Ignorance and the bombing of Agrabah

A fun bit of trivia: I ruled the school geography bee through a chunk of both grammar and middle school, though I certainly never made it to state. I’m not quite sure why I got so into geography and why I got so good at answering questions on the fly, because high pressure situations usually don’t go well for me, but there it is. I even ended up in the paper for my geography skills. I knew the world map pretty well, and I had a vast awareness of geographical trivia to draw upon. That was the result of two factors: Going to decent schools where teachers taught geography, and growing up in a house where that kind of knowledge was valued — so much so that I had access to international travel as a child, and the countries that were abstracts to my competitors were real places to me.

How could you not know where the Parthenon was?

Over the years, my strangely formidable knowledge of the world has faded — maps have changed, but also, I haven’t been able to keep up with acquiring and retaining weird trivia. It’s in there somewhere, but I couldn’t draw out a map of Asia or the Middle East like I used to be able to. Honestly, I’m not sure I could fill in the names of all the states on a map of the US, although I could do it in seconds on a middle school history quiz (sorry, Ms. Otter). I probably have a mediocre understanding of geography, which, honestly, is true of large numbers of people in the US because it’s not a subject that’s really widely covered in school anymore.

In December, Public Policy Polling (which tends to lean left) released an extensive Republican voter poll exploring a number of topics. It contained in particular some disturbing results about attitudes towards Muslims in the US, including support for barring Muslims from the US and shutting down mosques. One question in particular drew a great deal of attention: Would voters support or oppose bombing Agrabah? 13 percent said no, 57 percent were unsure, and 30 percent were in favour. Trump supporters in particular (41 percent) thought it would be an excellent idea. People identifying as conservatives who also placed a high priority on conservative candidates also supported bombing.

One small problem: Outside the Disney universe, Agrabah doesn’t exist. It’s a fictional city in Aladdin.

By contrast, in a different poll, 36 percent of Democratic voters were opposed, 19 percent favoured it, and the rest were uncertain. Much was made of these numbers — so much so that a conservative polling organisation fired back with a poll of its own, asking Democratic voters if they would admit refugees from Agrabah. 44 percent said yes, with 27 percent opposed.

Survey methodology is tricky: There’s no real space here for ‘this is a trick question and this country didn’t exist,’ with both polls leveraging the fact that ‘Agrabah’ sounds vaguely like it could be a real Middle Eastern nation, and preying upon political tensions over Daesh and other Middle Eastern issues. Both sides also crowed their results — PPP was smug about having pulled a fast one with Republicans, and WPA Research smirked over how it tricked Democrats.

The media, of course, had a field day — the news days leading up to Christmas tend to be slow and it was the kind of story that made for comedy gold. Every liberal media organisation took an opportunity to mock conservative voters for not knowing that Agrabah was a fake country, ignoring the fact that survey respondents would have a tough time getting out of the question (how many of those ‘opposes’ or ‘unsures’ were from people who are quite familiar with Aladdin and know full well that Agrabah is not a country?). Setting aside issues with survey methodology and a lack of critical analysis, though, there’s another important thing to delve into here:

The fact that in the United States, liberals like to make fun of ignorance (while conservatives pride themselves on anti-intellectualism). The fact is that undoubtedly some people do think Agrabah is a real place, which is troubling, but that’s not because they’re ignorant buffoons who can’t be trusted to make electoral decisions. It’s because we have a very poor school system that doesn’t provide people with resources to learn about geography. It’s because the US overall is rather isolationist, actively promoting a lack of knowledge about the world. It’s because it’s hard to get global news here, and when it is available, it often requires knowledge of a foreign language — something many Americans don’t have. Gallup estimates that one in four people in the US can hold a conversation in a foreign language — I’m certainly not one of them, to my shame. Holding a conversation is not the same thing as reading media (especially in Arabic, which is a complicated language to learn in the first place, and I know this because I studied it), nor is it the same as understanding complex political issues — I can have a staggered a brief communication with a Spanish-speaking chef at a restaurant, but if you asked me to delve into Mexican politics I’d be lost within seconds, and I certainly couldn’t convey information about allergens.

People in the US can’t name many world leaders and don’t know much about the outside world because the nation holds itself that way. And that’s something to be ashamed of. Mocking people for being ignorant is poor form and serves to further exacerbate political divides, as no one likes to be mocked, but more to the point, it ignores an important conversation we need to have about why people don’t necessarily know that Agrabah isn’t a real place — except in Disney’s racist imagination.

Image: Agrabah market, François Rejeté, Flickr