Not to pile on Matthew Yglesias again, but there’s something more to be said about his gaffe. And that’s this: Americans, even smart ones, know almost nothing about geography. And that has consequences in the realm of public opinion and policy.

Ask almost any social scientist or humanist about the health of their discipline, and they’ll begin wringing their hands and explaing how history, sociology, comparative literature, or whatever they do for a living is dying on the vine. And they’ll be right, at least in some ways. Unless they’re economists, and then they need to shut up and count their money. But geography, as a discipline, really is in deep trouble. Departments have been getting cut, left and right, at major universities for more than a decade. Which speaks of a real crisis for the discipline and big problems for the people of this country.

When there was going to be no more history, in those carefree days prior to September 11, 2001, not knowing how to find the rest of the world was just fine. But now, it’s a bad thing. Unless you really think Jack Bauer is going to keep you safe, it might make sense to be able to locate Iran on a map. And without a basic understanding of what a map is, how it works, and where to find one, you’re going to be out of luck. Hmm, now where is Iran? Near Africa, right? But where’s Africa? Is that the one shaped like a boot? You get the point.

It’s very easy to begin to sound like a scold when noting that Americans are ignorant about this or that. And once you sound like a scold people stop paying attention. But foreign and domestic policies almost always have an important spatial dimension. Without knowing that, for example, the Kurds are pretty near Turkey, which wants to gobble them up, you can’t really understand the Iraq conflict, the recent spat over the Armenian genocide, or some of the posturing that Iran has been doing in recent months. Not to mention what’s going on with Israeli/Palestine, a struggle founded, as much as anything, on cartography.

And without knowing where the Everglades are, you could even think that the morphology of the Miami metropolitan area is really cool. And that would be extremely silly.

Advertisements