The heartbreak , devastation and confusion around the Boston Marathon bombings, was followed by anger at those responsible for the horrific attacks. Much of that energy was directed into social media outlets where attacks were launched at the ethnic homeland of the two suspects, Chechnya. Some of that anger was flagrantly misdirected at the Czech Republic, as many confused the two areas for one another.
Just how bad was the mix up?
Chechnya is NOT a sovereign nation i.e. a country. It is actually a republic in the southern Caucasus region of Russia and one of 21 republics of Russia that have a degree of autonomy from the central government and that ‘generally’ represent groups different from ethnic Russians (Constitution and Government (The Russian Federation), in Europa World online. London, Routledge. National Geographic Society USA. Retrieved 24 April 2013 from http://www.europaworld.com/entry/ru.is.99).
The Czech Republic IS a sovereign nation with over 10 million people and whose capital city of Prague may be better recognized than the countries name. After the country of Czechoslovakia split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. The country is located in central Europe.
The clamor of this confusion reached a high enough pitch on the internet that the ambassador of the Czech Republic to the United States, Petr Gandalovič, felt compelled to issue a statement asserting that his country is a wholly different entity from Chechnya, said Gandalovič, ” …I am concerned to note in the social media a most unfortunate misunderstanding in this respect. The Czech Republic and Chechnya are two very different entities…”
The initial uproar over the confusion has since died down, but the problems that led to the confusion in the first place remain unaddressed. This incident illustrated a painful fact: Americans were required to receive a middle school- level geography lesson from a foreign diplomat. We received this lesson very publicly (check out this article from a Serbian news source). The same social media channels that churned out the misinformation in the first place magnified the degree of our scolding.
It also showed an isolation of Americans from major political and geographic changes elsewhere in the world. For instance, even though Czechoslovakia no longer exists and is now two, distinct countries, it too was called-out in social media as the homeland of the suspects.
Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist, bemoaned American awareness of geography on his Twitter account, others cited it as an example of geo-illiteracy, and others simply as typical of stupid Americans.
This public and embarrassing incident is just one, albeit the most sensational, instance illustrating the woeful awareness of geography in the U.S. We don’t want to be the international loser in geography. We don’t want American students to think this lack of awareness is the norm. This issue needs more attention than a hash tag #Americans&geography #fail.
If students can’t understand the world around them, how can we expect them to actively and positively engage in it?
This issue is a tangible example of the critical role geography awareness plays in today’s world, and how much it impacts how we see the world–and perhaps more importantly how the rest of the world sees us.
Written by Emily Connor, National Geographic Intern