TRONDHEIM, NORWAY: What is Aleppo? In Arabic? As someone who has participated, first as a student and later as a teacher, in countless examinations, both oral and written, I had no difficulty in accepting Gary Johnson’s explanation that, when the interviewer asked “What would you do, if you were elected, about Aleppo?”, he simply “blanked”.

What is Aleppo?, asked the baffled aspirant in return. The “staggering ignorance” of the Libertarian nominee became breaking news, a godsend to anyone who wanted to pillory Johnson and invite others to spit on him.

Ironically, one commentator had to eat two humble pies by having to publish a correction (An earlier version of this article misidentified the de facto capital of the Islamic State. It is Raqqa, in northern Syria, not Aleppo.) and then a correction to the correction (An earlier version of the above correction misidentified the Syrian capital as Aleppo. It is Damascus). Hillary Clinton came out with the snappy wisecrack “You can look on the map and find Aleppo.” Good advice for her grandchildren? Only if the town survives under the capable leadership of whoever becomes the next president of the United States.

Allow me to raise a rhetorical question at this point: If Gary Johnson had riposted, “I think Aleppo, what the Arabs call Halab, is a great mess …“, would his popular rating have soared above that of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump? Erudition, we all know, does not guarantee success in a democratic contest—in our era, not that of Thomas Jefferson.

If the chances for electability of a candidate had depended on her/his displaying a dazzling blend of sundry information with knowledge of political economy, international relations, the difference between Jahveh, Jesus and Allah, between circumspection, circumscription and circumlocution, only winners of a quiz show like Mastermind would contemplate contesting the primaries.

The panjandrums of the opposing camps, Democrats and Republicans, believe that they alone know the way forward, and their gullible followers behave more like members of fanatic religious sects or fans of football clubs than like well-informed, responsible citizens. No one is perfect, nor universally popular, but the most disquieting imperfection of the two leading campaigners is their lack of transparency. Even Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s “fellow-sectarian” opponent for the nomination, did not succeed in making her release the transcripts of speeches to financial-sector interests for which she earned more than $20 million in two years.

Nobody who cannot see through the trumpery and tricks of the Republican nominee should be trusted, in the interests of public good, with a vote, but registered voters, however ignorant, cannot be disenfranchised. