Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Arctic views

With Russia's sort-of invasion of Ukraine (some say it is definitely an invasion, some say it isn't), pundits on the political right are pointing out how, during the 2012 American presidential campaign, Mitt Romney was mocked by President Obama, John Kerry, and the media for suggesting that Russia was America's number one geopolitical foe. Some have looked further back to the 2008 campaign when Sarah Palin was not taken seriously when she suggested that Obama's stance towards Russia's invasion of Georgia would only encourage Putin to invade Ukraine.

This latter case is bringing up another issue involving Sarah Palin and Russia that I've never understood. During the 2008 campaign, an interviewer asked her for her thoughts on Russia, given its proximity to Alaska, the state Palin was the governor of at the time. She responded that Russia and Alaska are neighbors, and that in fact you can see Russian territory from Alaskan territory, specifically an island in the Bering Strait.

When I first heard this, I nodded my head. I thought it was common knowledge. There are two islands about two and a half miles apart in the Bering Strait: the Little Diomede Island is Alaskan and the Big Diomede island is Russian. The Alaskan island has a town facing the Russian island, and the Russian island has a military base on it. The international date line goes right between the two islands, and the space between them (actually the whole Bering Strait) was known as the Ice Curtain during the Cold War. Monty Python's Michael Palin began one of his travelogues on Little Diomede Island, and tried to finish it there as well, but couldn't quite make it. I remember in the 1980s the comic strip Bloom County had a sequence about how some ignorant hicks heard that the USSR had moved within two and a half miles of American territory and were panicking about it. Lynne Cox, an American swimmer, swam between the two islands to "ease international tensions." Etc. Again, I thought this had permeated American culture and that everyone knew it -- not necessarily the names of the islands (which I didn't know), but just that there was an American island and a Russian island a couple miles apart in the Bering Strait.

In fact, the Diomede Islands aren't the only place that Alaska and Russia are within sight of each other: "To the Russian mainland from St. Lawrence Island, a bleak ice-bound expanse the size of Long Island out in the middle of the Bering Sea, the distance is 37 miles. From high ground there or from the Air Force facility at Tin City atop Cape Prince of Wales, the westernmost edge of mainland North America, on a clear day you can see Siberia with the naked eye." St. Lawrence Island has two towns on it. And Tin City, as noted above,  is part of the North American continent, not an island. It is the mainland, and you can see Siberia from it: "The station chief at Tin City confirms that, for roughly half the year, you can see Siberian mountain ranges from the highest part of the facility."

Yet when Palin said you can see Russian territory from an Alaskan island, everyone went crazy about how stupid she was. On Saturday Night Live, Tina Fey, portraying Palin, said "I can see Russia from my house," which, incredibly, has entered the public consciousness as something Palin supposedly said. I guess if people were ignorant of the Diomede Islands -- and if they didn't realize that the proximity of mainland Russia to St. Lawrence Island and the westernmost part of the North American continent allowed an observer to see one from the other (which I was ignorant of and surprised by) -- I could understand them being skeptical of Palin's actual statement. But even if you think she's unintelligent and says foolish things in general, once you found out about these islands, why in the world wouldn't you respond by saying, "Oops, my bad, Palin was right." I mean, it's no big deal. You didn't know about a couple of islands in the Bering Sea. It's not a personality flaw. Yet Palin's statement is still held up as an example of stupidity on her part. I don't get it. Maybe it's because she supposedly used this to tout her international cred. But, again, she was asked about Russia's proximity to Alaska, and she merely confirmed it by accurately stating you could see Russian territory from Alaskan territory.

I'm not defending Palin's politics at all here. My confusion about this has nothing to do with her politics or her overall intelligence or how well-informed she is. I just don't understand why an innocuous and correct statement she made in response to an interviewer specifically asking her about this subject would cause so many people to have such a strong reaction that she must be wrong. If you think she's unintelligent, fine. If you think she's wrong about politics, great. This isn't politics, it's geography. What's the source of this reaction? It's this absurd polarization, this staking out of claims, this willful blindness that makes me avoid politics as much as possible.

