10 April 2014

Militant ignorance about Ukraine

The Washington Post reports an interesting finding from a new survey of American opinion on the Ukraine crisis. While asking respondents whether they believed the U.S. should intervene in Ukraine, pollsters also asked them to locate Ukraine on a map of the world. A whopping 16% of respondents located the country correctly. The pollsters claim that belligerence is linked to ignorance: the less accurately you locate Ukraine, the more you want the U.S. to intervene on its behalf. It seems that even if you're interventionist by inclination, you're more likely to want to intervene in Ukraine if you don't know where it really is. In the pollsters' words:

Even controlling for a series of demographic characteristics and participants’ general foreign policy attitudes, we found that the less accurate our participants were, the more they wanted the U.S. to use force, the greater the threat they saw Russia as posing to U.S. interests, and the more they thought that using force would advance U.S. national security interests; all of these effects are statistically significant at a 95 percent  confidence level.

The survey seems incomplete, however. If the pollsters want to show that interventionist attitudes are exacerbated by geographic ignorance, they should have followed up by showing respondents the correct location of Ukraine and asking again whether they supported intervention. If literal ignorance is a contributing factor to interventionist attitudes, some respondents should have an "oh" moment when shown that Ukraine is next door to Russia, if only for pragmatic reasons.  While geographic ignorance may be consistent intellectually with an interventionist mentality, I doubt whether that ignorance determines that attitude. It seems more likely that interventionists don't care where Ukraine is. For some people, the Ukraine matter is purely a moral issue. On the comment thread, one writer explains that his wife is "well informed" about Ukraine but doesn't really know how to read maps. In response, other writers questioned whether such a person could be "well informed," but geography becomes irrelevant if you see Ukraine exclusively in moralized terms, e.g. Maidan good, Moscow bad. Geography is only a partial remedy to this moralizing tendency, since Russophobes refuse to concede Russia any sphere of influence in former Tsarist or Soviet territory. Moralizing Russophobia or American interventionism may be best challenged morally, by exposing the biases, bigotries and selective standards at their heart. We shouldn't need maps to do that.

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