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There Is Nothing Unusual About Ignorance

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Reprinted from To The Point Analyses

Gary Johnson
Gary Johnson
(Image by Gage Skidmore)
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Part I -- Gary Johnson's Ignorance
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The vast majority of people "live locally." Wherever they are residing, that is the arena of their life, and it is that environment that they know best. Even up-and-coming American political leaders are subject to this rule. This became embarrassingly obvious when, on 8 September 2016, Gary Johnson made his now famous faux pas.

Gary Johnson, who once was governor of New Mexico and therefore knows a lot about that state and its strengths and weaknesses, appeared on MSNBC's weirdly named, but widely watched, a.m. program "Morning Joe" (the "Joe" referring, I assume, to the local U.S. term for coffee). The principal reason Mr. Johnson was on the show was that he is running for president of the United States on the Libertarian Party ticket. And, of course, the president of the U.S. is the world's most powerful leader and his or her awareness level is expected to reflect that.

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Therefore, those running for president are assumed to know everything about what is going on in the world as well as in their own country. This is of course impossible, though there is always a short list of issues that are center-stage. So, what happens is that leaders have "briefing books" prepared on these priority issues. But again, the priorities are judgment calls and can be different for different leaders. Unfortunately for Johnson, foreign policy issues were low on the priority list for the Libertarians -- who are more or less isolationist.

That is why, when Gary Johnson was asked by another guest on that "Morning Joe" show, what he would do, if he where president, about the crisis in Aleppo, he answered "And what is Aleppo?" It was a real gaffe, and Johnson was almost immediately taken to task by the "pundits" of social media for being a dummy.

One might ask why would anyone expect an ex-governor of New Mexico to know anything about a Syrian city mostly wrecked by civil war? Well, again, because he is running for president. And Aleppo should, many assume, be on his short list. Be that as it may, it was not on Johnson's, whose ideological outlook puts Syria in someone else's local venue. His is New Mexico and maybe, eventually, the rest of the U.S.

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Part II -- The Power of the Briefing Book

Do you think that this unusual? Unfortunately it is not. What is unusual is that Johnson got caught in his ignorance. Fear of just such exposure is one of the reasons leaders now give so few press conferences. Yet history has also shown us that recent presidents have been unafraid to make foreign policy decisions which impact millions, often fatally. As we will see, these decisions almost always reflect their own conditioned ignorance but are made in a way that allows them to be obscured and rationalized after the fact. It just so happens that such decisions helped lead to the Syrian civil war and the destruction of Aleppo.

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Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign
Policy Inc.: Privatizing America's National Interest
; America's
Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli
Statehood
; and Islamic Fundamentalism. His academic work is focused on the history of American foreign relations with the Middle East. He also teaches courses in the history of science and modern European intellectual history.

His blog To The Point Analyses now has its own Facebook page. Along with the analyses, the Facebook page will also have reviews, pictures, and other analogous material.

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