Peace Through Ignorance? / by William Poundstone

Charlie Chaplin in "The Great Dictator" (1940)

Charlie Chaplin in "The Great Dictator" (1940)

Is it important for a U.S. President to know geography? Recent gaffes by Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor who's running as the Libertarian candidate for President, have raised that question. On Sep. 8, Johnson drew a blank when asked about Aleppo, the war-torn city in Syria. He didn't do much better a few weeks later when Chris Matthews asked him to name a foreign leader he admired. Johnson stumbled, and Matthews baited him unmercifully.

Matthews: Go ahead, you gotta do this. Anywhere. Any continent. Canada, Mexico, Europe, over there, Asia, South America, Africa. Name a foreign leader that you respect.

Johnson: I guess I'm having an Aleppo moment… the former president of Mexico.

Matthews: But I'm giving you the whole world.

Johnson: I know, I know, I know.

Matthews: But I'm giving you the whole world. Anybody in the world you like. Anybody. Pick any leader.

Johnson: The former president of Mexico.

I doubt that ignorance of geography will hurt Johnson, or anyone else, with most voters. It's well established that Americans are terrible with geography. In my book, Head in the Cloud, I report a poll in which 9 percent of Americans are unable to say what country New Mexico is in. (Johnson knows that one.) Eighteen percent of Americans think the Amazon is in Africa, and well under half can name the capital of Canada. 

The tougher question is whether we need to know much geography. Our mobile devices really have changed the world. Anyone can look up the Amazon, or Aleppo, in seconds—assuming they need to know it. 

Still, as Johnson's brain freeze moments demonstrate, you can't always whip out a phone. Some voters—and certainly some journalists—do judge politicians by how well-prepared they are for high office. 

Johnson recently made a comment that's gotten as much attention as his gaffes. He said that ruinous wars, like that in Syria, happen "because we elect people who can dot the I's and cross the T's on these names and geographic locations."

His stream-of-consciousness statement is a little difficult to parse, but his point seemed to be that wars are started by geography wonks. A leader who doesn't even know where Aleppo is won't likely be sending troops there. 

Oddly enough, there is some evidence refuting that very idea. In 2014, shortly after Russian troops invaded Ukraine, political scientists Kyle Dropp, Joshua D. Kertzer, and Thomas Zeitzoff asked Americans to locate Ukraine on an unlabeled world map. As expected, most didn't do well. The surprise was this: Those who didn't have a clue where Ukraine is were more likely to support a U.S. intervention there, than were those who could locate Ukraine. 

That's worth thinking about, the next time you hear that ignorance is bliss.