I Can Point to Ukraine, but So What?

I’ve now seen this link posted several times by friends and strangers alike: it’s an article about how the less Americans know where Ukraine is, the more they want to intervene militarily within its borders. The ostensible reason for posting the survey is to show how uneducated (and, consequently, hawkish) the American public is (as compared to cosmopolitan Europe). But I have other problems with the survey and its implications.

The biggest problem, and the problem that begets the other problems, is well summarized in this short section:

Does it really matter whether Americans can put Ukraine on a map? Previous research would suggest yes: Information, or the absence thereof, can influence Americans’ attitudes about the kind of policies they want their government to carry out and the ability of elites to shape that agenda.

Let’s unpack these statements. The first question is the real question of this article, and so the research they mention (linked) is important. If you click on the link, you’re taken to an Amazon.com page for the book Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy by Ole R. Holsti, George V. Allen Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Duke University. Presumably this book offers research as to how the average American’s attitudes play out in the ability of “elites to shape that agenda.” That notion seems strange to me, since most Americans want some form of gun control, most want an affordable health care system, most want the Washington Redskins to change their name, etc. I don’t see the elites moving a muscle on these issues.

But there you go: the supposition of elites—let alone elites who give a shit about the attitudes of average Americans—is slid right in there, as if it’s completely normal and, indeed, inevitable. Could it be, rather, that Americans can’t point to Ukraine on the map because of the actions of these elites? Or, do you become an elite in this country by telling the truth?

By the way, if you click on “elites” in that section in the original article, you’re taken to a paper called “Who Influences US Foreign Policy?”, which explains in the introduction:

The results of cross-sectional and time-lagged analyses suggest that U.S. foreign policy is most heavily and consistently influenced by internationally oriented business leaders, followed by experts (who, however, may themselves be influenced by business). Labor appears to have significant but smaller impacts. The general public seems to have considerably less effect, except under particular conditions.

This is a fancy way of saying that the average person has little to no effect on foreign policy (I would also argue they have little to no effect on local public policy, but that’s a symptom of the same disease). But here are some questions to leave you with:

1. The average Ukrainian can most likely point to the US on a map, but the US is huge and takes up almost one third of an entire continent. Can the average Ukrainian point to, say, Pennsylvania? Or Idaho?

2. Can the average American point to Pennsylvania or Idaho? Even I struggle when I get to the Mid-West, and I’d like to think I’m generally well-rounded in geography, having lived in three states and travelled extensively, both domestically and abroad.

3. Could it be that people can’t point to these states or countries because in order to get through their day on a local level, there’s no reason to know this kind of information?

4. Could it be that people don’t know this kind of information because they realize it matters little when they can’t actually make any decisions about what happens in those places? After all, that’s what we have elites—er, internationally oriented business leaders—for.

5. Does knowing where Ukraine is make you a better person? More analytical? More empathetic? More caring of your ecosystem?

6. Or, is knowing where Ukraine is another factoid, to be swallowed during the “education” process to fill out bubbles on a piece of paper (made by one of our friendly internationally oriented business leaders), rather than learning how to critique, how to weigh evidence, how to get down and listen to worms, how to care for fellow beings, how to find solace, etc.?




4 thoughts on “I Can Point to Ukraine, but So What?

  1. Come on … The Americans have never been able to locate on a map the countries they invaded. It only shows their education. They’re supposed to have the best education system… The problem is that their lack of knowledge is responsible of a huge global mess.

  2. The point I was making was twofold: 1. It doesn’t much matter how “educated” most Americans are, because foreign policy decisions are made by a super-insulated elite, and its corollary, 2. most Americans are “uneducated” precisely because of this elite doing what it can to consolidate its power: manipulation of media, intimidation (or worse) of dissenters, privatization of educational systems, surveillance, etc. By this rationale, most Americans have never invaded anywhere.

    But I do agree that the American corporate-military elite is, along with others, largely responsible for the huge global mess.

  3. The article you point out is a great example of how subtly mainstream media not only divides us but also diverts us from the issues that really ought to be discussed. Nicely done.

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