Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Geographical Illiteracy and Foreign Policy Contortions

Ever since I was a kid, I like taking my medicine straight with no frills. Bitter? No problem – I’ll take it without water. I was hoping this year’s election would be somewhat like that. But of course, no such luck.

I thought that the Wall Street meltdown would shield us from some of the geographical illiteracy and contortions that we had been subjected to in recent days. Unfortunately. It. Did. Not.

On September 25, we heard why proximity to Russia constitutes foreign policy experience: “Well, it certainly does, because our, our next-door neighbors are foreign countries, there in the state that I am the executive of. And there… […] It's very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia. As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where do they go? It's Alaska. It's just right over the border. It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there, they are right next to our state.”

You betcha! My Russian neighbors (and I have quite a few), are grinning from ear to ear.

On October 4, McCain foreign policy advisor Richard Fontaine cited Sen. John McCain's 77-year-old ex-flame Maria Gracinda Teixeira as evidence of his experience in Latin America. The Miami Herald reports that McCain foreign policy advisor Richard Fontaine at an Americas Conference panel on the candidates' Latin American policies said, ''Talking a little about his personal experience, he was famously born in Panama and has traveled all over the hemisphere for many years. In fact, I saw, I guess it was last week, that his old girlfriend in Brazil has been found from his early days when he was in the Navy and was interviewed. She's a somewhat older woman now than she was then, but it sorta speaks to the long experience he has had in the region -- in the most positive terms.''

Woot! That's a tremendously bad argument to make. If I had a child born out of wedlock with a Colombian boyfriend 92 years ago, would that count as ubber Latin American experience?

On October 5, Reuters reported that Afghanistan has become our neighboring country: “Three days after a mostly gaffe-free debate performance, the Alaska governor fumbled during a speech in which she praised U.S. soldiers for “fighting terrorism and protecting us and our democratic values”. “They are also building schools for the Afghan children so that there is hope and opportunity in our neighboring country of Afghanistan,” she told several hundred supporters at a fundraising event in San Francisco.


You know, I’ve actually lived in four out of seven continents, so if offered the job as the 67th Secretary of State, I sure won’t blink, also.

Seriously, I’m rather annoyed. Such ignorance is not cute and would definitely merit more than a time out in my shop. In fact, I’m of the mind that those who make futile and dreadful contortions like these should be sent to no less than an elite geography boot camp.

Gilbert Grosvenor of the National Geographic once said: “We are a nation of people with worldwide aspirations and involvements, a nation whose global influence and responsibilities demand an understanding of the lands and cultures of the world.” No learned person seeking to understand our place in the world could argue with that.

Kieran O’Mahony, author of Geographical Literacy explains why geography is essential – because people lacking the basic skills of geographic literacy have difficulty interpreting their worlds as they are confronted by serious challenges in the work place.

The National Council for Geographic Education posits that the lack of geographical knowledge is more than an embarrassment, it can affect the future of our country. NCGE asks the following simple questions:

How can citizens evaluate US foreign policy options if they know nothing about the countries that are involved?

How can we assess the merits of the North American Free Trade Agreement if we are unfamiliar with current US trade patterns with Canada and Mexico?

How do we know if US troops should be sent places such as Bosnia-Herzegovina or Haiti if we are ignorant of the land and people with whom they must deal?

How can we develop opinions on such matters as conserving the Pacific Northwest, limiting development of Mississippi River flood plains, or spending billions of dollars to clean up toxic waste dumps if we lack the basic knowledge of geography that is required to understand the issues that are involved?

If half our world were Terra Incognita, we could perhaps draw an imaginary border between Iraq and Pakistan, appropriate countries in other parts of the globe as "neighbors," and could still find an excuse for misinterpreting the unknown gray areas beyond our borders. But this is not 1492, doggonit!

Geographic ignorance can preclude us from connecting the correct dots and filter our world view with a false global understanding. This lack of cognitive content is both perilous, and disastrous considering our active engagement in many parts of the world. Geography it turns out is really serious business. It holds the secret of our understanding about the complex world we live in.

One good thing that comes out of this at our house: my seven year old can now speed-spin his globe and locate Russia, Brazil and Afghanistan with no problem; and he can even name the border countries. Along the way, he has also learned some lessons on presidential succession. He still thinks his dad is fifth in line after the Secretary of State (we’re still working on that).

Online Resources I Enjoyed:

Places Online –Association of American Geographers

Palin's Travels (Michael, the Explorer who says: "And no, Sarah Palin is not my sister, daughter or alias. And I'm Sahara Palin not Sarah."

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