Geography

One of things for which Bush was derided was his inability to identify places on a world map, and a common slur against Americans is that they don’t know where anywhere in Britain is. And I expect it’s true that there are still US tourists who arrive in Oxford and assume it is bolted to Cambridge. But the truth is, looking at the map of the US election results, I don’t think the British would score very highly in a geography test. I am reasonably good on the Far East (it comes from an obsession with Cambodian history), but ask me to pin the tail on an American state, and I am usually a few thousand miles wide of the mark. I confuse Ohio and Oregon, and I suspect much of my idea of American geography is taken from popular songs and films (‘Deep In The Heart of Texas’/ ‘The Alamo’ sees me straight on Bush’s home state, for instance). I caught myself, however, looking for South Dakota in the South (a mix-up with the Carolinas), so my imagination has obviously been deluded when singing along with Doris Day (I am a big fan) about being taken back to the Black Hills.

It wasn’t always like this. It’s one of those things (I am not especially complaining) about education, that it has to give more importance to some things than others, and priorities change. My nephew (10), who rings me up to ask for help with homework, doesn’t actually need any help, and has more scientific knowledge in his toenail than I have anywhere in my brain. One thing we used to have to do was to learn the flags and capital cities of every country in the world. By rote. All very well, but a good 50% of the countries and their flags have changed since I was obliged to learn this, so a fat lot of good it did me. If you asked me to say where Tuvalu is, I couldn’t tell you for certain.

Knowledge of facts has become a function of entertainment – you can sit and answer ‘trivia’ questions all day by watching TV, and have been able to do so for 25 years. In fact we are filled with random information. Take a look back at the equivalent of trivia quizzes in the 1950s, and you find a much more focused view of fact, as an example of which I will once again cite the first edition of ‘Double Your Money’ (1955). Its very first contestant, who worked in some clerical capacity for Arsenal football club, opted for Geography as his special subject, and for £32, i.e. the sixth question, he was asked to name the provinces of Canada, from east to west, in order. I used to enjoy showing this clip in the late 1990s when teaching General Studies to teenagers, who were used to ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’, then at its height, and used to thousands of pounds being won (or banked by refusing to answer) on questions for which you were given four options. On ‘Double Your Money’, you lost the lot if you attempted a question and failed. But the point of the story is that the contestant confidently ran through the card of Canadian provinces for his cash.

I started today with the intention of writing about Obama, but I guess every other writer in the world is covering the field. It is certainly a defining moment (and I write, not really very knowledgeably, as someone who would have backed Hillary Clinton). Perhaps nobody could have beaten a Democrat this year, but the thing to celebrate is not the racial aspect, which one hopes has become redundant, but the increase in turn-out amongst younger voters (who voted in droves for Obama). You can still, it ought to be remembered, drive from North to South (I am learning) without ever leaving a Republican state. But Obama’s victory was necessary in a way unlike anything since 1960, and Kennedy. I suspect Obama of being a man of greater principle than Kennedy, too – Kennedy’s victory was symbolic, but his victory was achieved by some very dubious means.

And the really important thing about Obama’s victory is that it will prevent the Supreme Court (composed of presidential nominees) from lurching further and further into illiberalism. The Democrat members of the Supreme Court are in most cases on the verge of ending their careers. McCain would have replaced them with right-wingers.

It will also help, in a crude and yet effective way, with the view taken of the USA by many other countries, in Asia, Africa and South America, especially. What Europe thinks, and it’s time we realised it, doesn’t matter much. One of the most interesting geographical facts about the current political world is that Europe is the same size as the Democratic Republic of Congo. That is the kind of geographical, and geopolitical awareness that Obama is going to need.

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