonick at 1:14 AM on February 11, 2012 [66 favorites]


Bring geography back as a compulsory subject for graduation.
posted by infini at 1:23 AM on February 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: It is ignorant. It is probably the least-informed public about the world among the developed countries in the world.

Brezezinski's quote is an understatement. I regularly encounter people from all walks of life - some of them very educated - whose knowledge about, and understanding of even the most elementary foreign policy and/or international facts is nothing short of appalling. Americans are basically good people, but we are really, really ignorant about other nations, and lot of other things that put us to shame This comes from having had material wealth and a relatively easy life for the last 5 decades, compared to most.

Another pathetic stat: Poll: 37% of Americans Unable to Locate America on Map of America
posted by Vibrissae at 1:23 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


As news sources continue to both become more atomized and progressively more resource starved, this will continue to be worse not better.

This might not be happening in the same way around the world. In many countries, its customary for people to sit around and talk about world politics, the way sports are discussed, in coffee shops and public places. Taxi drivers often have observant opinions as well. Plus I believe print is still growing in the former third world.
posted by infini at 1:26 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I know it's a super popular stereotype, but I do have to wonder how true this is in a meaningful sense.

Ah, Metafilter. I knew you wouldn't let me down.
posted by stinkycheese at 1:33 AM on February 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


I thin it's somewhat true and down to a combination of factors.

1. In America's defence, the US is roughly the size of Europe, so a Frenchman or a Brit understanding German politics is somewhat equivalent to a New Yorker knowing what's going on in California.

2. But our TV news and newspapers routinely lead with international news stories, from everywhere. And, in the UK at least, the quality of our televised news is very good. Also levels of newspaper readership are comparatively very high across all social groups. Even the tabloids cover international news after a fashion. When you read news, you engage your brain in a way that you don't when you watch it on TV.

3. The mindset is different. There's little of the we're number one mentality (we know we're not). This does make you more open to the idea that say, the Germans have an economy that's better than yours and that maybe French food really is tastier. Politics also tend to be less polarised and religion is much less important.

4. Europeans and Australians travel more - and to places like South East Asia, India and Africa. This is true, to some extent across all social classes.

I've lived in the US and while I know plenty of Americas who are more knowledgeable than I am about the world, there is some pretty shocking ignorance too. And ignorance that seems far rarer in other countries. Some of it's understandable - and some of it's really depressing.
posted by rhymer at 1:38 AM on February 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


Another pathetic stat: Poll: 37% of Americans Unable to Locate America on Map of America

The very first line of your link: Editor's note: This post is a satire.

I wonder what the stats on reading comprehension are like?

More seriously, I'm not at all denying there are plenty of Americans ignorant about the broader world - what I am questioning is if they are more ignorant than people from other large, Western nations.

4. Europeans and Australians travel more

This is certainly true for Australians, but I tell you dude pissing off to Bali for summer and NZ for skiing does not a cosmpolitan make. Plenty of my compatriots are able to combine overseas travel with a hefty does of ignorance.
posted by smoke at 1:49 AM on February 11, 2012 [15 favorites]


pissing off to Bali for summer and NZ for skiing does not a cosmpolitan make

True, but like reading the odd international news story in The Sun, it really is better than nothing at all.
posted by rhymer at 1:55 AM on February 11, 2012


Ignorance is fairly distributed around the world. Americans seem only to be more candid about it.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 1:56 AM on February 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


JEFFREY BROWN: When you're talking about a declining power in the West and a rising in the East, and you use the word partner, what does partner mean? Is just a partner no longer -- no longer a leader?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, it means that, for one thing, we can't dictate. We can't really be the determining player of everything that is important on the global scene.


It also means that we have to learn from our own experience that the use of military power, first of all, sets in motion unpredictable consequences, and, secondly, is very, very expensive.
.


This sounds almost like the rise of feminism, the shift towards peer relationships rather than imbalanced ones based on gender roles. I.e. Men need to acknowledge women as their peers not as subservient hand maidens etc
posted by infini at 1:57 AM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Bring geography back as a compulsory subject for graduation.

Yep. You cannot have an opinion on a country when you don't even know it exists, and you cannot understand international relations between countries when you don't even know which ones are adjacent to each other, which ones share rivers or lakes, etc. Where is all the fresh water? Where is the oil and where are America's wars? Where is your food grown? Where was your iPad made and how do its builders live?
posted by pracowity at 2:02 AM on February 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


"but i do really wonder if the average Australian, Chinese, Brazilian or Canadian is indeed much more informed thant the average American"

I don't. The average Australian, Chinese, Brazilian, or Canadian knows far more about geography and international relations than your average American.

Why?

Because Americans can go through life without ever having to study another foreign language. Obviously, this is "good" in the sense that one can live this way because America remains the world's most significant superpower. But if you're Chinese or Brazilian or African and you want to move up in the world, you have to learn English.

And maybe in 50 years we'll all be pushing our kids to learn Chinese or Arabic instead. (For a number of reasons, I think English remains the global lingua franca longer than that.) But as of now a lot of American ignorance comes directly from our military and economic dominance in the latter part of the 20th century.

But guess what? While Americans seem to have decided that Paris Hilton getting a tax cut is more important than some kid managing a scholarship to go to college, China and India and Brazil are investing in their national futures, heavily. And yeah, the best grad. programs are still in America, but that's not going to last long as state governments basically tell their local universities to go die in a fire.

So basically, Fall of Rome, Bread and Circuses, and what that Santayana guy said about history.
posted by bardic at 2:11 AM on February 11, 2012 [16 favorites]


Ignorance is fairly distributed around the world. Americans seem only to be more candid about it.

Or damned proud of it.
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:11 AM on February 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


btw, I shudder to think about how few of my fellow Americans know the difference between Arabic and Persian culture.

I mean shit, if they could even _find_ Iran using Google Maps I'd be impressed. But our proxy state of Israel is going to murder a lot of brown people in a country Americans know nothing about by the end of this year.
posted by bardic at 2:13 AM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


How did this happen

Were Americans ever particularly well-informed about world affairs?
posted by Afroblanco at 2:37 AM on February 11, 2012


I spent my childhood being terrified because of this motherfucker, among many. I remember watching him on the pundit rounds. Screw this bullshit artist. I am having a hard time with this.
posted by Belle O'Cosity at 2:40 AM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


We are a democracy. We can only have as good a foreign policy as the public's understanding of world affairs.

This is true of all subject matter of government, that is to say that generally, we can only have as good an X policy as the public's understanding of that area. This is a bit of an overstatement (after all, our elected officials are supposed to be smarter than the average Joe), but public understanding sets the bar for what subject matter is considered important in elected officials, and thus priorities in who gets elected.

This is why the long-lived abysmal state of U.S. education is such a grievous tragedy. In this area we are only reaping what we have sown.
posted by JHarris at 3:04 AM on February 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: It is ignorant. It is probably the least-informed public about the world among the developed countries in the world.

And his daughter does her part to help inform the American public.
posted by SteveInMaine at 3:15 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


how few of my fellow Americans know the difference between Arabic and Persian culture

They're all musselmen, right? With turbans.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:16 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


In fairness to Mika Brzezinski, shortly after she started on Morning Joe, she refused to read Paris Hilton news, which I liked. Also, I give Morning Joe a break on the News You Can't Use segment because the show has a much better news to fluff ratio. And Joe Scarborough is the only sane Republican on TV.
posted by Ducks or monkeys at 3:36 AM on February 11, 2012


A much better news to fluff ratio than other morning "news" shows, that is. At least compared to the big 3 networks. Also, that should probably be news-to-fluff. OK, all done now.
posted by Ducks or monkeys at 3:47 AM on February 11, 2012


Divert a river to run through the stables, cut the knot in half with your sword, and buy them all a subscription to the economist.

Anything else needing to be taken care of?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:01 AM on February 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


In fairness to Mika Brzezinski, shortly after she started on Morning Joe, she refused to read Paris Hilton news, which I liked.

For those of us who live outside the US, strictly speaking, Paris Hilton news is world affairs.
posted by rhymer at 4:10 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


National Geographic survey:
The National Geographic–Roper 2002 Global Geographic Literacy Survey polled more than 3,000 18- to 24-year-olds in Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden and the United States.

Sweden scored highest; Mexico, lowest. The U.S. was next to last.
A third of the Americans surveyed could not locate the Pacific Ocean on a map even though it is the largest body of water on the planet and you can walk right into it from three states.

But of course the worst part is that these are adults, not little kids, and many of them are indirectly or directly fucking around with things they nothing about. How many of them are supporting wars and even fighting wars without knowing where the target countries are? (Don't worry your silly little head over geography and foreign cultures and stuff like that there; just take this gun and shoot when we tell you to shoot.) I wouldn't really mind if a Mexican or Italian knew nothing about AfghanistanIraqIran. Mexico and Italy aren't invading AfghanistanIraqIran.
posted by pracowity at 4:14 AM on February 11, 2012 [10 favorites]


pissing off to Bali for summer and NZ for skiing does not a cosmpolitan make


True, though flying the “Kangaroo Route” to the obligatory working holiday in the UK, and (in between pulling pints in a pub in Shepherd's Bush and doing your first line of coke in Shoreditch) going to Munich for Oktoberfest, Edinburgh for Hogmanay and Gallipoli to pay your respects does make a bit of a difference.

Not to mention Britain's cultural mix being different from Australia's. One bogan I once lived with once asserted the belief that British society was completely strange and unlike anything in Australia because, as he discovered, “if you call someone a ‘paki’ it's really offensive.”
posted by acb at 4:16 AM on February 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


Latest TIME magazine cover - USA and Rest of the World
posted by infini at 4:36 AM on February 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


Media. We in the US get almost no foreign media, and up until the last decade or so, we got none at all. We get the Economist, BBC, Al Jazeera, a few others maybe, hell I don't even know, and those have relatively tiny audience share, and US news media has been decimating their foreign bureaus for decades.

We're isolated. None of our radios pick up short wave. Few of us could understand anything we did pick up if it is in anything but English.

I remember back in the late '70s, early '80s folks were buying those big backyard satellite dishes, and you could pick up foreign television (and commercial-free network satellite feeds). There was no way that could be allowed to continue.

And, uh, certain political and economic interests have spread the idea that anything not American is well, un-american. We've been jingoed into ignorance.
posted by tommyD at 4:45 AM on February 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


A third of the Americans surveyed could not locate the Pacific Ocean on a map even though it is the largest body of water on the planet and you can walk right into it from three states.

Make that five states. Though you have to be out on the western Aleutians to get past the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska - to be fair, I had to look that last part up.
posted by tommyD at 4:52 AM on February 11, 2012 [12 favorites]


I've often thought about this, as the lack of awareness is stunning in comparison to Europe. Some possible explanations for me include:

- Empire/military might/hubris (people just don't have to worry) - this is kind of opposite to ZB's view
- A large domestic territory and lack of places for many people to travel internationally and experience other cultures
- Abysmal tv/media/radio coverage of foreign affairs (including NPR; News Hour is an honorable exception)
- Lack of national papers and national discussion on anything important
- Hollywood/cable tv blah blah blah
- Higher ed system being driven into the ground by the race for dollars and providing a good experience for 'customers'

For whatever reason, it is just not seen as important. I think Idiocracy sums a lot of it up.
posted by carter at 5:23 AM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Bardic wrote: I shudder to think about how few of my fellow Americans know the difference between Arabic and Persian culture.

I'm not sure that culture really comes into Iran's geopolitical ambitions; its regional allies include Hezbollah (not Persian) while its enemies include MEK (Persian). And of course Turkey is neither predominantly Arabic nor Persian.

