Ignorance and Arrogance

A friend of mine (his identity shall remain anonymous) who has spent the last year teaching about the Middle East at a fairly prominent private university in the Midwest wanted to play an April Fool’s joke on his students. He sent me the strange photo below, and asked me to write a story about it.

So here’s what I came up with:

US Vice President Dan Quayle meets Her Highness, Princess Royal Shaykha Yamama, daughter of Abu Fedora III, the Endive of Ersatzstan, during a 1991 visit, to thank Ersatzstan for its support of the coalition during Operation Desert Storm. US Air Force personnel used the country’s sole air base, built by the Soviets in the early 1960s, as a supply hub for operations in northern Iraq during the war and to support the Kurds during Operation Provide Comfort.

Ruled by the last Central-Asian dynasty able to trace its lineage directly to the Mongol Khans, the Endive of Ersatzstan was forced into exile following an army coup in 1961, which brought pro-Soviet nationalists to power. For 17 years, the country was ruled by General Hassan Bukend and his brother Hosein Bukend and their People’s Popular Revolutionary National Party, which merged militant nationalism and a kind-of Nasserite, third-world socialism. Hassan was the strong man of the regime, but Hosein — a Moscow-trained academic — was its ideologue. For a time, he put together a collection of ideologically correct quotations (allegedly from his brother) into a book, the title of which loosely translates as “Notes From the Goat-tisserie,” because most of the quotes were supposedly made to peasants and herders during dinners. During the mid-1970s, before the regime was toppled, it was the only book Ersatzstanis were legally allowed to own. Most who did could not read it.

As a pro-Soviet, one-party state, Ersatzstan had a horrible human rights record, and there were allegations — later confirmed — that the interior ministry forced prisoners to ride bicycle generators, often times for six hours or more in a sitting, to augment the capital city’s meager electricity supply.

For a time, several thousand Soviet “advisers” were deployed in the country, using its proximity to Turkey and Iran to listen in on Nato communications. A series of border skirmishes in 1969 between Iranian troops and the Ersatzstani army very nearly led to World War III, averted only because US leaders were concerned with the Vietnam war and the Soviet leadership was still reeling from the complications of the invasion of Czechoslovakia the previous year. Ersatzstan was also difficult to get to, making a clash over the country impossible to justify.

Bukend’s leadership, however, was deeply unpopular, and during a trip to Moscow in late 1979, a popular revolt (partially inspired by the Iranian revolution the previous year) combined with an army mutiny ended his regime. The former royal family returned soon after. Abu Fedora III has ruled the country since 1983, when his father died. During his exile, first in Monaco, and then in Cyprus, Abu Fedora made regular radio broadcasts to his country via shortwave, and those few Ersatzstanis with radios remember with fondness his words of support. That made the return of the monarchy a fairly easy matter, and most Ersatzstanis proudly display the monarch’s portrait in their homes and businesses even though no law requires them to.

The Bukend brothers both died in exile in Moscow. Hosein, unable to find more than part-time work teaching dialectic semiotics, was beaten to death by a crowd of angry Muscovites after trying to cut in front of a line for toilet paper during the winter of 1983. Hassan froze to death in his apartment in 1994 after the Russian government halted subsidies for all ex-Western defectors and deposed Marxist leaders.

Ersatzstan maintains very close relations with the United States, and has since the monarchy was restored. However, those relations have been strained in the last few years by the imposition of a new succession law which would allow women to ascend to the throne. The Shaykha is Abu Fedora’s only child, and she would become the Muslim world’s first female monarch. The country’s Muslim clerics, heavily influenced by Iran since the early 1980s, have agitated against it, and a recent demonstration found huge crowds demanding the law’s repeal. Since Abu Fedora’s stroke last year, the Shaykha has been quietly running the country’s day-to-day affairs.

Ersatztan’s Shia, who make up the bulk of the population (about 85%; there is a tiny Jewish population, a few Christians, and a handful of traditional goat worshipers), are called Niners, and believe the ninth Shia imam was the last true one. Rather than following the Iranian lead of believing that the occultated 12th imam will return to bring justice and peace to the world, the Niners believe the body of believers themselves constitute both the mahdi and the final imam, and thus the Niners believe the Shia community has had its religion and society perfected. Their clergy are called Jizmallah (literally, “Body of God”), and the country’s leading jizmallah is Ihmed Ali Barbikewi. He has been a life-long supporter of the monarchy but is known to be very unhappy with the decree allowing the Shaykha to succeed her father as endive.

