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:
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