But our proxy state of Israel is going to murder a lot of brown people in a country Americans know nothing about by the end of this year.

Brown people?
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:28 AM on February 11, 2012


Coffee colored, whatever.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:44 AM on February 11, 2012


Iranians are not on average darker skinned than Israelis, but whatever.
posted by atrazine at 5:47 AM on February 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


Iranians are not on average darker skinned than Israelis, but whatever

Wrong side of the religious tracks, though ...
posted by carter at 5:56 AM on February 11, 2012


Rumors that Ahmadinejad uses fake suntan are just rumors.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:58 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


On the plus side, Americans who are interested have access to some fantastic resources which I think are unique to or at least better in the US. You have Charlie Rose, who I really think is the best television journalist ever to take to the airwaves. I can't understand why he isn't constantly cited and celebrated here on MeFi; the closest equivalent on the BBC is Jeremy Paxman, but he has never had anything like the editorial control and airtime that Rose has and uses to its maximum advantage. Do you know anyone else who has conducted multiple 3 hour interviews with Mahmoud Ahmedinejad over the last few years, or who is just as likely to have senior military brass on the following evening, or a leader of Chinese industry? I can't overstate what a fabulous resource his show is for anyone interested in geopolitics, economics, and culture. It's one thing to know the historical background or read the views of diverse commentators on an issue, but being able to watch long-form interviews with key players immeasurably improves understanding of an issue. I've seen Rose interview Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu , and the head of Hamas (whose name escapes me right now) within 6 weeks of each other, and hearing figures like that expound their views over the space of an hour or sometimes two makes it much easier to both understand where they're coming from and to gain an appreciation of how the diplomatic process works (or fails), as opposed to the conclusory reports on the general news bulletin or the confrontation-driven soundbite journalism of cable news.

Take the interviews with Ahmedinejad, of which I've seen two, filmed when he was visiting the UN. The first one, 2-3 years ago was very combative, with Rose giving him a hard time from a stereotypically American perspective and Ahmedinejad varying between testy candour and comical non-answers (I swear this is where SNL performers go to do their impressions btw...when he doesn't want to answer a question Ahemedinejad puts on this 'who, me?!' look with a half smile, which my wife is sure he used to use on his mom). but over the course of 3 hours there's a lot of back and forth, some points of agreement as well as frustration. So when Rose interviewed Ahemedinejad again last year, it was a franker discussion touching on everything from election results and the aftermath, to Ahmedinejad's conflicts with Supreme leader Khameini and Iran's shifting internal coalitions, to how Iran thinks about the risk of an Israeli nuclear attack, to what sort of quid pro quos it seeks for security guarantees and economic development. There were no easy or obvious answers there, but there was a meaningful dialogue, and Ahmedinejad's challenges to the US to examine itself or to look at the impact of Us actions in the ME from an Iranian perspective were more serious and substantive than in their first encounter.

another excellent resource is the journal Foreign Affairs. This is a quarterly journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations, about $10 per issue, which s the main discussion platform for academics and policymakers to debate what they see as the American interest. The editorial bent is biased towards a neoconservative viewpoint, and that probably accounts for 2.3 of the content, but debates within those pages are vigorous and informative; you don't have to agree with someone's views to find them worth reading. One of the best articles I recall in recent years was an essay by Donald Rumsfeld about transforming the military, written after Afghanistan and not long before the invasion of Iraq. If you remember the 'known knowns...known unknowns...' thing - which was widely mocked as incoherent but was actually a fairly good summary of the strategist's dilemma - this is the long version, about 40 pages' worth - paywalled, unfortunately. Not that I agree with Rumsfeld's way of thinking, by any means; in fact, in many ways the essay reeks of hubris and it was this more than anything else that convinced me the invasion of Iraq was going to be a disaster. Rumsfeld was absolutely thrilled with the fact that the US had had an easy military win in Afghanistan, and as we know he had little interest in nation-building but rather assumed that the Afghanis would be so impressed they'd want to emulate the Americans and just convert themselves into a democracy in short order. I'm caricaturing him a bit, of course, and it should also be remembered that he was secretary of defense rather than secretary of state; his job was to eliminate threats and win military victories, and back in 2002 that was a very clear-cut job description. But while I thought he had fallen hopelessly in love with the logistics of fighting wars in remote theaters and completely overlooked the complexities of occupying the defeated territories without further escalating tensions, I did learn a lot about the complexities of managing a huge bureaucracy and the difficulties of responding to complex and shifting threats that cannot be abdicated or delegated. And I was astonished (given the political rhetoric of the previous decade) to see how much praise and respect he accorded to the Clinton administration and the previous secretary of defense for their recognition of a changing strategic environment and their resulting retooling of the military. More than once he mentioned that the US could not have won the strategic initiative in Afghanistan had it not been for the Clinton administration's farsightedness is moving the military away from a cold war footing and restructuring it for a multipolar world of unpredictable threats. This was in stark contrast to the Dem-GOP political tussles reported in the mainstream media over military affairs during the previous decade.

I mention this not to praise Rumsfeld (or to bury him, particularly), but to give a flavor of how valuable, again, it can be to hear from primary actors in a long-form medium. That a journal like FA has a slant is not a big problem for me, as long as the slant is easily discernable, which it is here. And while FA is unabashedly for the American interest (as in making the US more powerful or at least maintaining strategic superiority), that doesn't mean it's blinkered - see, for example, the list of articles tagged for Rumsfeld, which includes plenty of criticism from both left and right perspectives (or dove and hawk, if you want to think in those terms). It's not so uncommon over a period of years to see people turn around and admit errors of judgment or analysis; sometimes this leads to an evolution of objectives, sometimes only of tactical considerations. The value here is to be able to see American policy from the point of view of policymakers rather than pundits; to understand motivations and anxieties and gain a better understanding of what drives policy, as well as what other countries wish to communicate to American policymakers. Understanding how Washington sees the world is a key aspect of knowing how to get Washington's attention and draw its attention towards issues or considerations that may have been overlooked.

A third source of excellent and current information, albeit a more difficult and time-consuming one, is the world of law reviews. If you're in a major city or state capital then there's probably a public law library you can visit, or if not many law schools make it fairly easy for the public to use their libraries as long as you stay out of the way around exam times and suchlike. If you're interested in narrow aspects of international relations (eg nuclear inspection regimes or refugee movement) or how things are done in other countries, law reviews can be absolutely invaluable research resources. Get someone to help you with Lexis/Nexis and vast troves of academic research can be yours for the asking; lawyers in generalists in many ways and a good law review article can be a great introduction to a complex topic and the issues that arise out of it, without necessarily needing to know how the law works or what exactly it is - in many cases, the subject is tackled because there's a lack of law and some enterprising scholar is trying to build a framework for addressing the resulting social problems. This is obviously more useful for students or people with time on their hands, but the upshot of there being too many law schools in the US is that there are also too many law reviews (some 500 or so, I think) and as a result there is scads of good social/political research being done to fill their pages, all of which you can access for free or cheap. Librarians will always give priority to students and are primarily there to help people track down cases rather than do pure research, but law librarians are well paid and (especially in public law libraries) will be glad to get research questions as a change from the vastly larger number of self-representing litigants trying to get free legal advice. Word of warning: Law reviews are written to fit a very pedantic kind of style, such that the footnotes often overwhelm the text itself. Everything is footnoted, even obvious-seeming assertions like the fact that water is wet. This is a by-product of the fact that the articles are (mostly) written by professors but edited by students, who are at pains to show they checking everything very very thoroughly like good future lawyers. One piece of advice I got early in law study was to skim the article on a first reading but pay attention to the sources and explanations in the footnotes, which helps to quickly identify the scope of the article as well as the key scholarship resources. If you're researching, say, women's rights in SE Asia, then after reading a few articles you'll quickly notice who the key non-legal scholars in that field are since every author will make a point of acknowledging them early on.

And to wind up on a non-academic note, The Economist is still IMHO the best read for people who don't have the time or inclination to read a good daily paper. What distinguishes it from other periodicals is the fact that the stories have no bylines. Writing anonymously allows the authors (and often, interviewees) greater candor, and it makes ego pointless. the reader is freed from forming an opinion of the particular writer and can concentrate on the substantive value of the reportage. Well, you might say, how do you know how much value the reportage has without a byline to measure it by - isn't one in danger of acquiring a severe case of confirmation bias? Yes, if one read it uncritically. But if you're patient, you can test it out against the real world. I started reading because of an intriguing cover story that suggested the magazine was not just about business; kept reading for the outstanding writing, approximately equal coverage given to all regions of the world, and unusually assertive (rather than persuasive) editorial approach; and became wholly converted about 6 months later when Enron collapsed, because by the time it hit the front pages of the daily newspapers I had been reading about it in the Economist for months (I was living in Europe at the time, so I wouldn't have thought to pay attention otherwise). Even if you skip all the business and finance stuff, the excellent science coverage and quarterly technology review, the delightful book reviews ("Mr. de Winter describes his book as a pleasant afternoon's reading,' which it is not."), the astonishingly well-written obituary page, and the 20 or special reports every year (12-20 pages on a single complex topic or country), it is hands-down the best weekly coverage of global events, as likely to devote three page to the emerging political identity of aboriginal tribes in Papua New Guinea as to analyzing the subtle maneuvering at the latest Eurozone debt crisis summit. You don't have to like the editorial stance; sometimes it will infuriate or exasperate you, as it so often does correspondents on the letters page. But read it regularly and you will be very, very well informed. (Incidentally, this even applies to the advertising, which includes everything from recruitment ads for heads of UN agencies to notices of oil exploration lease auctions.)
posted by anigbrowl at 6:01 AM on February 11, 2012 [38 favorites]


> "but i do really wonder if the average Australian, Chinese, Brazilian or Canadian is indeed much more informed thant the average American"

Can't speak for the rest, but the average Canadian doesn't even seem to keep up on what's going on in Canada, much less the rest of the world. Anecdata: just last week I was talking to a university-educated person in his mid-'30s who had trouble recalling which party is currently in power.
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:05 AM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


We are a democracy in name only. Understanding world affairs requires accepting reality as a basis for making decisions, and that will never be permitted. Every time an American is stupid, someone in the club gets richer.
posted by swift at 6:13 AM on February 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


read [The Economist] regularly and you will be very, very well informed

Or listen to their kick-arse audio edition - which is easily found in the usual hives of scum and villainy.
posted by Trurl at 6:26 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the problem is the presumption that everyone *should* care about these things.
posted by gjc at 6:41 AM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


To follow up a little on what anigbrowl said about resources, the United States has the best magazine writing in the English speaking world, maybe even in the whole world. Sure, Time is a goofy rag, but the US also produces the New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper's.
posted by atrazine at 6:41 AM on February 11, 2012


anigbrowl, I love how you look at the available information as a measure of people's potential awareness. While I appreciate that it's valuable to do random surveys of people's actual knowledge, and there are also things like the Nielsen ratings, to measure what people actually watch, it's incredibly important to consider what knowledge is potentially available to a society.

In the UK, international reporting has declined by 40% in the last 30 years (pdf). I'm currently working on a study to find out if the same is true in the US.

If an event of international importance simply isn't covered in the press (the Tunisian revolution wasn't covered in the international press until Ben Ali fled the country), then not even the most omnivorous readers can make themselves aware of it.
posted by honest knave at 6:44 AM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


best magazine writing
the Atlantic
ehhh
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 6:46 AM on February 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


"Make that five states."