Update: Here's some pictures that I obviously cannot vouch for. First, to show their proximity, are some pictures of the Diomede Islands:




Second, a picture of the Russian mainland from St. Lawrence Island, with the Alaskan town of Gambell in the foreground:


Third, a picture taken from Tin City (presumably at the part that's over 2000 feet above sea level), which, to reiterate, is the westernmost point of the North American continent. The Diomede Islands are about three-fourths up from the bottom of the picture -- Little Diomede is right in front of Big Diomede, so it's hard to distinguish them. On the upper right part of the picture is Cape Dezhnev, the easternmost point of the Asian continent, and on the upper left part of the picture is more Russia.


Another update: Here's the beginning of Michael Palin's travelogue Full Circle, which begins on Little Diomede Island with Big Diomede in the background:



Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

18 comments:

gwern said...

I'm afraid your contrarianism has led you astray here: just because people quote the Tina Fey version and think it was the original, does not mean the original was not as inane as commonly thought.

Palin was not asked 'is Russia near Alaska?', which a map would confirm. She was asked, to quote a transcript:

> Charlie Gibson: "What insight into Russian actions, particularly in the last couple of weeks, does the proximity of the state give you?"

'Insight into Russian actions'. One might expect something related to Russian culture, or perhaps negotiating clashes with Russian fishers, or perhaps related to energy policy and Russian oil (Alaskan governor, after all). Instead, this is her reply:

> Sarah Palin: "They're our next door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska."

This is the specific question-answer clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXL86v8NoGk This is the aired interview, so you can verify her answer is not being cut off: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ALsjhDDdaA While I'm at it, since people are well-aware that these sorts of interviews are edited down from much longer ones, here is the full ABC transcript, which gives one context (if any): http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/Vote2008/full-transcript-gibson-interviews-sarah-palin/story?id=9159105&singlePage=true

> PALIN: I do believe unprovoked and we have got to keep our eyes on Russia, under the leadership there. I think it was unfortunate. That manifestation that we saw with that invasion of Georgia shows us some steps backwards that Russia has recently taken away from the race toward a more democratic nation with democratic ideals.
>
> That's why we have to keep an eye on Russia. And, Charlie, you're in Alaska. We have that very narrow maritime border between the United States, and the 49th state, Alaska, and Russia. They are our next door neighbors.We need to have a good relationship with them. They're very, very important to us and they are our next door neighbor.
>
> GIBSON: What insight into Russian actions, particularly in the last couple of weeks, does the proximity of the state give you?
>
> PALIN: They're our next door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.
>
> GIBSON: What insight does that give you into what they're doing in Georgia?
>
> PALIN: Well, I'm giving you that perspective of how small our world is and how important it is that we work with our allies to keep good relation with all of these countries, especially Russia.
>
> We cannot repeat the Cold War. We are thankful that, under Reagan, we won the Cold War, without a shot fired, also. We've learned lessons from that in our relationship with Russia, previously the Soviet Union. We will not repeat a Cold War. We must have good relationship with our allies, pressuring, also, helping us to remind Russia that it's in their benefit, also, a mutually beneficial relationship for us all to be getting along.

No matter how you slice, it's an absurd non-sequitur answer. Fey's version is not that inaccurate...

Recovering Lutheran said...

...just because people quote the Tina Fey version and think it was the original, does not mean the original was not as inane as commonly thought.

I have read the transcript, and I'm afraid nothing in it backs up your claim that Palin's comments were "inane". On the contrary: her comments were both intelligent and remarkably prescient, which seem to be causing cause you some difficulty.

But what is disturbing about your post is that you seem to think Tina Fey's wildly inaccurate portrayal is somehow ... accurate. Since when did a character on Saturday Night Live become more real than reality itself?

gwern said...

> I have read the transcript, and I'm afraid nothing in it backs up your claim that Palin's comments were "inane".

I appreciate your assertion in making your views clear, but it would be nice if you would do me the courtesy of explaining how 'you can actually see Russian from land here' is in any way a 'intelligent and remarkably prescient' response to the question Gibson asked her.

> But what is disturbing about your post is that you seem to think Tina Fey's wildly inaccurate portrayal is somehow ... accurate.

The point I was trying to make was that Fey's caricature aptly captured the inanity and non sequiturness of Palin's actual reply. I thought I was clear, but guess not.

