Now that all those ‘famous quotes of 2007’ are coming out, people are replaying the answer of Caitlin Upton, a contestant for Miss Teen USA from South Carolina to a question during her pageant. The exchange went like this:
Question: Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can’t locate the United States on a world map. Why do you think this is?
Miss Teen South Carolina: “I personally believe the U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some, uh…people out there in our nation don’t have maps, and, uh, I believe that our education like such as South Africa and, uh, the Iraq everywhere like, such as and…I believe that they should, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., err, uh, should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future for our…
Although the answer was painful to watch just because Ms. Upton was so obviously stricken at that moment with stage fright, I actually think her answer had some merit.
First of all, I liked her diction, “U.S. Americans.” After all, everyone in North and South America could legitimately be called an “American”. That we in the United States have appropriated this descriptor for ourselves is quite unfair to Canadians, Mexicans and Argentineans, e.g.
Second, her answer about why one fifth of Americans cannot find the U.S.A. on a map is almost certainly quite correct. It is because they don’t have maps in their homes and have not been taught to read them. The bottom fifth of Americans in income goes to under-funded schools, and many of them are functionally illiterate. The rich in the US do not bear their fair share of education costs, because the main unit for school taxation is the local district. Since poor people can’t afford to live in wealthy suburbs, and congregate together in poor districts, their schools are starved of money.
Third, although she did not state it very eloquently, she was correct to point out that Americans do not only need to find the United States on the map. They need to know where South Africa and Iraq are, as well. In fact, that she chose those two is interesting. One, South Africa, is an example of fairly successful movement from an authoritarian state dominated by one ethnicity to a multicultural form of democracy. The other, Iraq, is also making a transition from authoritarianism and domination by a single ethnicity (the Sunni Arabs of Saddam Hussein), but its passage to multiculturalism and parliamentary rule has been violent and turbulent. The difference is South Africa’s attention to national reconciliation and also that South Africa’s movement was indigenous rather than imposed from the outside.
She is correct that the U.S. Americans should help Iraqis, especially with regard to education. The U.S. Americans have helped create 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, whose children are not getting educated and cannot find things on the map.
So I find the underlying emphases in her answer to be very admirable and progressive in their implications.
Some of the response to her answer surely derives from simple bigotry. She is a southerner, a blonde, and a beauty queen. But a southern accent is not, as most northerners mistakenly believe, a sign of ignorance. Hair color, like skin color, indicates nothing about a person except that their ancestors lived 13,000 years in a place with a particular rate of ultraviolet exposure. And, good-looking people suffer a lot from spite in US society, which shows emotional lack of maturity on the part of those of us less fortunate in the symmetry department.
Ms. Upton’s appearance on NBC’s Today Show (below) reveals a bright and articulate person. Ms. Upton is interested in graphic design and a career in media, and I am sure she will have the last laugh on the assemblage of clueless losers who have been making fun of her, who lack her accomplishments and decency. And, I hope that all U.S. Americans take to heart her values, and find ways to help improve education in this country about international affairs, and ways to help ensure that a whole generation of Iraqis displaced by our war does not grow up illiterate.