“You’re from Australia? I really want to go to Sydney. I’m going to study in Rome, which is good because then I can just catch the Eurail to Sydney whenever I want.”
This is not really a statement that I would expect from someone studying at UCLA; a school ranked among the very best in the world. The geographical ignorance evident here opens a Pandora’s box of questions regarding American ignorance towards foreigners and foreign affairs. But is this really something that we should be so critical of?
Of course, this type of ignorance in Australia would not be tolerated. If one made a statement such as this in a university class, their enrolment would almost certainly be null and void. But in the U.S., this is more common than you would think. Americans on average engage in far less international travel than residents of other Western countries. Francis Tapon argues that a lack of geographical knowledge amongst Americans should not merely be dismissed as ignorance. He believes that humans possess an intimate knowledge of the places that sit geographically around them, with little knowledge extending beyond this. This is what gives cause to an undercurrent of elitist feelings amongst Europeans, which stems from an aesthetic feeling of superiority evolving from a decent level of understanding of the countries surrounding them.
But when you live in a country that consists of fifty states, and is by and large the size of a European country multiple times over, this geographical knowledge (and the political, economic and social knowledge that stems from this) is easily restricted to those states around you. This is particularly evident when one considers the vast differences amongst the states of the U.S., many of which could sometimes almost be considered as smaller nations within a region. A preoccupation with the complex political nature of the United States, at federal, state and local levels, leaves little time for Americans to bother considering other nations, particularly those less powerful than them. And if one is to think about it, this is how it works amongst most nations: we are only ever truly interested in those with comparable (or higher) power than us. Australia shows little regard for Zimbabwe, but a high regard for the United Kingdom. Italy shows little regard for Peru, but is quite interested in the activities of France. The only real threat to the U.S. (and I use the term ‘real’ loosely, as it is a threat largely conjured up by the media and fuelled by anti-American sentiment around the world) is that of China, and this explains why this is one of the only nations in the world that actually gets a regular mention in U.S. literature and discussion.
Perhaps it is only now that the perceived international ignorance of Americans is becoming a larger issue. With debates around the future of America currently plagued with theories of inadequacy, economic volatility and a loss of power, the United States may finally be forced to recognise the growing power (and high levels of difference) of other nations in the world. Up until now, there was little need for an average American to look at the world around them. Of course, by doing so, they could learn a lot. But why would this be necessary when almost everything they consume was and is designed in the very country in which they live?
For Westerners, some knowledge of other nations (and in particular, the United States) is necessary. Regardless of how one feels about the U.S., the reality bears significant clarity: we wear their clothes, we watch their movies, we eat their food, and we listen to their music. A type of forced cultural understanding of the United States exists among us all, and this is because the United States has had a profound impact on us for decades. It is only now that we are forcing Americans to realise that perhaps we are having an impact on them.