We have been fighting a war in Iraq for almost 4 years, and I feel almost as ignorant of the region as the day it started. It is mortifying for me to admit this.
I would fail the most basic pop quiz about its players, the players' religious beliefs and political motives, and the region's history and geography. If you showed me a map of Iraq with only its exterior border showing, I couldn't even identify the spot where Baghdad should be.
(I can now, though ? writing that last sentence shamed me into looking up the answer.)
I have been struggling to make sense of this. Clearly, if it were just me, the answer would be obvious: Heath, you're a moron. But whenever I bring up this subject with a friend, they seem to share my feeling of loathsome ignorance.
Scarier yet, the politicians who are leading the nation don't seem to know much more than I do. Jeff Stein is the national security reporter for The Congressional Quarterly; when he interviews politicians, he's started asking them questions such as these: "What's the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?" Or, "What is Hezbollah?"
Here's Maureen Dowd relating an interview (subscriber only) that Stein conducted with Silvestre Reyes, who is the new Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee:
Stein...asked [Reyes] whether Al Qaeda was Sunni or Shiite.
"Predominantly ? probably Shiite," the lawmaker guessed.
As Mr. Stein corrected him in the article: "Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an Al Qaeda clubhouse, they'd slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball."
Mr. Stein followed up with a Hezbollah question: "What are they?" Again, Mr. Reyes was stumped.
"Hezbollah," he stammered. "Uh, Hezbollah. Why do you ask me these questions at 5 o'clock? Can I answer in Spanish?" (O.K. Â¿Que es Hezbollah?)
How can this be? After four years of news and information, all of us should be able to converse intelligently about the religious differences between Shiites and Sunnis. We should know the history of the Kurds. We should be able to name the Prime Minister of Iraq. (Why is it so hard for us to remember even a single Iraqi name? The name "Nouri al-Maliki" might as well be a credit card number, in terms of my ability to hang onto it.)
Think about the kinds of problems you could solve if you took four years of economics. It's insane to think that, after four years of economics, you wouldn't be much clearer than when you started. After four years, you'd have an economics degree! So why is Iraq different than economics? Sure, we're not sitting in a classroom for a few hours every day with Iraq, but we certainly hear about it every day. And the life-and-death stakes of Iraq should make the data more likely to stick, not less.
My North Carolina neighbor MojoMom wrote a wonderful piece on this topic. Let me quote at length from her post:
I think we Americans have finally gotten the idea that it is relevant and necessary to learn the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as we try to understand their factional conflicts. On the Media presented a fairly detailed analysis of this issue, featuring Dr. Vali Nasr, an undisputed expert on the topic, who has briefed President Bush on the religious divide. Unfortunately, two days later, I cannot remember a single word of what he said. I think I don't have enough of a frame of reference to understand the conflict when it is presented abstractly. Yes, I have read that Shiites and Sunnis are different denominations of Islam who disagree about the true inheritors of the Prophet Muhammad's wisdom. But what does that mean in modern terms? (Just read this Wikipedia entry explaining Shia Islam and see if you come away understanding what it says.)
I don't even need this to be translated into American terms, such as "it's like the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism" (which it may or may not be like at all). I do need it explained concretely, with the modern-day implications made clear.
Here's what I think is part of the problem. Knowing that we're ignorant, we naturally turn to experts (like Dr. Vali Nasr) for explanations. But the experts are suffering from the Curse of Knowledge. (The Curse is a theme in our book ? it says that when we know a lot about something, it makes it hard for us to imagine what it's like to lack that knowledge, which in turn makes us poor communicators.)
The experts think they're keeping things simple. They know calculus, but they're making a conscious effort to teach us multiplication, not calculus. Multiplication should be easy, right? But multiplication isn't easy to a 6 year-old. And I think many of us are like 6 year-olds when it comes to the Middle East. We lack the fundamental cognitive framework on which to drape information that comes our way. And there is no part of the media ecosystem whose job it is to teach us these cognitive building blocks ? it would come naturally in a classroom but it is wildly unnatural to the news cycle.
How do we do better? I have only quarter-baked thoughts at this point ? too hazy and scattered to express here. But I am deeply interested in this issue, and I believe it's of critical importance If you have thoughts on the matter, I'd like to hear them. Email me.
As we sign off, we'd like to say a big thanks to Powell's for inviting us to guest-blog this week! It's been an honor for Chip and me to work with an organization like Powell's ? they've done so much over the years for books, and for authors.
We'll continue blogging over at our site, if you're interested.
? Dan Heath