Jim S. said...

I'm afraid I have to agree with Recovering Lutheran. Gibson specifically asked her about Alaska's proximity to Russia as a lead-in to her thoughts about Russia's actions in Georgia. She responded by pointing out that Alaska is even closer to Russia than most people think, and that this shows how important it is that the United States deal wisely with Russia. I think the worst you could say about this response is that it was a bit platudinous -- of course we should deal wisely with Russia. But a) she's a politician so of course she's going to deal in platitudes; and b) by emphasizing the geographical proximity of eastern Russia to Alaska, she's making the point more emphatic and less platudinous. We shouldn't just deal wisely with them, we should put them near the top of our list of international concerns. Where's the non sequitur? Why is that not relevant? How does that not answer his question? Maybe she's wrong about that political judgment, but I don't see how it's inane in the slightest.

I should point out that I'm not a fan of Palin at all. I'm not a fan of politics in general. I just don't see any problem with what she said about being able to see Russian territory from Alaskan territory. You can.

Jim S. said...

BTW, here's a picture allegedly taken from Tin City, Alaska, with the Diomede Islands in the middle of the photo, and Siberia in the distance. Obviously I can't vouch for its authenticity.

http://deutsch.wunderground.com/wximage/polarbear12/1?gallery=

gwern said...

> Gibson specifically asked her about Alaska's proximity to Russia as a lead-in to her thoughts about Russia's actions in Georgia. She responded by pointing out that Alaska is even closer to Russia than most people think, and that this shows how important it is that the United States deal wisely with Russia.

Where does she say anything about that when she replies "They're our next door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska."?

Gibson did not ask whether it was important to deal with Russia. He asked what insight proximity gave her. She restated a premise of the question as her answer!

Jim S. said...

Dude, you quoted her in your first comment. You know how her comments relate to the question she was asked. She was arguing against isolationism. Some people may say that Russia's invasion of Georgia was on the other side of the world, and doesn't affect us. Palin argued to the contrary that Russia actually extends all the way over to her neck of the woods, so much so that you can actually see Russian territory from Alaskan territory. That shows that we can't be isolationists and think that events on the other side of the world have no impact on us. Her comment expressed her anti-isolationist position.

Now apparently you disagree and think we should be isolationist. That's fine, I'm not addressing the political issue here. But pointing out how close Russia is to Alaska is directly relevant to the question she was asked and the point she was making in response. Again: she was asked how Alaska's proximity to Russia influenced her take on Russia's invasion of Georgia on the other side of the world. She responded that Russia and Alaska are neighbors, that you can actually see Russian territory from Alaskan territory, and that this shows that we shouldn't think it has nothing to do with us.

I simply don't believe you don't see this.

Jim S. said...

Palin's words from your first comment:

"That manifestation that we saw with that invasion of Georgia shows us some steps backwards that Russia has recently taken away from the race toward a more democratic nation with democratic ideals. That's why we have to keep an eye on Russia. And, Charlie, you're in Alaska. We have that very narrow maritime border between the United States, and the 49th state, Alaska, and Russia. They are our next door neighbors.We need to have a good relationship with them. They're very, very important to us and they are our next door neighbor. ... They're our next door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska. ... I'm giving you that perspective of how small our world is and how important it is that we work with our allies to keep good relation with all of these countries, especially Russia."

You quoted this and then pretended that her answer was an "absurd non sequitur" and inane when you knew it wasn't. That, right there, is why I hate politics.

gwern said...

> Dude, you quoted her in your first comment. You know how her comments relate to the question she was asked. She was arguing against isolationism.

Wow. I already pointed out that the physical proximity was the very premise of the exact question in question, and that her reply restating the premise was a non-reply.

And after pointing this out, in as explicit and clear terms as possible, having provided video and transcript, and repeatedly pointing out Palin's repetition, your reaction is to try to discuss *anything but her reply*, to try to misdirect to the rest of the interview, and incidentally start talking about how I'm an isolationist and whatnot.

You're right that this shows how motivated cognition can be, but I disagree this is showing any issue on my side.

After all, who's the person who wrote a huge blog post pounding on a geographic point no one actually disputed while oddly ignoring what was being mocked and failing to provide things like transcripts? Not me. Me thinks the commenter doth protest too much.

