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North Korea, Sony, and Ignorance

Given that the vast majority of Americans cannot identify North Korea on a map, or the name of its leader, the very idea that a major film studio would sanction the production of a movie whose plot is based on the assassination of Kim Jong-un is just plain silly. It also raises serious questions, such as why the average American is so ill informed about the rest of the world, what that says about American society, and the implications of a dumbed down population for policy makers in Washington.

The high degree of comfort the average American must have with their willful ignorance is of course a big part of the problem, but so is nationalism and political apathy. I have heard many Americans say they have no reason to travel outside the U.S. to learn about the rest of the world because all they need or want is in the U.S. Waving the flag has come to be synonymous with being ignorant about the rest of the world, which makes no sense at all given what America is and the role it plays throughout the world.

Perhaps it also has something to do with political apathy more generally in the U.S. According to the Federal Election Commission, between 1960 and 2008, national voter turnout declined from 63 percent to 57 percent for presidential elections, and from 47 percent to 38 percent for mid-term elections. Fewer eligible voters are taking an interest in the political process in the U.S., which is mystifying given the free flow of information, transparency of the process, and the stakes involved.

Can it therefore be any surprise that the average person has no idea what is happening in the corridors of power in Washington? Perhaps that is what the politicians are banking on.

A 2009 Harris poll showed that only 43% of Americans read a newspaper every day. Of the top eight newspapers by circulation in the U.S., number two is USA Today, number five is the San Jose Mercury News, and numbers seven and eight are the Daily News and New York Post – none being the bastion of intelligence or sophistication. Nielsen Media Research conducted a ranking of the most watched television programs in the United States between January 1964 and February 2010. Six of the top twelve programs were sporting events (five of the six being the super bowl) and the top two were the finale of MASH and an episode of Dallas (in 1983 and 1980, respectively). According to Arbitron, the number one radio show in the country based on number of listeners is America’s Top 40. According to, all of the top 40 highest grossing films in history in the U.S. have been either science fiction or animation (with the exception of Forrest Gump, at number 23). Americans appear to love escapism on the screen, but not via an airplane or ship, which seems odd.

How reasonable is it to assume, then, that a person who doesn’t read a newspaper on a regular basis, doesn’t know the name of the Vice President, and prefers science fiction to non-fiction may be expected to know much or care about the political process in this country or anywhere else? The truth is, the average American likes to be entertained; he/she doesn’t like or want to know much about ‘serious’ things, and knows very little about international affairs. According to WikiAnswers, just 27 percent of Americans possess a passport, and the majority of these people use their passports to travel to just three countries: Canada, Mexico, and the UK. So, not only is the general American public not focused on its own politics, it knows virtually nothing about the world based on personal experience, which is quite convenient for those who craft U.S. foreign policy. A public that doesn’t know the difference between Austria and Australia isn’t very likely to object to dollars spent or actions taken in places they’ve never heard of nor been to.

The politicians who go on the stump proclaiming to speak on behalf of the American people saying “the American people in their great wisdom want…” don’t know what they are talking about, or are deliberately spinning the political process. The truth is, the average American doesn’t have much knowledge or wisdom – particularly about foreign affairs — and simply wants to be left alone and entertained. They appear to be quite content as long as their daily pleasures remain uninterrupted.

Which circles back to the North Korea/Sony issue. It is highly likely that the average American audience would never come close to grasping the larger issues associated with North Korea. They are far more likely to view The Interview as a comedy and fantasy film where North Korea might as well be any country outside the U.S. and Mr. Kim could be any other foreign leader – because, to them, any country outside the U.S. is all the same – not the U.S. If Mr. Kim had thought about it a little more, there would have been no reason to order a cyber-attack. Unlike in North Korea, no one in the U.S. needs to be forbidden from naming their child after him, because very few ‘average Americans’ even know who he is, what he stands for, or where he lives. They certainly don’t care whether he lives or dies.