Could you be more specific?
posted by sneebler at 6:46 AM on February 11, 2012


" I think the problem is the presumption that everyone *should* care about these things."

There's also a presumption that people in a democracy take some of the responsibility for the behaviour of their nation, both at home and abroad. What else could "Government by the people..." mean?
posted by sneebler at 6:54 AM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Could you be more specific?

Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington. There are just three in the contiguous United States, but it's easy to overlook the two wanker states that they always put in separate boxes on the maps.
posted by pracowity at 6:56 AM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


I object to the assertion that the average Canadian is less pig-ignorant than the average American.

I shudder to think about how few of my fellow Americans know the difference between Arabic and Persian culture.


It all comes down to the culinary use of honey, no?
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:02 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the problem is the presumption that everyone *should* care about these things.

If a presidential candidate's foreign policy is an important factor in how you vote, you really ought to know a little bit about the world.

Is the Obama administration's foreign policy on the right track? You don't have a fucking clue if you know what the average American knows about the world. But you're going to vote anyway.
posted by pracowity at 7:13 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


it's easy to overlook the two wanker states that they always put in separate boxes on the maps.

Yeah, plus Alaska always gets made tiny, when, you know, it's "the largest state in the Union," as the song says.

A third of the Americans surveyed could not locate the Pacific Ocean on a map even though it is the largest body of water on the planet and you can walk right into it from three states.

This is a tad weird, because it suggests that most of the states' populations can be forgiven their ignorance because they don't abut the geographical feature in question. I mean, I can't walk to Nepal, I don't have much interest in going there, but I can find it on a map pretty quickly...
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:26 AM on February 11, 2012


I had a friend about 16 years ago, Ed, a conservative, with whom I frequently talked politics. He was among the most intelligent, curious, and good-natured political conservatives I've spent a lot of time with, and so our talks were usually enjoyable.

But one day Ed said something to me that shocked me and which, in retrospect, says a lot about Americans and conservatives. We'd been talking about American ignorance of foreign affairs. Partly this came up because there was another member of our group, a foreign grad student in petroleum engineering from Venezuela, with whom I also had frequent conversations. This guy, Claudio, often told me that I was very unlike any other American he'd met in that I was very knowledgeable about the rest of the world and geopolitics.

So, Ed reflects on Claudio's thoughts on American ignorance and his praise of me, and then says, "See, this is why I would never vote for you for President. That you are this informed and care this much about the rest of the world is not a quality I would want in a President".

I'm not making this up.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:38 AM on February 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


the American public's understanding of world affairs as the least-informed of the developed countries of the world.

Least informed of what HE wants to project as the truth, least informed of the actual truth, or some other "lack of information"?

It is legal for the news outlets to lie after all. And Statecraft has a good part of what it does based on lies.

Given the willingness to lie as a starting point - exactly how does this elder Statesman expect the population to become informed?
posted by rough ashlar at 7:39 AM on February 11, 2012


A much better news to fluff ratio than other morning "news" shows, that is. At least compared to the big 3 networks.

Perhaps you're not aware of the new CBS Morning Show with Charlie Rose?
posted by hippybear at 7:40 AM on February 11, 2012


I think the problem is the presumption that everyone *should* care about these things.

Yep, this, exactly. Foreign policy is, both by nature and by design in America, an elite-driven affair, with public attitudes mostly driven by cues from political leaders.

Unless an American is particularly interested in foreign affairs, there's honestly no reason to care who the Greek prime minister is or what the rebels in Sudan are up to. It's of vanishing import to the lives of the vast majority of people in this country.

Most of the tut-tutting over American knowledge of the rest of the world is a way for educated progressives/liberals to flash their status over everyone else for not sharing the same hobbies they do.
posted by downing street memo at 7:41 AM on February 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Lunch Scholars. The U.S. gained its independence during the Civil War. That bald guy is Vice President. South America borders America toward the south. Countries whose names begin with the letter "U"; Utopia, Uerope. There are either 51 or 52 stars on the flag.

Fuck it. We don't need to know this shit. We're Americans. We've earned the right to be ignorant. So suck it, less powerful nations.
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:54 AM on February 11, 2012


Unless an American is particularly interested in foreign affairs, there's honestly no reason to care who the Greek prime minister is or what the rebels in Sudan are up to. It's of vanishing import to the lives of the vast majority of people in this country.

Most of the tut-tutting over American knowledge of the rest of the world is a way for educated progressives/liberals to flash their status over everyone else for not sharing the same hobbies they do.


Only in America is knowing what is going on in the world considered a hobby.

Elsewhere, it's part of the fabric of everyday life, and it isn't something you have to pursue because it's just right there in front of you.

It's about the differing value systems which the culture and those participating in it and how they feed back into each other.

Here in the US, we rarely look beyond our borders for anything. When we do, we take it and remake it instead of taking what has already been made and being willing to consume that. Other countries are awash in foreign media and thoughts direct from those other countries.

The US has a particular, peculiar insularity compared to everywhere else. And most Americans aren't even aware of this, just like goldfish not realizing they swim in water.
posted by hippybear at 7:54 AM on February 11, 2012 [24 favorites]


"Least informed of what HE wants to project as the truth, least informed of the actual truth, or some other "lack of information"? "

Brzezinski is pretty much the dean of academic liberal foreign policy wonks/advisors. I think he has a considerable amount of integrity and is not a stooge of the military-industrial complex's capture of the American foreign policy consensus.

I was first introduced to his thoughts when I took an international politics course around 1987. One of his books was a text for the course and a lot of what he wrote greatly influenced my thinking on these matters.

One thing I recall most vividly was his argument that the huge discrepancy between America's self-image of being a force for "truth, democracy, and human rights" and the actual reality has damaged America's ability to accomplish its foreign policy goals because we're burdened with a very large amount of cynicism on the part of the rest of the world as a result of our hypocrisy. His argument is that most of the rest of the world has a realist foreign policy stance, it's what most people expect, and while there's a lot to be said against it from a liberal perspective, the rest of the world would actually, in the end, trust the US more if it were above-board with its self-interest. On the other hand, he argued, we could attempt to pursue a foreign policy that is truly in accordance with those idealistic values (which, not incidentally, is what he and Jimmy Carter attempted to do, to the wide derision of almost everyone) and that might work, too.

A discussion of this profound and inbred strain of realist versus idealist foreign policy impulses in American thought is a much larger discussion. But it does have relevance here because it has a lot to do with how the public is generally both very ignorant about foreign affairs while also being prone to both moralism and a sense of entitlement. Americans want to be the good guys, but we also want to do whatever we want that's best for us because, after all, the future belongs to us, and actually knowing very much about the reality of the situation complicates matters greatly and so it's really much easier to just be mostly ignorant and form ideas about foreign policy on the basis of these sentiments, rather than facts. In other words, I think Americans are ignorant of foreign affairs on purpose, in a sense. As discussed above, it's not as if it's difficult to become informed. Americans don't want to be informed. That would make things much more difficult for them.

"Unless an American is particularly interested in foreign affairs, there's honestly no reason to care who the Greek prime minister is or what the rebels in Sudan are up to. It's of vanishing import to the lives of the vast majority of people in this country."

It's funny that you chose those examples because they disprove your point. Certainly the reference to Greece does.

But, you know, just go on believing that people who know stuff do so only because they like to falsely think they're better than you. You are certainly putting them in their place by refusing to budge from a stance of ignorance!
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:55 AM on February 11, 2012 [31 favorites]




You are aware that "liberal" or "progressive" is not synonymous with "isolationism" or "idealist foreign policy", right?
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:04 AM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I wouldn't vote for you either, Ivan Fyodorovich.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:05 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


And you are aware that ignorance is curable with facts and truth....if the other party wishes to remove said ignorance.
posted by rough ashlar at 8:06 AM on February 11, 2012


It's funny that you chose those examples because they disprove your point. Certainly the reference to Greece does.

Well, no, they actually don't. I'm willing to grant that the identity of the Greek prime minister is important (but I'm not even totally sure about that, given the nature of the EU - seems like whoever's in that office might be irrelevant). But it is absolutely not important for Americans to know who that person is. Why would it be? What could we possibly do about it, if we didn't like who he was? If a new prime minister signaled a shift in EU politics and economics, how should the average American, with direct exposure to international markets only through a 401k, react?
posted by downing street memo at 8:06 AM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


We don't know where a place is until we bomb it
posted by Renoroc at 8:08 AM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Was. Not is. Was.
posted by pracowity at 8:09 AM on February 11, 2012


You have Charlie Rose, who I really think is the best television journalist ever to take to the airwaves.

I think Bill Moyers is actually better than Rose.
posted by gen at 8:10 AM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


The US has a particular, peculiar insularity compared to everywhere else. And most Americans aren't even aware of this, just like goldfish not realizing they swim in water.

This is the constant refrain, of course, but as mentioned above the implicit comparison is to small European countries, not big, insular-by-nature, self-contained nations like ours. Does the average Chinese person know more about the world than we do? How about the average Russian? Or Canadian? I've been to the Canadian prairies and, with apologies to friends north of the border, this is not a region of the world notable for the geopolitical savvy of its residents.

Of course, those comparisons (except the one to Canada) aren't fair because those countries are much poorer than we are. But it just goes to show how silly the whole game of comparing relative international knowledge is; international knowledge, like most things, is a function of need and opportunity. We have a lot of opportunity and not much need to learn about the world, most countries have neither the need or the opportunity, and Europe is in a weird place where they have both.
posted by downing street memo at 8:17 AM on February 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


If a new prime minister signaled a shift in EU politics and economics, how should the average American, with direct exposure to international markets only through a 401k, react?

Given that the collusion between Goldman Sachs and Greece which disguised their actual debt load from EU analytic types and allowed them fraudulent admission into the EU might actually cause the economy of Europe to go into a deep recession, which would greatly affect the entire financial system here in the US because of the misrating of government debt by ratings agencies causing most of the major banks here to have invested heavily in now-failing countries...

I'd say that knowing what sort of politics is favored by the Greek PM might actually be something the average American would be interested in. Our banking system isn't exactly in great shape right now, and look how much that's fucked things up for regular people here. Another hit, and it could get much much worse.
posted by hippybear at 8:18 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hippybear, not saying you're wrong about any of that. The question remains: what can we possibly do about it? Again, if you're the average American, with a 401k, what do you do? Rebalance a bit, maybe? But seriously, that's not likely to be an effective strategy if the financial system melts down again.

If the contagion reaches our shores, Americans will figure out what's important to know, and they'll learn it (I believe I saw a study that said Americans were generally very aware of the strength of the domestic economy, minus partisans inclined to have particularly rosy or negative views because of who's in power.)
posted by downing street memo at 8:24 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


"But it is absolutely not important for Americans to know who that person is. Why would it be? What could we possibly do about it, if we didn't like who he was?"

Well, it doesn't matter as much "who" he is as much as what he's doing and saying.

How Greece deals with its sovereign debt crisis could make or break the Euro, which could have disastrous consequences for the European recovery from the 08 crisis, and which could make the difference between a recovery, a backslide into recession, or a depression for the US.

But, hey, it's not really important to know about that stuff. How can it affect us?

"And you are aware that ignorance is curable with facts and truth....if the other party wishes to remove said ignorance."

Yeah, whatever. I don't know what "truth" you think you possess about that. The US indirectly drew the USSR into a war it couldn't sustain and which had profound political consequences. It certainly didn't singlehandedly topple the regime, but it played a large role.