Jim S. said...

I think we're talking past each other. Here's a summary of the relevant portion of the interview:

P: "X and Y are next-door neighbors."

G: "Yes, X is near Y, so what?"

P: "No, X and Y aren't just 'near' each other, they're next-door neighbors. You can even see Y from X."

G: "OK, but so what?"

P: "Well, that demonstrates Z."

I have been emphasizing that her claim about X and Y was directly relevant to her point Z, which was the answer to the question he asked. The reason I was emphasizing this is because in your first comment, you made a point about looking at what she said in context, and provided the larger context.

Your point, however, is that her second statement does not answer his "so what?" question, and provides nothing over and above what he provided in his question. You're isolating that statement from its larger context. Now I've tried to exaggerate what I take Palin to be saying in the little dialogue above, and I think that answers your objection. First, he didn't bring up Alaska's proximity to Russia, she did. Second, his acknowledgment did not make that point strongly enough, so she clarified it and made it stronger. It wasn't just a repetition of what he asked, it was a mild correction. Third, she explained precisely how that leads her to Z (i.e. that the world is a lot smaller than we think, and so we can't be isolationists), which is the answer he was looking for.

Now the vast majority of people I've interacted with about this were skeptical about the claim that you could see Russian territory from Alaskan territory. When I've told them about the Diomede Islands, they've often refused to believe me. So despite your claim that "no one actually dispute[s]" that, my experience is that many people do. That is why this post is focusing on that point, not Palin's geopolitical views. (Well, that and the fact that I hate politics.)

gwern said...

If you want to rephrase, let's look at the original questions, shall we?

> GIBSON: Let me ask you about some specific national security situations.

Sure.

> GIBSON: Let's start, because we are near Russia, let's start with Russia and Georgia. The administration has said we've got to maintain the territorial integrity of Georgia. Do you believe the United States should try to restore Georgian sovereignty over South Ossetia and Abkhazia?

A little more complex but still clear. We're talking about the specific national security situation where Georgia conquered a disputed region and reaped the rewards.

> GIBSON: You believe unprovoked.

A problem because

> That manifestation that we saw with that invasion of Georgia shows us some steps backwards that Russia has recently taken away from the race toward a more democratic nation with democratic ideals.

which undemocratic and warlike concern is an issue because

> They are our next door neighbors.We need to have a good relationship with them. They're very, very important to us and they are our next door neighbor.

That really make a whole lot of sense? Russia going to conquer Alaska? Well, one could debate how likely Spetzsnaz in Anchorage is compared to, say, ICBMs across the pole, but hold on, Charlie is still asking about the 'specific national security situation':

> GIBSON: What insight into Russian actions, particularly in the last couple of weeks, does the proximity of the state give you?

Yes, what insight into the Georgia situation *does* being 'our next door neighbors' offer you?

> PALIN: They're our next door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.

Uh, yes, you already said that, it's restated by Gibson just in case we forgot over the past few seconds, and still no insight.

> GIBSON: What insight does that give you into what they're doing in Georgia?

Gibson has clearly realized by this point that he's going to have to guide Palin to a reasonable response. Otherwise it's a bit insulting to re-ask a question...

gwern said...

> PALIN: Well, I'm giving you that perspective of how small our world is and how important it is that we work with our allies to keep good relation with all of these countries, especially Russia.

A need and some truisms ('it's a small world after all'), but still no insight. She's not answering the question.

> We cannot repeat the Cold War. We are thankful that, under Reagan, we won the Cold War, without a shot fired, also. We've learned lessons from that in our relationship with Russia, previously the Soviet Union. We will not repeat a Cold War. We must have good relationship with our allies, pressuring, also, helping us to remind Russia that it's in their benefit, also, a mutually beneficial relationship for us all to be getting along.

More needs, but still no insight. It's fine to talk about how thankful we are, but she's not answering the question.

> GIBSON: Would you favor putting Georgia and Ukraine in NATO?

Gibson realizes that you can't squeeze blood out of a stone, and moves on to another aspect of the specific national security situation.

> Now the vast majority of people I've interacted with about this were skeptical about the claim that you could see Russian territory from Alaskan territory. When I've told them about the Diomede Islands, they've often refused to believe me.

