“No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”
H.L. Mencken said that, a long time ago, and you could say something similar today — maybe substituting the word “knowledge” for “intelligence.” There are studies and surveys about this stuff, of course, but I prefer to rely on the findings of people like Professor Jay Leno, one of whose regular bits when he hosted “The Tonight Show” on NBC involved going out to some public place in the Los Angeles area and asking simple questions — questions almost as obvious as “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb” — of passersby, some of whom identified themselves as college students, or even school teachers.
Here is a sampling, from Mr. Leno and others, in interviews that can easily be found on YouTube:
Question: Against whom did we fight the Revolutionary War? Answers: France, China, Russia. Who elects Congress? The president. How many stars are there on the U.S. flag? 32, 51, 12, 2. Where does Congress meet? In the Pentagon. Who said “Give me liberty or give me death”? Napoleon. What did Ronald Reagan famously say at the Berlin Wall? “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this tree!” What does “D.C.” mean in “Washington, D.C.”? Dominican Republic. Who is Osama bin Laden? The vice president of the United States. What language do they speak in Great Britain? British. Where is the Empire State Building? In Paris. Who killed Abraham Lincoln? Lee Harvey Oswald.
It goes on, and on.
Moving on to more-scientific attempts to assess the wisdom of the American people, a poll last year showed that only 54 percent of Americans know that people born in Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, are U.S. citizens. And among young people 18-29, that figure is even more appalling: only 37 percent know.
But even as U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans don’t get to vote for president, and they have only one — non-voting — representative in Congress. By contrast, Connecticut, with a similar population, has five representatives and two senators, all of whom can vote. And we have to wonder whether the second-class status of Puerto Rico was a major part of the reason that the federal government’s reaction to last fall’s devastating Hurricane Maria was so late, so weak and so widely condemned, with people on the island having to scrape by for months and months without electricity or safe drinking water.
Actually, “commonwealth” is a euphemism. If you ask me, Puerto Rico is an American colony, plain and simple. Jealous of the way the European powers had carved much of Africa, Asia and the Americas into colonies — which in many cases they brutally exploited — we decided we would have our own empire. So, in 1898, we waged a splendid little war with Spain, and that’s how we got to fly our flag over Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam.
In fact, the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization has defined Puerto Rico as a U.S. colony and has called for an expedited path to self-determination. In a 2012 plebiscite, 61 percent of Puerto Rican voters expressed a preference for statehood, but that result has been challenged because more than 480,000 voters left that question blank. Anyway, statehood or no statehood, Puerto Ricans are Americans. Period.
Reach Glenn Richter at email@example.com.