It also proved short-sighted in funding and arming the proto-Taliban and generally stoking the flames of Islamic extremism, there and elsewhere, and I think pretty much everyone agrees that was very much not a good thing.

I guess it's worth mentioning that this notion that a national foreign policy should reflect a correct morality is as prevalent on the American left as on the right. Personally, I strongly favor an idealist foreign policy over a realist foreign policy. But there's essentially no country on the planet that consistently pursues an idealistic foreign policy. All foreign policy is essentially realist and self-interested, often brutally so.

This is what's so ironic about the neocons. They represented the epitome of right-wing idealist foreign policy. Their views and aims were divorced almost entirely from fact and were motivated almost entirely by a fantastical notion of a world where the US was the white-hatted Sheriff riding into town to take out the bad guys. The left has never really understood this, because it had never before been the case that conservative interventionist American foreign policy had been anything other than motivated by pure self-interest, usually at the behest of the plutocrats. Frankly, had the two wars actually been motivated by the interests of plutocrats, they'd have been much better managed, or never happened at all.

Not that I endorse plutocratic realist US foreign policy. I don't.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:25 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Are we talking about knowledge of others here, or is Europe being held up as a model of enlightenment as well? If so what changed it? Within my mother’s lifetime, millions of people were slaughtered there for their ethnicity (and orientation and political beliefs). Within my grandparents’ lifetime Britain was still as abusive a superpower as any. Within my own lifetime the English/Irish conflict continued.

And racial tensions have seemed to grow in France, Germany, Britain. While England has embraced the security state almost as much as the US has. So much for your well informed publics.

That said, within my lifetime I've seen the US invading everything from Vietnam to Grenada, Kuwait to Iraq, with the blessing of a large portion of the public that's been whipped into patriotic fervor. (And forget about the public even knowing about let alone being shocked by the covert operations.)

Unfortunately, a large swatch of people not only don’t know, they never learn from repeated mistakes.
posted by NorthernLite at 8:28 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, it doesn't matter as much "who" he is as much as what he's doing and saying.

How Greece deals with its sovereign debt crisis could make or break the Euro, which could have disastrous consequences for the European recovery from the 08 crisis, and which could make the difference between a recovery, a backslide into recession, or a depression for the US.

But, hey, it's not really important to know about that stuff. How can it affect us?


Everyone keeps telling me WHY the Greek prime minister is important. I'm not suggesting he isn't, or even that he's unimportant to Americans. I'm saying, if you could wave a wand and educate every American about the Euro crisis, what would be different? We'd still be sitting here, waiting for a game to finish being played amongst elites on the other side of the world. There is almost nothing the average American can do to change the course of those events. That's why the knowledge is unimportant, because we really have no say as to whether the consequences you mention above come to pass or not.
posted by downing street memo at 8:30 AM on February 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


But it is absolutely not important for Americans to know who that person is. Why would it be?

In order to determine whether or not our President is adopting the appropriate response the thier actions.

Look, it isn't absolutely vital that a person know anything at all about anything political. You could live a happy life and never vote...never know where to vote (much less where an ocean is). But the criteria "Could you live a happy/productive life without knowing x" is a poor one.

I am no elite, I don't have any say in government beyond my vote. The idea that I think that Americans should know that the former Greek President was born in Minnesota makes me some king of elite is silly. I think that knowing and that the current Greek President worked for the European Central Bank helps me understand more about the situation. It gives me insight on the one of the biggest issues of the day. How the US president responds to the Euro-crisis helps me determine if he is a good president.

But Greece is important internationally. To get deep in the woods, let's talk about Rwanda. Internationally speaking, Rwanda is not so important. But the US response to Rwanda in the 90s is, in my opinion, very important in understanding how liberals were seduced into their opinions on Iraq. Big or small, knowing about the international environment helps people better understand the actions of their own governments.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 8:35 AM on February 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


I'm saying, if you could wave a wand and educate every American about the Euro crisis, what would be different?

Well, the Occupy movement would probably be much bigger. Seeing as Occupy had already started to shift the dialog on inequality, a robust understanding of financial shenanigans may have forced the left's hand further on things like taxing the wealthy.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 8:37 AM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


border, this is not a region of the world notable for the geopolitical savvy of its residents.

Of course, those comparisons (except the one to Canada) aren't fair because those countries are much poorer than we are.


What does relative worth have to do with relative general knowledge and political interest in the world?
posted by infini at 8:41 AM on February 11, 2012


But the criteria "Could you live a happy/productive life without knowing x" is a poor one.

Why? That is, in fact, what most people are looking for. You and I get into economics and geopolitics because we like them and they make us happy - it's a hobby. They give other people headaches, just like the glue in model airplanes gives me one.

Everything else you mention is an elite game. The vast majority of people in this country likely do not remember the US standing by in Rwanda and made no connection between that and Iraq, a misadventure undertaken, from a public opinion perspective, in a fit of patriotic fervor. Given that Angela Merkel herself seems to have no real sway over the Eurocrisis, I'm not sure why you'd expect our president to have any.

What does relative worth have to do with relative general knowledge and political interest in the world?

More money = more education, more opportunity to travel abroad
posted by downing street memo at 8:43 AM on February 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


One important thing to remember, and this is something that followers of geo-politics often choose to ignore, is that the US foreign policy is inherently selfish by design. Senior foreign policy officials in the US, who are certainly more informed about the world than most of us, deliberately takes decision that are not in the interests of the global sphere or even of the target country. Helping foreign nations is not a goal, and in fact sometimes may be detrimental to the desired outcome.

Now, as to Canadian vs American ignorance: I would say that we Canadians as a whole are more informed about the world in general, but fear not! we are also eroding our cultural and educational institutions and will soon be joining the Americans and mexicans at the bottom of the "Well Informed" pile - Yay North America!

Lastly, a point about the Economist: while it is an excellent magazine it does lean very much into the pro-capitalism anti-socialist camp. Furthermore I have seen more than once a feature article stating or arguing a point that is in direct opposite of the one made in a previous issue; which in one way is great, but of course can lead to confusion due that the format of the economist is not so much that of the editorial but more in line with straight in-depth news reporting.
posted by Vindaloo at 8:50 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yesh, thezze schtupid vittle peeple, ve must leed them on hour puppy lish und change zear diipersfoz zeem. Mine assitnze on de Mestafitler und comaraden shall scheez mine moment uv glovy dat ve kan vule de vorld.
posted by wallstreet1929 at 8:55 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


A map of European stereotypes as seen from the land-mass on the other side of the Atlantic.
posted by marvin at 8:55 AM on February 11, 2012


Does the average Chinese person know more about the world than we do? How about the average Russian? Or Canadian?

More money = more education, more opportunity to travel abroad


First, I fear you are out of touch of just how many Chinese and Russians get to travel, particularly in Europe. Second, those examples aren't really poor any more. Third, you may be conflating the concept of elite=education=global knowledge whereas the only entertainment you often have in a rural farm in say, Africa, might be your radio (for a couple of hours a day to save battery) and its always the news. But you may be right, its only local news, so we could take Calcutta as an example instead, where local culture includes tea drinking and talking politics regardless of socioeconomic strata. Wherever there is less wealth there is a greater emphasis on education (as much as affordably possible) because its one of the only known paths up and out.

We have a lot of opportunity and not much need to learn about the world, most countries have neither the need or the opportunity, and Europe is in a weird place where they have both.


With all due respect, I'll quote my mother instead, who, after meeting an American classmate of mine from MBA school, said in an aside to me, "He needs to get out more".
posted by infini at 8:55 AM on February 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


"The American propaganda system is not centrally programmed as it is in a totalitarian state. Instead it permeates the culture, the media, and the institutions. Individuals who point out unpleasant realities of current or past American behavior are often subjected to social pressures and treated as pariahs. They are disturbers of the dream."
William H. Boyer

posted by infini at 8:57 AM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


World stereotypes map (to follow up the above)
posted by marvin at 8:58 AM on February 11, 2012


First, I fear you are out of touch of just how many Chinese and Russians get to travel, particularly in Europe. Second, those examples aren't really poor any more.

No real data on who gets to travel where, but I'll note that China and Russia are indeed relatively poor countries. Russia is 52nd in GDP per capita, right above Botswana; China is 90th. You see a lot of Chinese people traveling but these folks are by definition well-off; I believe the plurality of the people in that country are still engaged in rural subsistence farming.

The insult about needing to get out more just gives away the game; "knowing about other countries" isn't an absolute good, it's a relative, status one.
posted by downing street memo at 9:04 AM on February 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


Yeah, downing, we don't need to know anything about other countries. We just have to be happy to go there to kill and die.
posted by tommyD at 9:08 AM on February 11, 2012


You and I get into economics and geopolitics because we like them and they make us happy - it's a hobby.

It's just that in a democracy, it is the citizens's responsibility to be informed. By allowing the people to vote, you are, in some sense, democratizing the power of the elite to select the representatives of the the government.

Look, it was the sense of guilt over Rwanda (along with many other things: eg interventionism in the Balkans) that compelled many people on the Left in the US to support the Iraq War...not just patriotic fervor. That support from many on the left was critical to for the US to go to war. But it doesn't just stop there. Hillary Clinton's support for the war was instrumental in her defeat by Obama.

The fact is, the assessment of the correctness of the Iraq War as a policy decision was important in the election. Democrats that voted for the war didn't do so in a vacuum. To call this knowledge an example of what a hobbyist would know is to assume a great impotence on behalf of the American people.

In anther example, that Americans don't realize that the Downing Street Memo uncovered a profound fraud perpetrated upon the US by a cynical administration...that's more than what a hobbyist should know. All Americans should know that and be willing to support a legal action against the pertinent members of the Bush Administration.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 9:09 AM on February 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


bardic: "Because Americans can go through life without ever having to study another foreign language."

It's an old joke, but still often apt:

What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual.

What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual.

What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.

The way cultural imperialism works is that it forces everyone in the empire to pay attention to the affairs of the empire, and everyone outside the empire... to pay attention to the affairs of the empire.
posted by jiawen at 9:10 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


And one man's patronizing assumptions about the rest of the world are another man's insult.
posted by infini at 9:13 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


To add to anigbrowls great list, I would also like to mention The Financial Times as a great daily source of current events and politics.
posted by triggerfinger at 9:14 AM on February 11, 2012


On the topic of Chinese tourists, I have to link to Evan Osnos' amazing piece in the New Yorker last April.

Chinese Citizens on Tour in Europe : The New Yorker


Ask the Author Live: Evan Osnos on Chinese Tourists in Europe

A Chinese Tour to Europe, with Evan Osnos (audio interview with Osnos.)
posted by gen at 9:17 AM on February 11, 2012


The central American myth is that democracy is the American way of life. Democracy, however, requires an educated public. The sad reality we face is that the prospect of a public educated to issues and alternatives is perceived as threatening to the privileges of the minority that hold most of our wealth and power, so virtually all of our institutions work to disarm this threat. Operating with an effective confusion of "information" with propaganda, our media, our schools, our corporations, and our government support information technology and produce an increasing flood of its product. Through what I call "the strategic use of trivia," members of the public are under the illusion that the "information" they receive is educating them on subjects that matter. In fact they are by and large being fed what the institutions that perpetuate the power of corporate America wish to feed them.ibid
posted by infini at 9:25 AM on February 11, 2012


is that the US foreign policy is inherently selfish by design.

What part of Statecraft isn't? What Nation-States are not 'selfish' in at least some of their actions?