So Abu Fedora’s death, when it comes, is expected to result in a serious political struggle. Clashes between police and demonstrators are frequent enough that the endive imposed a state of emergency in late 2003 that has yet to be lifted.

The continued presence of about 800 US Air Force personnel, deployed as part of the Bush administration’s War on Terror, does not help matters much.

Ersatzstan has few resources of its own, being a largely mountainous country. About 60% of the population engages in subsistence farming focused mainly on goat herding. In fact, the goat is an object of veneration — the fact that the country’s flag depicts both goats and mountains is evidence of that. Most people live in the countryside, few are literate, and there is little industry. The country’s major industrial product is wooden shoes, which were exported to the Soviet Union up until it collapsed. Attempts to attract Japanese and Korean investment have proved fruitless, since as a landlocked country, Ersatzstan does not have access to ports, and no Asian firms were interested in buying wooden shoes. (Many people recall the day in 1989 when Mikhail Gorbachev, during an interview, symbolically tossed a stalk of Cuban sugar cane and a Cuban orange into a wastebasket and said “the old economic order is done and the new one is beginning.” What they tend to forget is that he stuffed that sugar cane into an Ersatzstani wooden shoe first.) The country’s wealthiest businessman, Mohammed Bubkis, recently traveled to Mongolia — a country of pastoral cattle ranchers — in an attempt to promote a beef-goat trade deal, and has tried to woo other potential markets for goat meat, fur and milk.

Recently, several Indian companies have expressed an interest in Ersatzstan because of its very low labor costs.

* * *

This was not the first time I’ve ever written about Ersatzstan. The idea has swirled in my head for more than a decade, and were it not for a badly timed computer failure in mid-1995, Ersatzstan would very likely have gone on line as a virtual country, complete with a constitution (seven branches of government, all of which could veto the actions of any other branch of government), a Revolution and its Leader ("The Little Plaid Book of Chairman Lawrence," who would be played by a black-and-white photo of Antonio Gramsci, looking suitably hegemonic), an official ideology ("Personal Dictatorship," in which the oppression of one man by another is eliminated by the oppression of the self, for — under this sick and twisted scheme — men could only be free if they became their own oppressors), a flag (yes, with goats and mountains) and a hyperactive government bureaucracy complete with agencies like the Ministry for Stacking and Storage, the Department of Roads and Waterways (Route-Canal) and an official news agency (covering popular demonstrations in which people would shout "Democracy nyet! Oppression si!"). It was located in Central Asia somewhere (it was important to be vague about that), but suffered under Japanese rule during WWII as "Ersatzkuo" — an occupation the Japanese themselves don’t seem to remember. The government constantly raged and battled against the "Forces of Nastiness and Evil, of Awfulness and Wretchedness, of Filthiness and Vileness," but those forces were, of course, never named.

The idea would have been to allow people to become on-line "citizens" of this benighted, miserable place, and then let the virtual politics happen. I wasn’t sure how that would work, and never got far enough with it technically. As I said, several months of work disappeared when my computer failed. I did not have a backup and did not feel inspired to try and recreate everything. And so the world never got to experience the virtual country of Ersatzstan.

But a group of unsuspecting students at a Midwestern college did. As the story was related to me, they not only got a lecture on the country, but were told its national holiday was April 1 (a nice touch, and not mine) and then, at the end of class, instructed to look the word "ersatz" up. I wasn’t there, so I do not know how credulously any of the students (a mixture of undergraduates) actually took this, but according to my friend the professor, no one let on or said anything publicly, not even when the quiz was given. There was, allegedly, some shock when the country was revealed to be fraudulent.

It would have been easy enough to figure out that there is no such place as Ersatzstan without consulting other sources. Look up the word ersatz in any dictionary: ("adjective (of a product) made or used as a substitute, typically an inferior one, for something else : ersatz coffee. u2022 not real or genuine," according to the dictionary that comes bundled with Mac OSX). Or crack open an atlas. I placed the country somewhere between Iran, Iraq, Turkey and the once-upon-a-Soviet Union — it ought to have been easy to find. Or not find.

I was reminded of all this when I read the results of geographic literacy survey conducted by the National Geographic Society which found that "young adults in the United States fail to understand the world and their place in it." According to the survey, 63 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 failed to locate Iraq on a map of the Middle East. Seventy percent supposedly could not find Iran or Israel. Nine in ten couldn’t find Afghanistan on a map of Asia, and 54 percent did not know that Sudan is a country in Africa.

