“USA! USA!” Such was the patriotic outcry when the Boston bombing suspect was captured. Hey, I know we’re awesome. I love us, too. So forgive me for also pointing out that many Americans are dumber than a box of rocks.
For more than two centuries, we’ve rarely been particularly curious or informed about the wider world. It’s a cultural trait that took root in our initial desire to distance ourselves from King George’s England and the entanglements of continental Europe; it metastasized during the 1930s, as isolationism. And even though we’re globally engaged these days, both economically and militarily, willful ignorance is still a national embarrassment.
How else to explain the epidemic of tweets and comments about how the Tsarnaev brothers supposedly came from the Czech Republic — a westernized nation that is roughly 2000 miles away from, and bears no resemblance to, war-torn Chechnya?
I suppose that if you know absolutely nothing about what has gone on overseas these last 20 years (little things like the Soviet Union breaking up and the Iron Curtain falling down), and if you haven’t read a map since grade school, then you might kinda think that all countries with ch consonants must be the same. But no, there are no excuses. As Esquire writer Chris Jones rightly lamented the other day: “The Czech Republic is trending (on Twitter) because idiots are confusing it with Chechnya. If you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry, cry.”
Cry over these gems, just a few among the scores plucked from the Dumbosphere:
Both the guys from the bombing are from Czech Republic wow
the thing that throws me off is they’re from the Czech Republic
Now what? War with the Czech Republic?
What did America ever do to the Czech Republic? Where even is the Czech Republic?
The dim twittering got so intense that Petr Gandalovic, the Czech ambassador to the United States, felt compelled to release a statement. He said in part: “I am concerned to note in the social media a most unfortunate misunderstanding…. The Czech Republic and Chechnya are two very different entities — the Czech Republic is a Central European country; Chechnya is a part of the Russian Federation…. (T)he Czech Republic is an active and reliable partner of the United States in the fight against terrorism. We are determined to stand side by side with our allies in this respect, there is no doubt about that.”
“A most unfortunate misunderstanding…” Welcome to America, Petr.
CNN was most unfortunate as well. In one memorable moment, a guest commentator stood on the street with a trio of CNN anchors, and said that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was “named after — the similar name, anyway — to the first president of the Czech Republic, the Islamic republic that was formed there, so I don’t know if there’s anything about identity there.” None of the CNN anchors offered a correction.
All told, I was reminded of the episode on The Sopranos when Paulie and Christopher lost the Russian in the Pine Barrens, and Tony called Paulie’s cell to warn that the Russian was dangerous: “He killed 16 Chechen rebels!” Whereupon Paulie relayed the news to Christopher: “You’re not gonna believe this! He killed 16 Czechoslovakians!”
Paulie had an excuse, at least; his cell reception was bad. Our geographic and historical illiteracy is something else entirely. According to a 2006 poll conducted by Roper Public Affairs for the National Geographic Society, 90 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 couldn’t find Afghanistan on a map. Seventy five percent couldn’t find Indonesia on a map – and this was barely a year after the killer tsunami. Seventy percent couldn’t find Israel or Iran on a map. Fewer than three in 10 said it was necessary to know the locations of countries that were in the news. And 63 percent couldn’t even locate Iraq on a map of the Middle East — at a time when we were fighting and dying there.
It’s tempting to just laugh off the Chechnya-Czech thing as just another burp in our body politic. But this is actually a serious issue, as demonstrated by that Iraq stat. The more willfully ignorant we are, the easier it is for a warlike administration to steamroll us — which is precisely what happened a decade ago, when the previous American regime melded al Qaeda with Saddam Hussein, and sold the nonexistent link to a credulous uninformed public. Muslims, Arabs, terrorists, Sunnis, Shiites, funny sounding names — hey, what’s the difference? And why bother to educate oneself, when it’s easier to just attack anyone with a turban?
But with apologies to crooner Sam Cooke (Don’t know much about history/…Don’t know much about geography) we should join the world by schooling ourselves better. Start with the fact that the Chechens way far away from the Czechs, on the east side of the Black Sea.
Word to the dumb: Please don’t ask, “Where’s the Black Sea?”
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1