My own experience has been the opposite. Goes to show how people can find anything in personal anecdotes, eh? Apparently the people I interact with have actually looked at a map of the globe and noticed how narrow the Bering Strait is. In any case, what supporters may say is not particularly important - no doubt there are many Republicans who still think Obama is Muslim, but I care more about whether the actual politicians buy into it.

Jim S. said...

Sorry dude. Her responses seem perfectly reasonable to me, and you're not making the case that they are somehow "absurd", "inane", or a non sequitur. I keep reading through the actual interview, thinking I must be missing something that makes your point. It's not there. She made a perfectly reasonable and correct point that illustrates her position in response to a question about it. Everyone reading these comments can see that for themselves. You can pretend otherwise, but spare me any sense of obligation to continue listening to your bloviation.

Once again, this has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of Palin's politics. She might be wrong about her anti-isolationism. You keep implying that I'm somehow biased in her favor. I'm not. I don't have a dog in this fight. My interest is in how irrational people get when it comes to politics. People are so determined to believe the worst about politicians they disagree with that they look for any reason to hate them, any way to justify their contempt for them, even in trivial matters. You've demonstrated that in your comments. Palin just has to be stupid, facts be damned.

gwern said...

> Her responses seem perfectly reasonable to me, and you're not making the case that they are somehow "absurd", "inane", or a non sequitur. I keep reading through the actual interview, thinking I must be missing something that makes your point. It's not there. She made a perfectly reasonable and correct point that illustrates her position in response to a question about it.

Completely ignoring everything I just wrote, I see.

> Once again, this has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of Palin's politics. She might be wrong about her anti-isolationism. You keep implying that I'm somehow biased in her favor.

If you are so unbiased, why did you spend an entire blog post defending the minutiae of geographic visibility, *when that was not what people were criticizing*? Why were you attacking a strawman?

> My interest is in how irrational people get when it comes to politics.

I agree that this is a great example.

> You've demonstrated that in your comments. Palin just has to be stupid, facts be damned.

"Palin just has to be talking about something sensible, the transcript be damned."

Can I look forward to a future blog post where you explain how Palin actually said something really dumb even though everyone thinks it was really smart? I suspect not.

Brent said...

gwern, you certainly are coming across as a rabid dog.

There is a line from Zoolander, "I feel like I'm taking crazy pills?" that sums up the conversation. I have to agree with Jim, this also, is why I hate politics.

Anonymous said...

Now with pifostio referendum of Crimea ( Tauride for mythographers ) would be a good time to bring in NATO that of: "Yeah you want my support , you talk about the Rock " No doubt that Margallo doing very bundled ' solving ' the crisis . Ukraine, but is that Gibraltar is up to the hump. Picardo to ' Committee cronies of Gibraltar in Parliament ' : " ... the UK has not done enough to deter Spain ... must distance himself from the comments made by Spanish politicians saying the Anglo- Spanish relations are excellent ... it's time British Diplomacy to sayenough! ... Gibraltar would welcome a greater presence of the Royal Navy in the waters ... the Queen would receive a huge welcome if he came to visit the Rock ... "
Indeed , Hague is at least as that Margallo bundled with Ukraine , but still attentive to Gibraltar: " William Hague met with the Spanish Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs , Gonzalo de Benito ... and raised the issue of 'raid ' [ sic ] of the ships of the Spanish Armada [ in Spanish waters around Gibraltar ] and added that the UK will use all necessary measures to defend its sovereignty over the waters of Gibraltar. "

Anonymous said...

The trio of Downing Street in Crimea demanding respect for international law denying in Gibraltar. Soon we will hear next to Spain to reject the self-determination referendum in Crimea, clearly illegal according to the principles of territorial integrity of the United Nations Charter. What a coincidence. Just as Spain defends United Nations and Gibraltar and UK, making the same newsprint Russia in Crimea, refuses to recognize in the case of Gibraltar, Spanish territory seized by military force.
Cameron dixit: "The sovereignty and territorial integrity of 'Ukraine' has-been violated"

Anonymous said...

The "platudinous" guy is defending Sara Palin's intelligence. Perfect! (Slaps forehead)