It’s not just a knowledge of the outside world that apparently befuddles young Americans. Half could not find New York State on a map of the United States. One-third did not know where Louisiana is. When given a map and told they could escape an oncoming hurricane by going to the northwest, apparently only two-thirds could indicate which way northwest is on a map.

Maybe the 18—24 cohort, especially the university students among them, would do better if their professors (and those professors’ close friends) weren’t busy writing the histories of and giving them lectures and quizzes about fictitious Middle East countries. However, I rather doubt it.

None of the survey results should come as a shock to anyone. But I’m not going to, as so many have (these surveys and their depressing results are annual rituals for egghead flagellants), bemoan the ignorance of America’s youth. Or Americans in general. One hundred years ago, could the majority, or even a sizable plurality, of Americans aged 18—24 (or anyone else) identify where the Panama Canal was being built? Could they point to the Philippines on a map? Could they identify Austria-Hungary? Did they know where Oklahoma or California were? Or the best direction to escape from San Francisco in the event of an earthquake? I’m guessing not. High school graduates in 1906 may have been much better educated than they are today, but far fewer people graduated from high school then — or even attended school.

Some folks will blame television, bad schools (or the whole edifice of public schooling) and the ubiquitous X-Box for the problem, but again, popular culture — whatever form it has taken — has always provided both meaning and distraction, a compelling "alternative" to a harsh real world that few people have much control over even if they do know where Qandahar or Pleiku are.

It may also be true that if more people were better educated, perhaps they would not be misled so easily. But I doubt that too. The well-educated and very literate are just as easily seduced by murderously bad ideas — nationalism, militarism, statism — as the unschooled and illiterate. Maybe even more so, if you consider the historical performance of America’s "best and brightest" (sic).

(People will learn what they need to or wish to learn, the things that are relevant to what they do or that simply give them pleasure. And they won’t bother learning the things that don’t interest them or that have no obvious pay-off.)

No, it doesn’t matter whether a majority of Americans know where Iraq is, or anything else about it, so long as they aren’t bombing or occupying the place. The rub comes when Americans obey the siren call to war made by some or all of the elite that governs them. The issue is not ignorance of the world, but the clueless arrogance and nearly unquestioning faith too many Americans have in their government, their society, their own goodness and their ability to do good in the world.

I’ve always been puzzled by my countrymen. Americans can be, and often are, very kind, compassionate and open-minded. But we can also be intensely cruel, brutal and horrifyingly judgmental. We can both welcome outsiders and hate and terrorize them mercilessly. We say all men are created equal, and yet we clearly believe ourselves to be better men, first among equals, men chosen by God or History or Providence to do for others what they cannot or will not do for themselves. We fear the world, and wish to smite all those in it who might mean us ill. Yet we also want desperately to save it, and to be loved and appreciated by all we see and all we save.

The really confounding thing, at least for me, is that we do and believe all of these things at the same time.

But what kind of salvation can you bring to the world when you don’t know anything — and deliberately don’t want to know anything — about it? What kind of salvation can you bring to a world you only fear and do not really love? How can Americans save Arabs and a whole Arab society (or Filipinos, or Vietnamese, or Afghans) when so many engaged in that salvation have little love, and no respect, for the people they are supposedly saving? When so many engaged in that enterprise believe in cruelty and brutality as means to something resembling a noble end?

Love for "humanity" in the abstract is meaningless if it inflicts pain and suffering on real individual human beings. Which is exactly what that kind of "love" usually does.

Ignorance is not a problem if there is no politics, no war, no violence, no desire to exercise authority and dominion over others. (Yes, I know, Eden before the fall.) But truth be told, I’d rather have ignorant Americans ready to live more-or-less peacefully with and in the world (and each other) than legions of bright, shiny and smart faces ready to do good regardless of whether the world wants their good or not. Regardless of the cost in treasure, suffering and blood.

Unfortunately for you and me, we live in the worst of all possible worlds from this perspective. Ignorance combined with power, especially state power, is a problem. Which is why we’re stuck with college students — and others — who cannot find Iran on a map or a globe and yet, because enough of their government has been incessantly saying so, believe the place may need to be pulverized from high altitude. Who do not know where Sudan is but want to save its children, with guns if necessary. Who cannot find New Orleans and know nothing about it but have an opinion about what the government should do to help — or hurt — people hit by Hurricane Katrina.

Or who cannot tell a fake country from a real one.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.