The insular American
NOBEL LAUREATE Wole Soyinka used to ask people not to exaggerate the insularity of Americans by saying things like: ''Can you imagine the Americans? Nobody else plays baseball and yet they call their series the World Series." He used to say, ''C'mon, that's not the issue. That's superficial."
He does not defend us anymore. ''I'm sorry," he says, chuckling. ''I've come around to the conclusion that it's not superficial at all, that it is an index we better be aware of."
Soyinka, who turned 70 last year, is in Cambridge to be honored by Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute. In an interview yesterday, Soyinka, who has braved death many times in his native, turbulent Nigeria, says that for all of our technology, Americans are now among the most insular and least curious people in the world.
He says it remains common for him to hear people wonder whether Africa is still colonized by the British, and conflate world events to where ''they think the Yugoslav war was taking place in Asia against Chinese Communists." He says Americans' lack of curiosity is stunning.
''It doesn't matter whether it's blacks, it doesn't matter the class, it doesn't matter the level of education," Soyinka says. ''Some of the most brilliant of my colleagues in universities here are so insular that it hurts. I find it very difficult.
''The basis of it is a lack of an integrated exposure to other societies. This is one of the most insular societies I've ever encountered anywhere. And I'm not talking just about ghetto kids. Professors . . . parents . . . legislators. It's across the board. That is something you do not find to that extent in the rest of the world."
Soyinka extends that insularity all the way to the White House, describing President Bush as a religious fanatic who has helped Americans become ''slaves of fear" with his rhetoric about weapons of mass destruction. In his current book ''Climate of Fear," Soyinka likens Bush's you're-with-us-or-with-the-terrorists rhetoric to McCarthyism, ''where the mere failure to denounce the communist ideology with satisfactory fervor or to denounce one's colleagues for communist sympathies became an unpatriotic act."
Soyinka yesterday reaffirmed his sentiments about Bush: ''I believe it is impossible for him not to realize by now, even though he may not admit it, that he has committed a very grave blunder. It seems to me just impossible for somebody in that position, with the kinds of pronouncements he's made, not to realize that he's been living in a fool's paradise he has created.
''The world is far more complex for a nation, however strong, however big, to say that he doesn't care what the rest of the world thinks as long as he's doing what God intends. That kind of language, that kind of belief is what makes any leader, any human being dangerous. . . . Many Americans are in a mental bunker. Any information that tries to penetrate that bunker is rejected as enemy intellectual action."
Americans so reject the world, this man of letters says he would not even recommend a book as the first step to critical thinking. ''I would begin by saying geography should become a compulsory subject," he says. ''If geography is not taught in schools, parents should begin to teach it in the home.
''For me, geography is the summit of human existence. It dictates the culture, it contains the history of how human beings actually recreated existence depending on the environment." In the United States, he continued, ''geography is 'What is the capital of California?' and once they say that, they think they know the world.
''The way we were taught geography, it is what made us so confident in the critical assessment of other nations. We know them, I mean, you don't know them all the way, but we know them in a way that is fundamental to the relationship of humanity to the natural environment.
''Once people understand that, you understand why Eskimos live in igloos, and you don't see that as backwards but as an intelligent use of resources. You understand why certain peoples eat horrible looking grubs and you recognize them as superior to hamburgers. Curiosity precedes critical thinking. If you're not curious, you can't think."
Soyinka laughs one more time when he says geography was even more important than history. ''History can always be cooked up, written from the winner's point of view. History is 90 percent fiction. Geography is the material reality from which everything else derives."
Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is email@example.com.