In early 1993, a few jokers asked some members of Congress “What should the US do about ethnic cleansing in the Republic of Freedonia?” At the time, world attention was focused on heinous war crimes as civil conflict tore apart former Yugoslavia. When asked about Freedonia, most of those asked made up fine-sounding, well-worded responses such as “we’re following the situation very closely” or “the US always stands up for human rights,” etc.
There was just one problem.
There was no such country called “Freedonia.”
At best, it was a make-believe setting for the 1933 Marx Brothers’ movie Duck Soup.
In 1993 I was teaching world geography in Taiwan and wanted my students to understand the importance of geographic knowledge. So, when I read a new story about the Congressmen being scammed, I asked my ninth-graders, “What do you think the US should do about ethnic cleansing in Freedonia? So far among our politicians, it’s all talk and no action.”
Some of the students suggested this and that, “use economic sanctions,” “send them weapons so they can defend themselves,” etc. It was the rare student who asked “Where is Freedonia? Is it a real place?”
That’s when I told them about the gag in Washington, and told them, “If you develop your geographic knowledge now, you’ll never fall for such a hoax and be embarrassed like those Congressmen.” It must have made an impression, because some of the students were talking about it in their other classes, which led to one of the other American teachers on staff, Ms. Anderson, to point out, “Actually there is a Freedonia, in Upstate New York!”
That story from 20 years ago came back to mind tonight with the news from Newark, New Jersey. It seems a delegation touting itself as representing the Hindu nation of Kailasa met with the Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and city council and inked a Sister City agreement. The problem is: there is no such country of Kailasa. Moreover, it seems their “government” is the brainchild of Swami Nithyananda, a scam artist who has been on the run since 2019 to avoid rape charges in India. The silver lining is, the city claims no money changed hands and they weren’t swindled out of anything…except for their reputation.
One thing that didn’t seem damaged, though, is Newark’s leaders’ ability to utter politically-correct platitudes. After the ruse hit the fan, City Hall released this statement: “Although this was a regrettable incident, the city of Newark remains committed to partnering with people from diverse cultures in order to enrich each other with connectivity, support, and mutual respect.”
Reportedly, a “representative” from Kailasa attended a UN gathering once also, and photos allege to show diplomats from Burundi, Bangladesh, and Lebanon posing with Kailasa “diplomats,” so it seems Newark is not the only place with leaders who got duped.
In contrast to the popular satire site The Babylon Bee whose boast is “Fake News You Can Trust,” a related site Not The Bee actually posts stories that are actually true, yet are so ridiculous, they could be mistaken as a spoof. You can check out Not The Bee’s story–with photos–here.
In the aftermath, many in the media are asking “Whose job was it at City Hall to do a Google search?” But that question misses the point, for several reasons. Chief among them is: if someone has a half-decent geographic education, they should immediately smell a hoax. “Kailasa? That doesn’t ring a bell. Where is it?”
I can’t find the exact quotation now, but years ago I read one with this gist: “Don’t regret what you forgot from your education. The residue of forgotten knowledge will keep you from many errors.” A related line is, “Education is what remains after you have forgotten everything you learned in school.”
Speaking of education: The Youngkin administration is bravely swimming against the tide and trying to combat social studies ignorance and low standards in our taxpayer-funded schools.
Unless you want to live in a dystopian future where everyone in charge falls for hoaxes like Freedonia and Kailasa, you can speak up for higher school standards. One way is to attend an in-person event the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) is hosting in Roanoke on Thursday, March 16 at the O. Winston Link Museum, at 101 Shenandoah Avenue. Registration of speakers begins at 6:30 PM, and the hearings begin at 7 PM. Speakers will have three minutes to speak and are asked to bring written copies of their comments. The VDOE has also opened a portal here to receive online comments.
Speaking of social studies, President Abraham Lincoln claimed, “The philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation is the philosophy of government in the next.”