And, what would it take to have humanity not embrace selfishness?
posted by rough ashlar at 9:36 AM on February 11, 2012


it is the citizens's responsibility to be informed

Is being informed knowing what the official position is? Even if that information is a lie?
posted by rough ashlar at 9:37 AM on February 11, 2012


Is being informed knowing what the official position is? Even if that information is a lie?

I'd suggest that being informed means that you'd know the official position, that it may be a lie, and a sense of where the truth lies. Its a tall order, but we don't always live up to our responsibilities. Giving up on them completely, on the other hand, isn't necessarily better.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 9:44 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


what would it take to have humanity not embrace selfishness?

If that could be accurately determined, the hippie revolution would take place at last.
posted by hippybear at 9:56 AM on February 11, 2012




I'd suggest that being informed means that you'd know the official position, that it may be a lie, and a sense of where the truth lies. Its a tall order, but we don't always live up to our responsibilities. Giving up on them completely, on the other hand, isn't necessarily better.

If one knows, or strongly suspects you are being bullshitted - what is your incentive to learn where the actual reality ends and the lie begins ESPECIALLY if upon knowing you are being lied to you have no power to change things?

If the public is 'ignorant' - what's their incentive to care if at the end of the caring is you are being shown to be a fool for believing what you were being told?
posted by rough ashlar at 10:10 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you are ignorant, that guarantees you have no power to change things.
posted by tommyD at 10:29 AM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


"What part of Statecraft isn't? What Nation-States are not 'selfish' in at least some of their actions?"

You're correct in your point, pretty much all foreign policy is deeply realist. But what I think he meant, and which I think is also very true, is that the individual actors who formulate and influence foreign policy are usually biased in favor of their personal self-interest.

This is less true of academics and career foreign service professionals (though in one limited respect it's still very much true—that of protecting one's positions of influence by not alienating the establishment and conventional wisdom) than it is of senior politicians and the back-room string pullers. The premiere contemporary example is, I think, Dick Cheney and, secondarily, Donald Rumsfeld. They each pursued a neocon foreign policy without being authentically neocons but, instead, found it convenient to use the neocon agenda as an excuse to pursue their own, personal goals. In Cheney's case, it was a combination of a desire to accumulate personal power and his own financial interests. In Rumsfeld's case, it was also a desire to accumulate personal power but, also, especially, his desire for respect and lasting influence in the context of the projection of military power. He felt he was a visionary for the modern transformation of American military force, and these two wars were intended to be transformative. He was wrong. Cheney, on the other hand, accomplished all his goals.

In general, I'm inclined to think that he actual politicians and policy makers are selfishly motivated by the desire for accumulation of personal power and prestige. The people who whisper in their ears are selfishly motivated by, usually, their financial interests. The academics and foreign service professionals are motivated by protecting their reputations and positions. There's not many who are rigorous in their analysis such that anything beyond a mishmash of short-term goals are ever seriously pursued. This is why long-term foreign policy is so deeply inconsistent and self-defeating. But this is a particular instance of the larger problem in American governance.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:45 AM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


downing sm: "Does the average Chinese person know more about the world than we do? How about the average Russian? Or Canadian? I've been to the Canadian prairies and, with apologies to friends north of the border, this is not a region of the world notable for the geopolitical savvy of its residents."

Well, yes. If you check out the NatGeo article linked earlier in this thread, it says exactly that, your impression of the Canadian Prairies notwithstanding. Now you're just offering an explanation.
posted by sneebler at 10:48 AM on February 11, 2012


> We see the consequences of an American public's ignorance of world affairs in America's foreign policy.

US foreign policy is in the hands of a very well educated and knowledgeable man and woman respectively named Obama and Clinton. Is it believed that US foreign policy would (somehow) be taken out of their hands by a populace that had (somehow) become better educated and more knowledgeable about world affairs than they, and moved in a direction more to Mr. Brzezinski's liking? By what mechanism, please? How would this work?

Unless one further imagines that such a populace would (naturally) elect a government somewhere well over to the left of Mr. O and Mrs. C, which would (also naturally) have a metafilter-compatible declinist view of US foreign policy. If there's anyone who truly expects that golden millennium, I think you should start holding your breath right now. It can't be more than a few moments away.


OTOH if the object is just to make Americans in general more aware of goings-on in other countries, it's easy to see how to achieve that. Make the US a lot smaller and translocate it to somewhere in Eurasia where it can have borders with five or six other little countries. Bingo, knowledge of other countries shoots up. Ah guarantee!
posted by jfuller at 10:49 AM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


"US foreign policy is in the hands of a very well educated and knowledgeable man and woman respectively named Obama and Clinton."

That's overstating it. The responsibility ends with them, of course, but their influence over it is deeply constrained both by the institutions they ostensibly control and by, of course, political reality. Which is not trivially influenced by popular opinion. Which is dependent upon popular awareness.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:53 AM on February 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


This thread is all but unbelievable. It's like some obese person who is sitting on a small baby - and you go up to them and say, "hey, did you know you're sitting on a baby? It's crying and screaming and everything, I really think you should probably get off it now, you know?"

And not only does the obese person *not* get up, they sit there and say things like:

"Why do I need to know about this baby?"
"I don't see any baby"
"How do you know that baby doesn't want to be there?"
"Why does this concern me?"
"This baby should never have gotten under there in the first place, should it?"
"You would be happy like me if you didn't know about the baby"
"There's no baby there"
"I'm glad I'm sitting on this baby. It's better for everyone really"
"Yeah? Well, you're wearing pants"
"I don't hear any screaming"
"blah blah blah elite baby blah blah blah"
"Nobody ever told me about any baby. I didn't know, don't blame me"
"You'd be sitting on a baby too, if you knew what the next few years will be like"
"Damn right I'm sitting on this baby. Number one! Number one!"

posted by stinkycheese at 10:55 AM on February 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


There's a snippet that stood out for me in this context, from an excellent article I just put into an earlier thread:

It was somewhat reminiscent of Henry Kissinger’s disastrous invitation to defence minister Jagjivan Ram to visit Washington in 1971 as the sub-continent was heading into war, as recounted by Rukmini Menon, who was then joint secretary for the US in South Block.

“Why should I visit Washington?” Ram asked a non-plussed Kissinger and proceeded to tell him how American arms supplies had emboldened Pakistan to ruthlessly suppress East Pakistanis.


The rest of the article isn't too bad either, considering how much it could not say.
posted by infini at 12:25 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Quote: "What part of Statecraft isn't? What Nation-States are not 'selfish' in at least some of their actions?"

Quote: You're correct in your point, pretty much all foreign policy is deeply realist. But what I think he meant, and which I think is also very true, is that the individual actors who formulate and influence foreign policy are usually biased in favor of their personal self-interest.

You are both correct of course. What I was trying to get at is, as Ivan Fyodorovich pointed out, is that the selfishness of foreign policy goes far beyond the needs of the nation and in large part is crafted by men and women who are clearly following a personal agenda (Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are of course the prime example).

But also, the US foreign policy is selfish in a nation state sense far beyond what I think should be acceptable; but of course I live in Canada and therefore my country does not have the ability to shape and control world events, perhaps if I lived in the US I would me more comfortable with the actions of the state department.
posted by Vindaloo at 12:30 PM on February 11, 2012


I think the fundamental disagreement between rough ashlar et al. and others in this thread comes down to whether the commenter believes democracy, even indirect democracy, is possible. If a country is to be ruled by its people, a necessary first step— a first step of many— is that those people must be reasonably well-informed, somewhat educated, and accustomed to critical thought. You can't crowdsource wisdom from ignorance and demagoguery; your only other option is to be ruled by an elite, whether that elite is oligarchs or philosopher-kings. So if you believe that's already the case, if you believe that our self-government is, not just deeply flawed, but a complete sham, that never in your lifetime or your children's lifetime will the populace exert any political power, even en masse, then it makes perfect sense to accept ignorance of world affairs.
posted by hattifattener at 12:36 PM on February 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


"...but of course I live in Canada and therefore my country does not have the ability to shape and control world events, perhaps if I lived in the US I would me more comfortable with the actions of the state department."

I don't know that you'd be comfortable with it. I'm not—I'd prefer American foreign policy to be closer to what it pretends to be. There are limits to how much idealism can trump realism, but my preferred foreign policy would make grossly self-interested (to the detriment of everyone else) foreign policy the exception, not the rule. It's more complicated than that, of course—I'm an internationalist and would prefer to see things move toward international rule of law and negotiation that balance self-interest in more productive ways, as is in the case of democracy itself. Even today, international affairs is pretty much Hobbes's nature that is red in tooth and claw; we need a leviathan in a world sense for the same reason we need it at a lower level. Of course, what I'm describing is the nightmare of conservatives & nationalists everywhere. (Well, it's a combination of nightmare and ecstatic hope for the evangelical eschatologists.)

Anyway, back to your point—it's a bit cynical and an apologetic for the abuse of American power, but I tend to think that by and large the contemporary nations that behave very well do so because, frankly, they're small enough and secure enough that they can get away with holding to lofty ideals. Even if Canada had the same cultural values as it does while somehow being as powerful and dominant as the US, I don't really think it would have behaved that much better. A good example of this is how Canada is generally more green than elsewhere, but this ends where true national security is concerned, such as the tar sand oil reserves. The bigger and more powerful a nation is, and in particular how global are its economic interests (and therefore how globalized is its economic security), the more it will act in a brutally self-interested fashion on the world stage to protect those self-interests.

Now, it should be noted that "protecting those self-interests" and "falsely believing it's protecting those self-interests" are very different things and, sadly, oftentimes the latter is confused with the former.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:05 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hippybear, not saying you're wrong about any of that. The question remains: what can we possibly do about it? Again, if you're the average American, with a 401k, what do you do? Rebalance a bit, maybe? But seriously, that's not likely to be an effective strategy if the financial system melts down again.

In my observation, this is one factor in how people get stuck in helpless poverty. When I see a tonne of shit coming down the pipes, I consider things like how much job security I have, should I seek something else? What would be my alternatives and fallbacks and how would they be affected? How might my safety net be affected?
Because you can see this stuff coming a long way off when you're aware, you have a lot of time to make actually quite substantial changes to your situation to be well placed for when it arrives.

In contrast, I see people who live blindly, reacting to things only after they hit them in the face, and they get it rough. By the time you've lost your job, or had your rates jacked, or your sales fall, or your family is in trouble, or whatever, it's often already too late for a lot of the most effective responses to that.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:12 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


selfishness of foreign policy goes far beyond the needs of the nation and in large part is crafted by men

You also have a person who's complaining about the ignorance of the population - a condition he's had a hand in creating.

Not to mention, if said population doesn't happen to believe what he believes I'm willing to bet that, from his viewpoint that makes 'em "ignorant".

A very large mote to be plucked from a large Cyclopean eye.
posted by rough ashlar at 1:45 PM on February 11, 2012


To those who favor ignorance of foreign policy, or claim that Americans can't do anything about it. You can vote, and you can write your congressperson. You can stand up in a town hall meeting and ask an insightful question about foreign policy, or not your head knowingly and applaud when someone else does so. You can work for someone who is running for congress. You can spread knowledge and combat ignorance.

Perhaps most importantly, you can not enlist, or advise your friends and family who are thinking of enlisting during specific administrations about what the likely cost to them will be. You can march in an anti-war demonstration or a pro-war rally. You can vote on a public initiative. You can move your 401k investment from a US domestic index fund to a foreign fund in Asia or into bonds or into real estate. You can remortgage your house, or you can pay your mortgage down. You can downsize your budget.

