American Geographic

American Geographic

This morning I received a rather hilarious but at the same time disturbing image: a screencap from the Chicago-based television channel WGN9 reporting on the situation in South Africa – or should I say South America. I have seen similar screencaps before where Iraq has been placed where Outer Mongolia should be or where Paris has been relocated to northern Romania or the Outer Hebrides, but this one takes the biscuit.

I'm now booking my flight to Cape Horn...
I'm now booking my flight to Cape Horn...

The South African government are currently in a bit of a panic over the security arrangements for a possible visit by US President Barack Obama should the Americans make the final stages of next month’s World Cup; if Obama’s schedule is being arranged by the same people who knocked up the WGN9 graphic or the former Miss Teen South Carolina, they need not worry too much. The US President, meanwhile, will find himself in one of those small windswept towns located on Cape Horn. (Note to American readers: Cape Horn is in South America, and should not be confused with Cape Town which is in South Africa).

I guess we shouldn’t really be surprised at this given that between seven and twenty percent of Americans own a passport; it is pretty well established that while a significant number of Americans believe in alien abduction or the rapture, a staggering eighty-eight percent cannot locate Afghanistan on a map. In fact, I’d wager that there are more of our transatlantic friends that take the creation story literally than can name three past presidents of their own country.

According to the National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs 2006 Geographic Literacy Study,

“Americans are far from alone in the world, but from the perspective of many young Americans, we might as well be. On this survey, most young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 demonstrate a limited understanding of the world beyond their country’s borders, and they place insufficient importance on the basic geographic skills that might enhance their knowledge. In this survey, young Americans answer about half (54%) of all the questions correctly. But by and large, majorities of young adults fail at a range of questions testing their basic geographic literacy.”

(Source: National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs 2006 Geographic Literacy Study, conducted by GfK)

While it is undoubtedly hilarious to see how ignorant many Americans are, it’s all a little bit disconcerting when we consider that this is not some third world country of little or no consequence we are talking about but a global superpower that has a particularly irritating habit of sending its shit-for-brains gung-ho soldiers into foreign countries. The US is truly a land of contrasts – you can find anything and everything from entrepreneurs and computer whizzkids through to bellicose televangelists and folks who still think it’s OK to engage in close relationships with one’s siblings.

If this ignorance could only be found in the backwoods of Idaho or the swamps of Louisiana, it wouldn’t be too much of a problem for the rest of us; we’d just carry on laughing at those stoopid Americans on YouTube and making jokes about fat people and buck-toothed inbred banjo strummers. The problem is that this ignorance can also be found in higher levels of political office: we need look no further at the inexplicable success of Sarah Palin, the half-witted religious nut “hockey mom” who could concievably have been a John McCain heart attack away from being the President of the United States.

I’ll leave you with a short excerpt from the exchange between Palin and television journalist Charles Gibson prior to the election of 2008, where the then Governor of Alaska gave us a telling insight into what goes on in her head and the mechanics of her thought process:

“Governor Palin, are you ready at this moment to perform surgery on this child’s brain?”

“Of course, Charlie. I have several boys of my own, and I’m an avid hunter.”

“But governor, this is neurosurgery, and you have no training as a surgeon of any kind.”

“That’s just the point, Charlie. The American people want change in how we make medical decisions in this country. And when faced with a challenge, you cannot blink.”

(Source: Sam Harris, “When Atheists Attack”, Newsweek September 20th 2008).

It is somewhat disconcerting to think that Palin is seriously considering running for the White House in 2012; I’d have been sending out the men in white coats.

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