Monday, January 01, 2007

Geographical Ignorance

We Americans are famous around the world for our lack of knowledge of geography. Ask the average American where Uruguay is, and he or she is likely to shrug and admit ignorance. Ask an American about the culture of Indonesia, and again you are likely get a blank look. And, as I discussed in an earlier blog published below, a large number of Americans believe that the French hate them, although when pressed, they admit that they know very little about the French.

Is there anything worse than admitting that you know far too little about the rest of the world? After a visit to Germany, I think there is. Many Germans, especially uneducated young males, are equally as uninformed about geography as young Americans, but they are much less likely to admit their lack of knowledge. They fill knowledge gaps with false stereotypes, and after a time, they convince themselves that those stereotypes are true.

During a recent trip to Germany, I was taken aback by some of the statements I heard not only about the United States but about other countries as well. For example, I got into a discussion with my two roommates in a youth hostel in Frankfurt. Both of them believed that in the USA, everyone carries a gun and has the right to shoot anyone down on the streets if he or she feels that the other person might be a threat. Granted, the USA has a high rate of gun ownership and a higher murder rate than Western European countries, but how can anyone believe that in a modern society people have a legal right to shoot each other down on the street? Sadly, this idiotic opinion seems to be quite widespread in Germany, and when I tried to convince the two young men that they were very mistaken, they came to the conclusion that I did not know my own country.

Another called the United States the most corrupt country on Earth and cited the Florida shenanigans during the Bush-Gore election to “prove” it. Come on! The U.S. has its share of corruption and may not come off well when compared to Switzerland, but is it anywhere near as corrupt as say Italy, not to mention Iraq, Mexico, Brazil, Haiti, and a long list of other countries?

It was not just the USA that came in for criticism. When I mentioned that I was going to France and had a French rail pass, one German told me to avoid the French trains, because they are real boneshakers. In fact, there is little difference between regular French and German trains, and when it comes to high-speed trains, the French TGV beats the German ICE hands down. I won’t get into the stereotypes that so many Germans have regarding Israel; that could be the subject of an entire book.

I don’t wish to make a blanket condemnation of Germans. Obviously the Germans are a varied people with varied opinions about the world. I only wish to say that it seems to me from my observations, that more Germans think in stereotypes than do people of other Western Nations. Why is it that so many Germans are afraid to say “I just don’t know?” I’d be happy to read your comments on the subject if you would enter them below. – J.Q.