I agree that there are specific facts about foreign countries that are completely unimportant and irrelevant to our daily lives as Americans, and that will not enable us to make any useful decision. We can only know which of those facts are useful or useless if we are relatively well informed though. And as for complete ignorance? That's nonsense at best and more likely self-harm. And claiming it's elitist is so ridiculous that I'm almost apoplectic. News flash: BEING AMERICAN IS ELITIST at least for the majority of Americans. I love how denigrating elitism has become the rallying cry for champions of ignorance and knee-jerk reactionaries. Personally I think Americans' embrace of ignorance is precisely because of their elitism. Because we're on top of the world, and have the disposable income and leisure time such that we can afford to pay to go to sporting events that we are not participating in as entertainment.

Personally, I haven't been able to afford most of the things that my fellow Americans take for granted for the last 8 or so years. I can't afford a subscription to the Economist any more. I don't have cable TV, and most of the people in the last two cities I've lived in talk about how hard it is to live on 2-3 times more income than I do. But their ignorance on average is constant and appalling. If I can stay relatively informed with 2-3 hours a week on free news sources over the Internet, and BBC news hour in my 14 year old car what's their excuse?
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:59 PM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


*nod your head* rather
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:00 PM on February 11, 2012


US foreign policy is in the hands of a very well educated and knowledgeable man and woman respectively named Obama and Clinton.

I think Zbigniew kinda likes Obama. But I saw Zbigniew being interviewed on Canadian television several years ago, and when the interviewer mentioned George W. Bush's policies, steam started pouring out of his ears. Seriously pissed off.
posted by ovvl at 2:18 PM on February 11, 2012


Only in America is knowing what is going on in the world considered a hobby.

I know it was a while back, but I can tell you for a dead set fact this is incorrect and there are many, many places and people in Australia that I have interacted with where that kind of interest is indeed exactly considered a hobby, if not a little "poofy".

The fact you would claim to know this about so many varied places in the world says to me to your conceptions around geographic ignorance are based more - and invested more - around identity then actuality. Also, ironically, I think in saying something like that - unknowable fact, rest of world vs America - you too are depicting the insularity and inward-looking focus you deride.

StinkyCheese, if you have something constructive to say about the arguments in the thread, you should say it instead of sarcastic nonsense and "I told you so!" smugness.
posted by smoke at 2:47 PM on February 11, 2012


Voting is indeed the best way to send a message about how you feel about our foreign policy. As someone who is anti-war and wants to significantly reduce our military there are some good choices among the third parties, such as the Libertarians or Greens.

However, most Americans are much more likely to consider domestic issues their top priority so even if they want a radically different foreign policy very few will actually vote along those lines.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 3:00 PM on February 11, 2012


hattifattener: "So if you believe that's already the case, if you believe that our self-government is, not just deeply flawed, but a complete sham, that never in your lifetime or your children's lifetime will the populace exert any political power, even en masse, then it makes perfect sense to accept ignorance of world affairs."

Do you think this is the case now? Because if so, then educating ourselves and learning critical thinking skills are revolutionary acts - why wait for voting day to start making Of the People... a reality?
posted by sneebler at 4:52 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think there's a subset of people who like very much to complain - period. They rely on ignorance and make excuses for themselves - excuses like, "It's over my head," "There's nothing I can do about it," "The whole government's corrupt and always has been," "My vote doesn't count anyway," "Well, what do you expect with the Democrats/Republicans in office?" etc. If they were to stop grumbling and start paying attention to what's going on in the world, they'd have to accept the responsibility of taking a position on specific issues and standing up and defending that position, which is simply too much work and too risky, especially if they were to tick off their boss/in-laws/siblings. They're basically people who avoid getting involved in anything unless there's an actual, guaranteed payoff or reward for their participation, and even then they'll only hang around when the sea is smooth; they'll jump ship in a heartbeat if the going gets tough.

I know lots of Americans like that, but I'm very sure that there are lots of Canadians and Europeans and Asians and Australians who are cut out of the same mold. There are no leaders among them, obviously, but there are lots of grumblers and noisemakers, so they get a lot of attention; it makes it easy to believe that that attitude represents a national trait, which it does not.

Sometimes - as in cases of depression or acute changes to one's lifestyle - there's a reason for the helplessness and discouragement, but often it's simple laziness and escapism IMHO; they simply like being ignorant.
posted by aryma at 4:58 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


And I, for one, am exceedingly tired of the phrase, "Only in America ..."; what ignorance that little line reflects!
posted by aryma at 5:02 PM on February 11, 2012


Sometimes - as in cases of depression or acute changes to one's lifestyle - there's a reason for the helplessness and discouragement, but often it's simple laziness and escapism IMHO; they simply like being ignorant.

Personally, I'm going to blame the increase in commute times ruining our communities, institutions, and collective energy.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:03 PM on February 11, 2012


As policy gets further away and the probability of exerting any influence over it gets smaller, rational ignorance becomes more reasonable. Despite the romantic fiction of electoral democracy, voting isn't particularly powerful in the first place, and many factors beyond voter preferences drive something as complex as foreign policy.

I'm with downing street memo: more worrisome than the number of Americans ignoring The Economist is the number of Americans convinced that if they don't all clap their hands at once, Tinkerbell is going to die.
posted by ecmendenhall at 5:06 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


So the general counter argument is somewhere between "so what, it's fine to be ignorant about this" and "well, it's no worse than most anywhere else"? Really shooting for the moon there aren't we...
posted by adamt at 5:10 PM on February 11, 2012


I know it was a while back, but I can tell you for a dead set fact this is incorrect and there are many, many places and people in Australia that I have interacted with where that kind of interest is indeed exactly considered a hobby, if not a little "poofy".

That's somewhat true; there is an anti-intellectual streak in mainstream Australian culture, and taking an interest in abstract things like foreign affairs is seen by some as somewhat effete and thus contemptible. The rise in flag-waving nationalist jingoism that happened over the past decade or two, aided by the Howard government and Murdoch press, probably hasn't helped.

OTOH, from anecdotal evidence, the average Australian is better travelled than the average American. Most Australians own passports, and going abroad is fairly common, and not reserved to an elite or minority. It is not unusual for a typical young Australian to go backpacking in Asia or take a working holiday in Europe.
posted by acb at 5:46 PM on February 11, 2012


"As policy gets further away and the probability of exerting any influence over it gets smaller, rational ignorance becomes more reasonable. Despite the romantic fiction of electoral democracy, voting isn't particularly powerful in the first place, and many factors beyond voter preferences drive something as complex as foreign policy. "

You write as if the irrationality of voting in most circumstances is a foregone conclusion, when in fact there's a great deal of debate within political philosophy and other fields on this topic.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:55 PM on February 11, 2012


American public's ignorance of world affairs

I'd be glad if Americans weren't ignorant of American affairs.
posted by Twang at 6:03 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's somehow endlessly entertaining to me to see someone with the nickname "downing street memo" arguing so forcefully for the position that it's in fact really a form of elitism to argue that Americans might not be better off just leaving it up to a small political elite to make sense of the intricacies of world affairs for them. It really must take some amazing mental convolutions to reach such an opinion; how do you not sprain your thinking bone doing that?
posted by saulgoodman at 6:17 PM on February 11, 2012


Well, then, saulgoodman, let me explain: it comes from an unwillingness to patronizingly tell Americans what it is they should and shouldn't know, and instead trust them to make that decision themselves. No one has yet attempted to explain why, exactly, Americans (or the denizens of any large, fairly self-contained country) should have any particular knowledge of the outside world.

So many progressives elevate their preferences and hobbies (interest in art and independent bookstores come to mind) to matters of intrinsic good, and it's pretty sad.
posted by downing street memo at 6:27 PM on February 11, 2012


Put another way: do you know how your computer works? Are you familiar with the workings of string theory or Bohr's model of the atom? Are you intimately familiar with your own anatomy, or nutrition?

Very few people can answer all those questions in the affirmative; instead, we trust those fields to experts. And those are things that are much closer to the realities of our day-to-day existence than the machinations of the EU or the Greek government. Why is it that, when it comes to the outside world, people that have no interest in it are expected by their betters to know what's going on?
posted by downing street memo at 6:32 PM on February 11, 2012


Very few people can answer all those questions in the affirmative

Yeah, our education system is failing our populace. Tell us something we don't know.
posted by hippybear at 6:41 PM on February 11, 2012


Well, thank you for being paternalistic instead of patronizing.

We don't have to elect computer scientists to build our computers, or elect our physicists to construct our models of the atom, or elect our stomachs, etc.

As adults, we do have to be in a position to make informed choices about the people we elect to represent us in matters of world affairs in order to correctly evaluate their performance, and to argue that it's patronizing to suggest we shouldn't go into the most important choices we have to make as adults in a state of blinding ignorance is an insult to our intelligence... Especially when you're defending elitism, in practice, with vague accusations of theoretical elitism.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:49 PM on February 11, 2012


Downing street memo - I'd go along with that if the opportunity cost supported it - if americans lacked this awareness because, for example, news focused on things of similar utility. But it doesn't. people aren't considering this choice between knowledge a and knowledge b, because the reality is that it's between knowledge a and manufacturered fear and loathing for the purpose of keeping attention for the purpose of selling advertising. The public good is not equally served by abusing human psychology vs improving it. That dichotomy isn't necessary, but it's what is on the ground here right now. (and it's not the case that all other countries are handling it better, so much as many countries falling down the same pit, but the USA having a head start.)
I have found it much harder - and infinitly more expensive - to get access to reputable international news on tv here than in other countries I've lived in.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:49 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, our education system is failing our populace.

But that doesn't explain it all; there's lots of knowledge out there that's important to our day-to-day existence, but is honestly out of the reach of most people. It's natural that as our collective body of knowledge grows, specialization increases.
posted by downing street memo at 6:50 PM on February 11, 2012


Trying to be an informed and responsible adult is not a "hobby," speaking of being patronizing. Good grief! It's like you're trying to contradict yourself with every word!

I'm not saying everyone should know every last detail of world affairs--but they should at least understand the broad outlines and have some basic sense of the world we're navigating in. It's irresponsible not to make an effort to understand at least that much, as an adult.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:53 PM on February 11, 2012


we do have to be in a position to make informed choices about the people we elect to represent us in matters of world affairs in order to correctly evaluate their performance

Meanwhile, back in reality, electoral choices are almost never made this way, and really never have been. You're pining for a past that never existed and a future that is, well, extremely unlikely for all the reasons I and others above have mentioned.

Representative government is by nature elitist. Elitism in government isn't going away. Cultural elitism, though, is something liberals could stand to have a lot less of.
posted by downing street memo at 6:54 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


No one has yet attempted to explain why, exactly, Americans (or the denizens of any large, fairly self-contained country) should have any particular knowledge of the outside world.

Seriously? Does that really need explaining? That's like questioning health or happiness: how do we know these are good things to have, things that should be sought out by the common person? I'm reminded of recent arguments about 'whether it is ever alright to torture another person?' I mean, I like reading some DeSade, I'm all for rethinking assumptions about human nature or morality or philosophy, but the fact that the most powerful nation on Earth is not only overwhelmingly ignorant but proud of its ignorance?

To answer your question, everyone on Earth - regardless of the size of their respective country - should ideally, as a rule, be informed about world affairs. Because they live in the world. Because we, as humans, are uniquely able to gather facts and information and not only debate that information and what it means, but we can respond to it, and we can be changed by it ourselves.

