Americans wake up to ignorance

The attacks of 11 September exposed the United States as a politically unaware nation - now the 'teach-in' is back as everyone rushes to catch up, writes Andrew Gumbel
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Like many Americans, Pam Bottaro reacted to the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington with a mixture of horror and utter incomprehension.

Although well educated and politically engaged, she felt that nothing she had read or seen on television had prepared her for an anti-American backlash.

"Why do these people hate us so much?" was the question she kept hearing all around her. She decided that to answer it, what she and her friends needed was an education.

Which explains why, a few days ago, she invited a political science professor to her Santa Monica, California home to address friends and neighbours on the complexities of Afghan politics, US involvement in the Middle East, and the growth of Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network. "What was amazing was that everybody I asked came," Ms Bottaro said. "They all welcomed the opportunity to talk and to learn."

The two-hour lecture and debate that ensued reflected a growing national trend: a terrible thirst for information, for some handle beyond the clichés uttered by political leaders and the television news networks to help explain why Americans find themselves living in such an unpredictable world.

As several commentators have noted, this is a global crisis born largely of ignorance – Americans' ignorance of the sheer anger and resentment that their government's policies have stirred up around the world, and, arguably, the ignorance of desperate people in the Islamic world who have turned to radical fundamentalism as the answer to their problems. This ignorance has been noted in different ways; as the Mexican American comedian Paul Rodriguez put it: "War is God's way of teaching Americans geography."

It was this ignorance, or a lack of adequate perspective, that Ms Bottaro's group sought to address as they gathered in her family living room. They were a fairly high-powered bunch: Pam's husband, Chuck Noble, is a politics professor familiar with many of the issues at hand; others included a lawyer, two psychologists, a physicist and a Proust scholar. Such credentials, however, only underscored the scope of the problem. As one participant commented: "Here we are, under devastating attack, and we have no idea who did this thing and why."

As an educational tool, the "teach-in" has surfaced before at crucial junctures in American life, notably the Vietnam War. More recently, the phenomenon had been restricted to a sliver of the progressive left, notably the environmentalist movement and some parts of the burgeoning opposition to corporate globalisation. But now, it seems to be roaring back into fashion.

Last weekend, a group of Afghani women addressed a public meeting in Hayward, outside San Francisco, to talk about their country and the issues raised by the "war on terrorism". The 1,400-seat venue at Chabot College was filled. Yesterday, a teach-in by the San Francisco-based fair-trade group Global Exchange brought a roster of distinguished speakers to a high school. "People are really coming together to educate each other and let each other know how to get involved," said Leila Salazar, an organiser for Global Exchange.

Across the country, university campuses have arranged special public forums and assembled new student courses to take account of the new global reality – one, run by a history professor at the University of California's Los Angeles campus, pondering "the consequences of mutual cultural ignorance".

Before 11 September, most people had at least a working familiarity with Osama bin Laden. Even educated Americans, though, had not heard of al-Qa'ida (as the television comic Jay Leno said, it sounded like the name of a quarterback for the Detroit Lions), and certainly could not have begun to analyse the geopolitical status of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Turkmens and Afghanistan's other ethnic groups.

The ignorance reached high into the intelligentsia and the political élite: witness President Bush's use of the diplomatically disastrous word "crusade" in the first days of the crisis, or the mistaken belief of his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, expressed in interviews before she took office last January, that Mr bin Laden was in cahoots with Iran. Now everyone is rushing to make up for lost time.

The Bush administration's once modish anti-intellectualism has been set aside in favour of a broad canvassing of experts on all aspects of foreign, defence and security policy. The FBI and CIA are clamouring for speakers of Arabic, Farsi and Afghan languages to act both as translators and as potential overseas agents. Books on the Middle East, fundamentalism, terror networks and germ warfare are flying out of bookstores. Demand for Arabic language classes has soared.

Among Ms Bottaro's group, there was a strong sense that the country had been let down by the media and by politicians who pretended – at least in speeches and election campaigns – that foreign affairs did not matter now the Cold War was over.

Ms Bottaro, a Hollywood story analyst, reflected on the ways in which national ignorance has come perilously close to dictating both public opinion and public policy. "In all of our grief and horror at what had happened, the initial response was frighteningly black and white," she said. "We were ready for instant retaliation and war. We weren't taking into account any of the more complicated issues."

Others voiced concerns that America's gung-ho patriotism was trampling over the very democratic values the country should hold dear. Jonny Balfus, an intellectual property rights lawyer, saw a dangerous erosion of the separation of church and state in all the "God Bless America" signs about, and wondered if the world was heading for a giant "Jesus versus Allah smackdown".

The featured speaker, Larry George, an international relations specialist from California State University at Long Beach, gave a thorough overview of the historical entanglements that may have contributed to 11 September; everything from the "Great Game" diplomacy of the 19th century in south-western Asia to the flawed US foreign policy agenda at the onset of the Cold War.

With the shock of recent events still palpable, however, not all of his listeners were ready for so rigorously political an analysis. Much discussion was taken up by worries about the morality of religion and how Western lifestyles might offend extremists. A psychologist described the shock of having the illusion of safety shattered; it took a while before people began to see just how that shock could help forge a new political awareness.

The last time the US was caught out by its own ignorance in any comparable fashion was the 1950s, when the resistance to scientific research that marked the Eisenhower administration was suddenly broken by Sputnik and the realisation that the Soviet Union was winning the space race. That, however, was a failure of science and technology, rapidly addressed by the disbursement of federal dollars, while this time the neglect is deeply cultural.

For much of the 1990s, America was too busy with OJ Simpson, Viagra and Monica Lewinsky to think seriously about Islamic fundamentalism or any other global issue with the possible exception of trade liberalisation. As the journalist and historian David Halberstam has written in a new book about the unfocused US foreign policy actions of the past decade, War in a Time of Peace, America was caught napping time and again in the international arena – in Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia and elsewhere. Not coincidentally, this was a period when the television networks in effect got out of serious news in favour of sex and glamour, and newspapers radically cut back their foreign coverage. The traditional mandate of media organisations – to balance "what people want" with "what they need to know", was clearly broken in part because of the growth of conglomerates whose focus was almost exclusively on the bottom line.

No wonder so many people feel underinformed. As Ms Bottaro said: "Americans tend to think that television is where they are going to learn everything. Often, all they get is a watered-down version, if that."

The networks have shown some signs of humility and an acknowledgement that they will have to do better in future, though with only modest results so far. Pam and her husband, meanwhile, intend to make their home-education sessions a regular event.