Wednesday, May 15, 2013

American Geographic Ignorance

Map showing the Czech Republic and Chechnya.

Hi Everyone,
On April 15th, a month ago today, the Boston Marathon was struck by bombers. The bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers, were from Chechnya. Once the news about the Boston Marathon bombing burst across the U.S., Americans and American news outlets rushed to find out where Chechnya was.  Some Americans, using social media, soon came up with the wrong home country of the brothers—the Czech Republic or Czechoslovakia.

Chechnya” and “Czech Republic” sound very similar; as a result, some Americans mistook one country for another. Many Americans cannot tell you where either country is in relation to the other. Twitter and other social media platforms almost immediately burst out with comments against the Czech Republic after the bombing. In response to the angry, hateful and profane Twitter tweets, the Czech ambassador to the U.S. was quick to put out a statement letting Americans know the Czech Republic and Chechnya are completely unrelated countries. How sad and embarrassing for me that the Czech ambassador had to give many of my fellow Americans a lesson on world geography.  

Europeans Are “World-Aware”

When I first moved to the Czech Republic, it was soon apparent that Czechs and most Europeans are highly “world aware.” Czechs and Europeans in general are also well versed in geography. Czechs are interested and concerned about what’s going on in the rest of the world, including in the States. Many of our friends (both Czech and European expats) enjoy discussing American politics and policies. We have had many lively discussions about the U.S. at our dinner table. Not living in the States, Czechs (and Europeans) do not have a complete understanding of what happens in the U.S. However, Europeans have a better knowledge of what’s happening in our country, while Americans generally are not as aware of what’s happening in Europe or the rest of the world.

Possible Reasons for American Geographic Ignorance

The past 100 years has seen my country much involved with the outside world (WWII, the Korean and Vietnam wars, etc.). In addition, our country has become engaged in the “war on terror” and become an immense player in global trade. It would be logical to infer that Americans would be “world aware,” but the opposite is true. Why?

History & U.S. Geography. The first 100 years of American history dealt with surviving and subsisting in a completely new country. Who pays much attention to the rest of the world when you’re just trying to survive? Throughout American history, mountains, forests prairie and two oceans have come in between the U.S. and the rest of the world. When you're almost the only kid on the block, why pay attention to those who are so far away?

We have also experienced periods of isolationism, such as after the world wars and the Great Depression. Americans wanted to turn their attention inward to escape the realities of war and to create a safe place to live.  At that time, Americans were the consumers of products created in their own country. We weren't as involved in the global economy in those days. It’s easy enough to feel safe when your country is separated from most of the world (aside from Canada and Mexico) and what country has not had periods of isolationism?

Superpower Status. The United States became the recognized “big kid on the block” after WWII—in other words the superpower  country of the world. The U.S. has become one of the most prosperous and technologically advanced countries in the world, with a strong military. Strength, prosperity and technology have made the U.S. a world power, even in the 21st century.

"Disneyland Lifestyle." Czechs would tell you that Americans live a “Disneyland” lifestyle. In other words, Americans generally tend to “bury their heads in the sand,” enjoy their safe lives and don’t care about what’s going on in the rest of the world.  I believe this is partly true, as with prosperity and power comes the tendency to create a “bubble” of safety and comfort. This is human nature. 

My Feeling on the Matter

The Boston Marathon bombing was a tragedy—one that affected people from around the world, as runners came from all over the world to take part in this event. With the advent of smart gadgets and instantaneous news, people are able to quickly express their fear and anger after such an event. Before speaking out, however, people should get their facts straight. Condemning the Czech Republic—a country that happens to be an ally to the U.S.—is ignorant, as is any form of gossip or misinformation.

We Americans need to study geography and pay more attention and care to what’s going on in our neighborhood. Our neighborhood now includes the rest of the world.

That’s all for today! Have a great day!

God bless,

P.S. You can find some examples of the hateful tweets against the Czech Republic on a blog called Public Shaming. One word of warning--many of the tweets use obscenity. Read at your own risk!


MiGrant said...

The Czech/Chechnya confusion is what happens when you try to foist linguistic abominations like "Czechia" on someone else's language. (To be absolutely clear, I'm only talking about the word!)

Anonymous said...

"Czechslovakia" A case in point? :troll:

Sher said...

@:troll: No--just a case of making a typo!

Sher said...

@MiGrant: You're right--that's one I hadn't thought of. My question, though, would be how many Americans have heard the word "Czechia?"

Linguistic mistakes and geographic ignorance are not a good combination!

MiGrant said...

Almost as many as have heard of Chechnya, I'm guessing?

Sher said...

@Migrant: Yes! You got that right! :0)