This, it seems to me, is the crux of the problem in the US: a fear of change (combined with that other timeless classic, American Exceptionalism). That overarching presence of fear in public affairs, distrust of the other, drives this thirst for ignorance. American Exceptionalism provides the reasoning. I don't need to go somewhere else *scoff*. Why would I need to go anywhere else? I live in the best country in the whole world, the country that figured it all out and perfected life and the one you know all the other countries really secretly wish they could be. Cuz we're the best!
posted by stinkycheese at 6:55 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's irresponsible not to make an effort to understand at least that much, as an adult.

When tens of millions of adults can be "irresponsible" without any perceptible change in their lives as a consequence of this irresponsibility, maybe it's time to re-evaluate what you think is responsible and what isn't.
posted by downing street memo at 6:56 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why should the elephant take care around the ants?
posted by stinkycheese at 6:58 PM on February 11, 2012


I don't need to go somewhere else *scoff*. Why would I need to go anywhere else? I live in the best country in the whole world, the country that figured it all out and perfected life and the one you know all the other countries really secretly wish they could be. Cuz we're the best!

The fact that this argument, judging from the posters in this thread, seemingly can't be made without resorting to stereotype should give any thinking person pause about its validity.
posted by downing street memo at 7:01 PM on February 11, 2012


Representative government is by nature elitist. Elitism in government isn't going away. Cultural elitism, though, is something liberals could stand to have a lot less of.

An admitted power structure elitist is lecturing me about cultural elitism--me, a kid raised in Bayou George, Florida, by his grandparents, one of whom was a sharecropper who dropped out of elementary school to work in the cotton fields and put his brothers and sisters through college when his father died.

You are making some incredibly dumb, dishonest arguments here. And my puny common sense arguments obviously aren't going to do much good against a force of nature like your evident talent for generating smug, self-satisfied nonsense.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:06 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


...So you win. It really somehow is elitist not to advocate elitism. And up really is down. Thanks for illuminating that for me.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:10 PM on February 11, 2012


It's awfully rich getting lectured on being smug and self-satisfied from someone who thinks the majority of their fellow countrymen are idiots. Also, you're calling for Americans to learn about things that a) they're not interested in b) usually not particularly relevant and c) even if relevant, are completely outside the control of the average person - and you call that a "common sense argument"?

How, exactly, do you propose removing elitism from the power structure of American government? The second we elect anyone to handle our affairs, those are the elites, and then we get all the pathologies and benefits of having an elite-run government.
posted by downing street memo at 7:16 PM on February 11, 2012


And Joe Scarborough is the only sane Republican on TV.

Zbigniew Brzezinski vs. Joe Scarborough
posted by homunculus at 7:39 PM on February 11, 2012


The second we elect anyone to handle our affairs, those are the elites

That is the exact opposite of my personal experience working with municipal, regional, provincial and federal elected representatives. Yes, some come from privileged backgrounds and live a rarified, isolated life; the majority I have known continue to do their own shopping, interact with a wide variety of socio-economic groups and feel privileged to serve the people that elected them one term at a time.
posted by saucysault at 7:49 PM on February 11, 2012


Just imagine downing street memo as Thrasymachus and he's easier to tolerate. Or harder, perhaps. But, either way, he's more amusing.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:50 PM on February 11, 2012


Don't know where exactly this comes from but, a democracy will fail when its citizens fail to be informed. Anyone who is willfully uninformed, and even moreso for those who take pride in their ignorance, are lazy cowards.

Every citizen has a DUTY to be informed. Failure to be informed is not only a disservice to the nation but also a low form of treason.
posted by snsranch at 8:46 PM on February 11, 2012


federal elected representatives.

BET: Both The Washington Post and The New York Times have reported data that indicate that the net worth of the average member of the House of Representatives skyrocketed. The Post reported that the figure more than doubled, from $280,000 in 1984 to $725,000 in 2009. And over the same period, they reported, the net worth of the average American family declined slightly, from $20,600 to $20,500.

Members Of Congress Grow Wealthier Despite Recession.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 8:54 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


That is the exact opposite of my personal experience working with municipal, regional, provincial and federal elected representatives. Yes, some come from privileged backgrounds and live a rarified, isolated life; the majority I have known continue to do their own shopping, interact with a wide variety of socio-economic groups and feel privileged to serve the people that elected them one term at a time.

This is a misunderstanding of elitism. (In your defense, it's becoming a mainsteam American understanding, as an intentional result of the intense American propaganda that redefines American's understandings of the world.)

Don't think of the fearmongering redefinition of Librul Elites (ie the few living above the masses, elite in the sense of exceptional wealth and power. Or that elitism is a bad thing). Think instead of elites in the sense of elite troops like the Army Rangers or the Navy Seals - the people who have the most experience in their field, and who are thus the people who get applied to the most difficult problems in that field, taking over from the regular people in that field. Elitism is a good thing - it means problems being handled by those who seem most capable of producing the greatest outcome. Elitism is common sense for getting successful outcomes, which is why the military subscribes to it.

In a democracy, everyone gets to decide on what is good policy and vote accordingly. This is not true in a representative democracy. Instead, we must give up that right to specialists, and they - not us - decide what is good policy, and they - not us - vote on those policies, and they vote with our voice, even when we disagree with them. They can represent us against our beliefs because they're the experts and are presumed to know better in the big picture... or they might be if they're not completely corrupt like Washington DC, various banana republics, etc.

Thus they are elites in the truest sense, no matter how poor or regular-joe they might be. They undertake our responsibility, and they can overrule us in that responsibility.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:10 PM on February 11, 2012


It's awfully rich getting lectured on being smug and self-satisfied from someone who thinks the majority of their fellow countrymen are idiots

I never said I did think that the majority of my countrymen are idiots. I only argued against your inane argument that most people shouldn't care about world events because they're better off leaving that to the grown ups.

Now I'm going to bed like I should have done hours ago.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:52 PM on February 11, 2012


We may be conflating basic geographic knowledge of the world and its diverse peoples and cultures with geopolitics and international economy. As I said in my first comment, its not even about world politics or what's happening to the Euro - people may not find it interesting at all - but it is about the lack of geography as a subject like history, english or math, in school curriculums.

Knowing about the world you live in, outside of your fairly self contained, large country, is part of your schooling. This is not about your choice or interest, few choose algebra. Else why would I have been drawing maps of the iron ore districts in the Ruhr Valley in some random spot in South East Asia decades ago, if not to have an idea of the world, its physical structure and resources as well as its cultural and social diversity, drilled into me in school. I dropped the subject at age 14 and went into the sciences but the visuals of the maps and an idea about world remain with me, offering an orientation on which to pursue more knowledge (if interested or if hobby) rather than not having this subject introduced at all.

Advanced mathematics is a hobby or interest but a person is considered only partially educated if they are unable to add, subtract, multiply or divide basic numbers.
posted by infini at 10:58 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thus they are elites in the truest sense, no matter how poor or regular-joe they might be. They undertake our responsibility, and they can overrule us in that responsibility.

One more point actually: Have you ever actually met one of our elected representatives? Believe me, they are often if not even usually anything but elite in the sense of the term you suggest.

And that's not the point of representative democracy anyway; we still have to be able to evaluate the performance of our elected representatives based on some intelligently informed criteria in order to make sound, responsible decisions as voters. We can't do that at all if we just stick our heads in the sand per some of the suggestions up-thread and just leave it to whomever we happen to arbitrarily elect to the ranks of the political elite (based, I suppose, only on whatever arbitrary criteria you'd suggest in place of informed discernment and judgment) to make informed decisions.

These arguments for willful ignorance make absolutely no sense: they seem to rely on the assumption that random chance alone will select a proper political elite, capable of making the kinds of informed judgments the masses can't be trusted or expected to make, in the absence of an informed electorate.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:06 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are some interesting theories going on in this thread, and it's too late to enter into a discussion of each of them. But I would like to point to a case where ordinary citizens of the US would have had advantage of some knowledge of the world. During the health-care debate, it was several times pointed out how the US has by far the most expensive and least efficient healthcare system in the world. This is a true fact. Yet demagogues succeeded in convincing a majority of the American people that this was just socialist propaganda. The world looked on in amazement.
Knowledge of the world is not necessarily about the name of the Greek PM or about details in the EURO-pact. In this case, it was about day to day life, understanding which options there are and how to improve life as it is.
posted by mumimor at 12:59 AM on February 12, 2012 [10 favorites]


saulgoodman - I argue that Americans should know more about the world. My aside about common-sense elitism vs the distortions of American propaganda about it, and its role in the very definition of representatic democracy, regardless of how informed the people are, was not a suggestion that people can be ignorant without consequences. Personally, I think it's past the point where the consequences are massive and inevitable - I do not think that the 21st century will not be another American century, and widespread ignorance (of the world in which America must exist) leading to endless needlessly idiotic outcomes, plays a significant role in that.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:19 AM on February 12, 2012


(delete one "not" from the above)
posted by -harlequin- at 1:20 AM on February 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Put another way: do you know how your computer works? Are you familiar with the workings of string theory or Bohr's model of the atom? Are you intimately familiar with your own anatomy, or nutrition?

The question is not whether or not everyone has this knowledge, but if it's beneficial to have it. If you take the argument to the extremes it becomes obvious what the answer is. Would you rather have all of the above knowledge or none of it? Would you rather everyone have all of the above knowledge, or nobody have any of that knowledge?
posted by romanb at 3:49 AM on February 12, 2012


Voting is indeed the best way to send a message about how you feel about our foreign policy.

Voting with how you spend your money - yes.

In the early part of November? Not so much.
posted by rough ashlar at 4:35 AM on February 12, 2012


The term "political elites" is always a distraction, tied up with the tendency to immediately envision those guys outside one's own political tribe and pattern of cultural consumption.

Some political elites who make foreign policy are elected officials. But only a few elected officials are political elites. Some political elites are voters. But very few of the well-informed suckers who line up to offer oblations unto the spirit of American Democracy are political elites.

I learned yesterday that the Bacon aphorism "Knowledge is power" was actually extracted from an essay on a heresy: the belief that God has knowledge of things that are not predestined. According to Bacon, to do so is to deny his power and "get rid of fate." It was really something more like "Knowledge is God's power," implying that no matter how much we know, we are still subject to events we cannot control. Of course, God is fake and democracy is fake, but it doesn't make belief in either any less real.

You will say this is a sad and cynical view. I agree.
posted by ecmendenhall at 7:17 AM on February 12, 2012


There was a time when the world was so large, your entire experience was likely within a 20 mile radius. Now, if a hippo farts in the remote reaches of Africa someone on Twitter will let you know. I am of the opinion that the human psyche is only capable of meaningfully processing the issues and stresses that arise from within a clan, community and family. Once we start the input of stress from cities, nations and planets we cannot handle the load. No one person can possibly parse the input from such numerous, diverse and alien cultures in a meaningful way. No one. Add to this the input we receive is not true first-hand experience: it is filtered, altered, denuded and third-hand. The world, our planetary culture and all the trappings thereof are the natural result of civilization. We are too afraid to admit that what we need is to change the direction we've walked in for these thousands of years. In the meantime, the power brokers will pull levers; the sheep will wave colorful banners and shout nationalistic slogans; the fearful and thoughtless will bow to the holy men and their mandates; the ignorant, flag-waving lower-class will be sent to foreign lands to die in uniforms stained with blood and petroleum; the wage slaves will have massive thumb muscles from the expert use of the remote control; and the 1% will continue to count their ever-increasing wealth.

