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The Aleppo moment: Sanctioned ignorance in the US

What the US lacks and desperately needs is not a political but a moral education for its corrupt and dangerous leaders.

by Hamid Dabashi

Recently the former New Mexico governor and Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson has found himself in some quite embarrassing situations.  

"What is Aleppo?" he wondered when asked on a television interview to share his thoughts on the dire circumstances in Syria. The interviewer was incredulous. But that was indeed the answer. He had no clue "what" - let alone "where" - Aleppo was or is. 

The embarrassment was repeated again a few days later when Johnson was asked to name his favourite foreign leader and he was unable to name a single head of state.

"Go ahead, you gotta do this," the interviewer insisted. "Anywhere. Any continent. Canada, Mexico, Europe, over there, Asia, South America, Africa. Name a foreign leader that you respect."

Johnson could not.

"I guess I'm having an Aleppo moment," he finally confessed.

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The New York Times, the tall bastion of normative neoliberalism in the US, gleefully reports such embarrassing incidents, obviously hoping they will help the rush of people to vote for its favourite corporate icon Hillary Clinton. 

Such ignorance and illiteracy is not limited to those aspiring to the highest political office of this land.

"We know that at least 30 million American adults cannot read," said The New York Times in a recent op-ed.

"But the current presidential election may yet prove that an even bigger part of the citizenry is politically illiterate - and functional. Which is to say, they will vote despite being unable to accept basic facts needed to process this American life."

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The moral of such stories is that Hillary Clinton's rivals and those who might opt to vote for them are ignorant people. 

What do you know? 

These criticisms might indeed be true and put to good liberal use. But suppose everyone from Gary Johnson to Donald Trump and his supporters are all dumb and illiterate - then what?

The astonishing ignorance of this clumsy and dysfunctional empire is far more calamitous than an off-Broadway candidate not knowing where Aleppo is or cannot name any head of state.

The key question is not what they do not know. Far more critical is what those of whom The New York Times and the rest of the neoliberal literate establishment approve do know, and how do they know what they know, and to what use do they put what they know. 

No doubt Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton can identify scores of world leaders and know perfectly well where Aleppo is. But has the world at large or Syria in particular benefited from that knowledge? 

We can be fairly sure Obama's drones dropping bombs on people anywhere in the world are equipped with state-of-the-art GPS to the smallest villages in Pakistan to Syria to Libya so they can target them well. But he still manages to kill more innocent people than he does "terrorists".

So what good does his GPS-equipped knowledge of geography do for the people at the receiving end of his drones? 

The astonishing ignorance of this clumsy and dysfunctional empire is far more calamitous than an off-Broadway candidate not knowing where Aleppo is or cannot name any head of state.

The problem is with what their smart and knowledgeable leaders actually do know, how they know it, the whole regime of knowledge they have learned and internalised through their wicked think-tanks and native informers who keep feeding them rubbish and telling them what they want to hear and not what they need to know.

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson [Reuters]

By scandalising someone like Gary Johnson for not knowing what he ought to know, The New York Times & Co are celebrating those who do know, meaning people such as Obama and Clinton, and with that celebration is the tacit endorsement, approval, and authentifying of the kind of knowledge they flaunt.    

Not political but moral education

Far more dangerous than ignorance is when you take, camouflage, and sell your moral obliviousness as political knowledge. What difference does it make if you don't know where or what Aleppo is compared with where and what Jerusalem is?

Barack Obama gives a speech praising his "friend Shimon Peres" in Jerusalem and he thinks he is in Israel, before he goes back to Washington and has to cross the word "Israel" from the top of his White House stationery where he had made this ignorant blunder.

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On the very same land where Obama stood and staged his eulogy for his "friend Shimon Peres", human suffering soars from Gaza to Palestinian refugee camps. To this he has been completely blind, deaf, and indifferent. What nauseating "knowledge" of geography and "world leaders" is that?

Just within earshot of his waxing eloquence about a war criminal, Zionist settlements are mushrooming with his full knowledge and financial support.

The man he knew well and could name as his most favourite foreign leader was chiefly and singularly responsible for vastly expanding those ugly and vulgar settlements.

The man instrumental in transforming the Zionist wet dream into a racist apartheid garrison state he compares to Nelson Mandela. 

I'll take Gary Johnson's ignorance of foreign leaders and distant cities over that kind of familiarity and knowledge any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

Obama's moral ignorance is far worse than Johnson's political ignorance.

What the US lacks and desperately needs is not a political but a moral education for its corrupt and dangerous leaders. You will not see a sleeker operator and more refined "Chicago politician" than Barack Obama for quite some time, yet he stood there for more than 23 minutes and with barefaced vulgarity spoke of a vicious ideology of land theft, ethnic cleansing, and incremental genocide of Palestinians as a beacon of "justice and hope", regurgitating the historic Zionist lie of making "the desert bloom". He ignored which settler colony sits over 200 nuclear bombs, courtesy of his "friend Shimon Peres", and charged his brutalised victims as the "Arab youth [who] are taught to hate Israel from an early age".

What wicked "knowledge" predicated on what depth of moral depravity is that? 

This is no longer just "sanctioned ignorance", as the Indian scholar Gayatri Spivak has correctly called it. This is far worse. This is transvalued ignorance, ignorance celebrated as knowledge, ignorance transformed into false and murderous intelligence, an Orwellian knowledge, successfully elevating a moral destitution into a militant banality.     

Obama's moral ignorance is far worse than Johnson's political ignorance. Obama stages his worldly knowledge and political eloquence with the spilt blood, broken bones, demolished homes, uprooted olive trees, tall and thick apartheid walls, and stolen lands of Palestinians. 

Compared to Obama's vicious knowledge, Johnson's innocent ignorance is positively saintly.  

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policies.



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