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by William H. Benson

March 31, 2011

      I read in Newsweek last week where certain Republicans are now tentatively campaigning in New Hampshire; specifically those 2012 Presidential hopefuls, such as Tim Pawlenty, and Minnesota’s Representative, Michele Bachmann. It was reported that on March 12 Michele Bachmann stood before the voters of the Granite State, held up a tea bag, and said:

     “You’re the state where the ‘shot was heard round the world’ at Lexington and Concord, and you put a marker in the ground and paid with the blood of your ancestors.”

     Her listeners were astonished at her verbal blunder until someone privately explained to her the difference between the Concord that is in New Hampshire and the one that is in Massachusetts, where the American Revolution began. Yes her geography was off by seventy-plus miles, and I also seriously doubt that she would know that it was Ralph Waldo Emerson, of Concord, Massachusetts, who wrote the poem Concord Hymn, from which she was quoting:

     “By the rude bridge that arched the flood, Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled. Here once the embattled farmers stood, And fired the shot heard round the world.”

     Yes, it is true: in the race of the academic disciplines, geography comes in dead last, in a tie with grammar, and perhaps just behind history and literature. Math, the sciences, and business win the race of respectability every time.

     In order to rectify the appalling lack of geographical knowledge among students of the world, a private organization, the National Geographic Society, came up with the Geographic Bee, an annual competition for third through eighth graders. Each state and territory then holds their own competition in late March or early April, this time of the year, and the 54 winners then compete in late May at the national level, when Alex Trebek of Jeopardy! asks the questions. Then, there is the world championship in the summer, when teams from different countries compete. Canada won in 2009.

     I applaud National Geographic Society’s efforts, for I contend that, without a working knowledge of geography, it would be difficult to read a news magazine or a newspaper, and impossible to govern.

     Last week in Newsweek, there were articles on the 8.9 earthquake off the coast of Japan, the resulting tsunami, the genuine fear of a catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the possibility of another earthquake imminent in California, the financial crisis in the countries of Europe, and Gaddafi’s superior armed forces strafing the ill-equipped rebels in Libya.

     Then, in last Sunday’s New York Times there was an in-depth article on the former nuclear power plant in Chernobyl in the Ukraine that ceased functioning on April 26, 1986 due to an explosion and a meltdown that spewed enormous amounts of radiation upward and outward that with the help of winds stretched across much of Europe.

     These few examples of the news tells us, the readers, at least one very important fact: the world is a very dangerous place. Tectonic plates about the Pacific constantly shift. The water normally contained within the ocean basins can and on occasion will rise and flood the shoreline. Crazed dictators, so anxious to retain their power and privileged lives, will murder those who dare to defy them, and the inventions of men, no matter the multiple levels of safety precautions, are still subject to accident.

     Like government, geography is about knowing where we are going, where we are now, and how can we best get there. It begins with reading a map, formulating a plan, determining goals. I say pitch aside the GPS for at least a moment, read the road signs, unfold that map in the glove compartment, acquaint yourself with your surroundings, and maybe stop and ask for help.

     What is so unique about a tea bag? How can it help lead Americans toward our destination of a better future for our children? Are officials expected to read tea leaves instead of a map? The Boston tea party was only one event of several leading up to the American Revolution.

     What about the Boston Massacre? That involved colonial Englishmen throwing snowballs at the dreaded Redcoats. How about a party that carries around snowballs? In 1776 Benjamin Franklin said, “If we don’t hang together, we shall surely hang separately.” How about a party of nooses? The battles at Lexington and Concord, both in Massachusetts, were fought with guns and bullets and sabers on the field, and off the field they were fought with ideas of freedom and liberty and equitable treatment, all written down. How about a party of bullets or perhaps of quill pens?

     Geography, history, literature: a number of moving pieces that do not fit together easily and build a  recognizable pattern, let alone a picture. To do so requires effort, work, thoughtfulness, intelligence, outside counsel from professionals, extensive reading, and the steady acquisition of knowledge.

     The Tea Party of today reminds me of the Know-Nothing Party of the nineteenth century. When its members were asked what they stood for, they responded, “I know nothing!” The party ceased to exist after only a few years, for its members knew nothing, stood for nothing, and achieved nothing.


     My advice for Michele Bachmann and all other Republicans wishing to run for President: lay aside the tea bag, unfold a map, plan your route, verify your statements, and claim you know certain things.