You don't know what is going in Kazakhstan, Mr. Brzezinski. You only know what someone has told you (and they only know what someone has told them). What matters is how this all affects our ability to maintain our insane, wasteful and self-indulgent lifestyles. Replace the words "global power" with "the status quo" and it makes more sense.
posted by FrankBlack at 7:18 AM on February 12, 2012


"There was a time when the world was so large, your entire experience was likely within a 20 mile radius. Now, if a hippo farts in the remote reaches of Africa someone on Twitter will let you know. I am of the opinion that the human psyche is only capable of meaningfully processing the issues and stresses that arise from within a clan, community and family. Once we start the input of stress from cities, nations and planets we cannot handle the load. No one person can possibly parse the input from such numerous, diverse and alien cultures in a meaningful way. "

This is a fallacy, I believe. I can't prove it, and I don't know of any research on it, but I do think it's a fallacy.

The information the average human brain processes and retains is, as you imply, limited by biology and is pretty much the same for everyone. But this doesn't mean that people in "a simpler time" lived in a relatively informationally sparse world because, if you think about it a bit, it's obvious that the world is far, far, far more informationally dense and extensive relative to the capacity of any individual human brain. The "primitive" world and the modern world are, from an individual's perspective, equivalent in the amount of information available for processing.

What varies is exactly what it is that people pay attention to.

When you talk about how, back in the day, a person's "entire experience was likely within a 20 mile radius" what you're not realizing is that those people knew that 20 mile-radius world very intimately. They had to. The hunter-gatherers knew every rock and plant and fold of the land. Do we who live in modern industrial society know these things? No.

We pay attention to different things.

The idea that the modern world is too big and too complex to understand vastly underestimates how big and complex the pre-modern world was to the people who lived in it. It vastly underestimates how big and complex reality is, period. People today aren't expected to know any more than people before were expected to know. We're just expected to know different kinds of stuff.

And in that, perhaps, there's a valid argument. Not about whether we're capable of the quantity, because I don't think the quantity is any different. It's set by our inherent, average capacity. But the kinds of things we're expected to know arguably might matter. While I'm generally suspicious of evolutionary psychology as it presently exists as a proto-science, I do agree with the underlying premise that human cognition evolved under selective pressure and that it is not one single, unified "general intelligene" but, rather, most likely a basket of cognitive tools. If that's the case, then it also would likely be the case that the tools in that basket would be, obviously, most suited for the environment in which human cognition evolved. And, clearly, in many respects we no longer live in that environment.

So, from that perspective, it may well be true that from a cognitive standpoint, the modern world presents challenges to us for which we're not inherently well-suited. Maybe. Probably at least to some minimal degree.

But that the amount of information is too challenging relative to the amount of information presented to the pre-modern? No, I don't think that's true.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:40 AM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ivan Fyodorovich: His argument is that most of the rest of the world has a realist foreign policy stance, it's what most people expect, and while there's a lot to be said against it from a liberal perspective, the rest of the world would actually, in the end, trust the US more if it were above-board with its self-interest.

An interesting article discusses the lack of influence of Hans Morgenthau's classic realist text, Politics Among Nations (1948), in the UK and Europe. They already had a tradition of thinking about power politics.
What is the influence in Britain? The answer is very little. Other people had cornered the market. Carr in 1939 with The Twenty Years’ Crisis, Schwarzenberger in 1941, with Power Politics, a book that is much neglected in this country [the USA], coming from a very eminent international lawyer. I think it would link very much into the previous discussion of international law, a brilliant book. And those two had in a sense already swept the field. I was taught by Schwarzenberger at UCL (University College, London) and Martin Wight was giving the lectures in the 1950s at the LSE (London School of Economics). These people were not referring particularly to Morgenthau. I do not really see why they had to because if you have got Hobbes, do you really have to go back to Morgenthau for the nature of war and the nature of man? No, you go to Hobbes. If you want to talk about national interest then you have 19th century history of Palmerston and people like that. If you want to talk about balance of power, you have Castlereagh, or Hume if you like. Moreover, there is Crowe’s famous paper for the Foreign Office just before the First World War. So in some ways, Morgenthau was redundant, perhaps not in the USA but certainly in the United Kingdom. ...

If we go to France, here again the impact is very little. Raymond Aron was more concerned with the security dilemma than with the drive to dominate. He is a realist, but his starting point is very different from that of Morgenthau. Moreover, in France international relations was usually in the Faculty of Law. It was very much imbued with legalistic and administrative ideas and approaches, and it centred upon the relationship between the state and the citizen, and between states. It was not a scientific approach. It was a legal, administrative, deductive approach.
posted by russilwvong at 11:19 AM on February 12, 2012


Oral societies have always trained their peoples (perhaps not all) to remember information in ways and means that we may have atrophied, and with Google, are increasingly atrophying.
posted by infini at 11:28 AM on February 12, 2012


That's true, of course. It's not equivalent to the claim that people without that training are remembering less information than those who do.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:51 AM on February 12, 2012


Every citizen has a DUTY to be informed. Failure to be informed is not only a disservice to the nation but also a low form of treason.

Citizens have duties? Maybe in Communist Sweden or somewhere. Isn't the American national motto "Social contract? I didn't sign no stinkin' social contract"?

More seriously, a duty of being informed is like a duty of being healthy. The latter's impossible to fulfil without access to food and clean water, and the former without access to objective sources of information. (And you can't expect America's working poor and squeezed middle to pay for broadband connections and use them to regularly read the Guardian, watch al-Jazeera and occasionally run Le Monde or the Suddeutsche Zeitung through Google Translate as a matter of civic responsibility.)
posted by acb at 3:15 PM on February 12, 2012


More seriously, a duty of being informed is like a duty of being healthy. The latter's impossible to fulfil without access to food and clean water, and the former without access to objective sources of information. (And you can't expect America's working poor and squeezed middle to pay for broadband connections and use them to regularly read the Guardian, watch al-Jazeera and occasionally run Le Monde or the Suddeutsche Zeitung through Google Translate as a matter of civic responsibility.)

No, that is why a civilized state has an obligation to inform the population through education and media

LOL
posted by mumimor at 3:42 PM on February 12, 2012


Citizens have duties?

Adults have duties and responsibilities.

If you don't even accept that, you're not a libertarian, you're a man-child.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:16 PM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm going to segue the discussion to an irony that is oozing out of this thread. Most of us here adhere to some portion (a large portion for most) of the Metafilter Political Consensus, which means left of center. And, if I may be so bold as to presume, most of us here also adhere to the belief, endemic in the left-of-center in the English speaking world, that K-12 education should be about something called "critical thinking", which hovers above such quotidian concerns as the regurgitation of mere facts. And that part of the consensus, which is well established in the American school system, is why few schools offer geography classes, and why so few Americans have a decent base of knowledge about the outside world.

Well, if you didn't memorize capitals by rote, and learn other basic facts in a geography class in middle school or freshman year of high school, you will probably not be able to find Ubeckibeckistan on the map later on in life.
posted by ocschwar at 5:34 PM on February 12, 2012


Well, to be fair, the original FPP isn't about Americans' lack of knowledge of geography. It's about Americans' lack of knowledge/understanding of world affairs.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:16 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


"You guys, stop picking on me! I've spent so much time keeping up with the Kardashians and finding out who got kicked off Dancing With the Stars that I can't be bothered to learn what countries border the place we're bombing this week!"
posted by entropicamericana at 10:13 AM on February 13, 2012


The information the average human brain processes and retains is, as you imply, limited by biology and is pretty much the same for everyone. But this doesn't mean that people in "a simpler time" lived in a relatively informationally sparse world because, if you think about it a bit, it's obvious that the world is far, far, far more informationally dense and extensive relative to the capacity of any individual human brain. The "primitive" world and the modern world are, from an individual's perspective, equivalent in the amount of information available for processing.

What I was saying had nothing to do with memory capacity. It is about caring. We have a limited capacity for being emotionally engaged. This thread, I thought, was about Americans not caring about foreign policy. To me, that isn't an intellectual exercise. It is about caring what is going on in our world. If we cared intensely about every person, we'd be unable to function. So too, if we cared about every little thing we are supposed to care about (the environment, how we eat, the PTA, our neighbors, our old high school friends, the lawn, nuclear proliferation, that funny new sitcom, handgun rights, the red menace, organic food, transfats, etc., etc., etc.) we'd cease to function. There is only so much we can "care" about. We are overwhelmed with input. While capacity is one thing, processing rates are another. Sure, you can eat 20,000 doughnuts, but not all at once. That is what we are forced to do in an emotional, intellectual and sensory context each day.
posted by FrankBlack at 11:11 AM on February 13, 2012


Well, again, I disagree that there's a problem with quantity. I don't think we're "overwhelmed with input" or that there's a problem with "processing rate".

I do find credible an argument that the kinds of things we have to remember and care about has changed and that this could be a problem. Specifically, I think everything is much more abstracted.

On the other hand, history demonstrates that people have a surprising ability to be invested in abstractions.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:49 AM on February 13, 2012


Wait, is the argument shifting to the idea that there is a minimum intellectual capacity required to understand International news, economics, politics and geography? Because I could maybe see that as a problem given the perceived anti-intellectual bent of current American culture.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:27 PM on February 13, 2012


Thread's probably dead and I'm late, as often happens. But just for the record it strikes me that thinking it's possible for your average citizen to have an adequate knowledge of important national and world events argues either 1. a very low bar for "adequate," 2. a severely blinkered view of what counts as important, or 3. an entirely inadequate grasp of exactly how much there is that potentially could be known.
posted by jfuller at 8:50 AM on February 14, 2012


Maybe adequate as in on par with other countries?
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:31 AM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


the belief, endemic in the left-of-center in the English speaking world, that K-12 education should be about something called "critical thinking"

I think this is a significant point, and is supported in every thread about education funding etc., - ' numerous participants argue that university education should be directed towards higher learning rather than vocational ends. I partly agree, insofar as the precise sources of future innovation are unpredictable and thus we want to offer a broad range of educational options in order to avoid limiting our economic potential. Consider Steve Jobs, for example; a key economic innovator, but one who credited much of his ability to the things like graphic design, fonts, and other artsy interests.

On the other hand, you don't have to go to college to enjoy higher learning, since you can learn a great deal from books and other study aids if you are the sort of person who likes learning for its own sake. So it might be worth subsidizing that sort of activity as well - library funding is an obvious mechanism, while over in the UK books, newspapers and magazines have been exempt from sales tax for a long time, effectively providing a 15% subsidy to the reading public. (I was quite startled when I came to he US to find that a) not only did my state charge sales tax on books, but also b) that American textbooks are so expensive and c) they are given to k-12 students by the school district on loan. I think this is a terrible policy; how are people going to develop a lifelong love of learning if they don't even own their own school books?)

It's also true that practical skills and knowledge are a reasonable part of what educators transmit to student. The more knowledge you have, the more advanced kinds of critical thinking you can engage, and the more you can refine those critical skills. There's nothing wrong with counting vocational/commercial considerations among the ends of education, as long as they're not the sole end. Pre-Socratic philosopher Thales is reputed to have won an argument about the utility of his philosophizing by renting all the olive presses in his locality early in the season one year, only to cash in on a good harvest some months later...one that he had predicted by studying the weather.
posted by anigbrowl at 4:30 PM on February 14, 2012


I don't think it's beyond the reach of average Americans to have a fair grasp of the big picture landscape of world affairs. At the very least, I don't think it helps anyone to assume Americans are uniquely incapable of rising to meet higher expectations in that area. If anything, I'd blame the poor-quality of the American media landscape. Questions around the so-called "dumbing down" of American media may have been over-hyped for a while there, but the hype is definitely not without basis in reality.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:06 PM on February 14, 2012


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