One of the less than pleasant aspects of Canadian identity is that too many of us like to poke fun at our American cousins and their apparent lack of knowledge regarding foreign affairs and matters of geography.
We tend to look down upon U.S. citizens as an ignorant lot, who would be so much better off if they opened their eyes a bit and took a better look at the world around them.
It was the same story on the editorial pages of Saturday’s Winnipeg Free Press in which Uri Friedman, the associate editor at the journal Foreign Policy, outlined in his column many of the “baffling” misconceptions that Americans have about international affairs.
And, indeed, Friedman listed some stunning examples from recent polls, which he chalked up to either polling psychology, sampling error, self-delusion or pure ignorance.
• About 41 per cent of Americans believe China is the world’s leading economic power, according to a 2012 Pew poll, when in fact it’s still the U.S.
• A whopping 73 per cent of Americans could not identify communism as America’s main concern during the Cold War, according to a Newsweek poll.
• A further 33 per cent of American citizens believed Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll. Friedman said it was worth noting that this number was down from 53 per cent in 2003.
And to add to Friedman’s list of infamous ignorance, a 2006 National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs report found that most young Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 demonstrated a limited understanding of the world beyond their country’s borders. For all the U.S. involvement in the Middle East, 63 per cent were unable to find Iraq on a map of the region. It was just as bad in their own backyard as only half or fewer of the same age group could identify the states of New York or Ohio on a map.
Though a large majority — 92 per cent — knew where Canada was.
As odd and funny as these numbers are, Canadians aren’t as knowledgeable as we might think we are, especially about our own past.
A 2008 Ipsos Reid poll showed that Canadians knew more about the history and politics of the U.S. than they knew of Canada.
In that survey:
• Only 44 per cent of Canadians knew that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects Canadians’ rights and freedoms. Though the younger participants scored better — 50 per cent of young Canadian men and women were more likely than their middle-aged (44 per cent) and older (39 per cent) counterparts to give the right answer.
• About 53 per cent of Canadians knew the first line of Canada’s national anthem, though 61 per cent of us knew the year of Confederation.
• Only 21 per cent of Canadians knew that Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state of Canada, though 75 per cent knew George W. Bush was the head of state of the United States (remember, this was 2008).
• Twenty-three per cent of Canadians knew that William Lyon Mackenzie King was Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, and only 16 per cent knew what decade of the 20th century Canadian women were first given the right to vote in elections. Compare that to a 2001 U.S. survey in which 36 per cent of Americans knew that women were first given the right to vote in elections in the 1920s.
As Remembrance Day is soon upon us, it’s worth noting that a second Ipsos Reid poll in 2008 found Canadians equally as inept with our country’s war history. Only 46 per cent of Canadians knew that Remembrance Day marks the end of the First World War and only 16 per cent could correctly identify the countries Canada fought against in that war.
One in four Canadians — about 26 per cent — didn’t know that Canada, not the United States, had a greater percentage of its population serve in the First World War.
Be wary of tittering at our southern neighbours for their lack of world affairs knowledge. When it comes to Canadian history, our own ignorance is just as appalling.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 23, 2012