Isolated in America

Recently Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka was honored at Harvard University's W.E.B Dubois Institute for his contribution to world literature. At the ceremony he reaffirmed statements he made in his recent book, Climate of Fear, that takes a critical look at why Americans are ignorant of what's going on outside US borders both politically and socially. He said that despite the unlimited access Americans have to new technologies such as the internet, they remain the least educated about the world.

In a recent op-ed piece written by Boston Globe's Derrick Jackson, Soyinka said that people still ask him "whether Africa is still colonized by the British, and conflate world events to where ''they think the Yugoslav war was taking place in Asia against Chinese Communists."

''It doesn't matter whether it's blacks, it doesn't matter the class, it doesn't matter the level of education," Soyinka said in the article. ''Some of the most brilliant of my colleagues in universities here are so insular that it hurts. I find it very difficult.

He further says that Americans need a basic understanding of geography before anything. ''For me, geography is the summit of human existence," said Soyinka. "It dictates the culture, it contains the history of how human beings actually recreated existence depending on the environment." In the United States, he continued, ''geography is 'What is the capital of California?' and once they say that, they think they know the world.

''The way we were taught geography, it is what made us so confident in the critical assessment of other nations. We know them, I mean, you don't know them all the way, but we know them in a way that is fundamental to the relationship of humanity to the natural environment.

''Once people understand that, you understand why Eskimos live in igloos, and you don't see that as backwards but as an intelligent use of resources. You understand why certain peoples eat horrible looking grubs and you recognize them as superior to hamburgers. Curiosity precedes critical thinking. If you're not curious, you can't think."

I am not suprise by this because I see this on a regular basis. For example, when the Asian tsunami occurred last December, a college-educated acquintance of mine (who will remain nameless) asked me as we were eating dinner one night "Who is Sri Lanka?" This person actually believe that Sri Lanka was a person, rather than a island nation in South Asia.

In contrast, I know a nice gentleman from the Sudan named Jacob, who is almost an expert on world issues. He came to the US five years to escape the war in his country and went to trade school here to become a plumber. I sit next to him sometimes on the train to work and talk to him what is going in Sudan and other issues relating to African and even American politics. I asked him one day how did he become so educated on these issues. He said that he listened to the BBC radio back in the Sudan when he was still learning how to read. When he goes home at night his listens to the BBC news late at night on the local NPR station.

I blame the media for contributing to the nation's lack of intelligence. Pop culture has saturated the way news is delivered in the US. When Americans are more interested in hearing in the top news about Desperate Housewives, Michael Jackson and the runaway bride, rather than the crisis in Darfur and the new report from the International Labor Organization (which I will write about in another post in the near future), there is something seriously wrong.

When you compared US media outlets to those outside this country, it is quite embarassing. Lets look at the websites for CNN and BBC News. The BBC website is filled with rich news, analytical and feature items about issues going on all over the world. CNN.com, on the other hand seems to mainly covers national stories which includes celebrities news. The only international news that gets top coverage are stories that have a US connection to them, such as a US soldier's death in Iraq. When British elections and the Pope's death occured, I had to turn to BBC America's news coverage because it did a better job at analysing the issues. I am especially suprised by the lack of coverage for the British elections in the US because Tony Blair's election was ultimately decided by how angry Brits were about him takings sides with the Bush Administration on the Iraq invasion.

Speaking of Bush, Soyinka was not lacking in his criticism of the President. ''I believe it is impossible for him not to realize by now, even though he may not admit it, that he has committed a very grave blunder, said Soyinka. " It seems to me just impossible for somebody in that position, with the kinds of pronouncements he's made, not to realize that he's been living in a fool's paradise he has created.

''The world is far more complex for a nation, however strong, however big, to say that he doesn't care what the rest of the world thinks as long as he's doing what God intends. That kind of language, that kind of belief is what makes any leader, any human being dangerous. . . . Many Americans are in a mental bunker. Any information that tries to penetrate that bunker is rejected as enemy intellectual action."

He is right; in post 9/11 America Bush has created this shroud of fear in our country that is contributing to Americans not wanting to know the "Outsider." From Al Qaeda in the Islamic world to AIDS in Africa, the president and the media are really doing serious damage to our country.


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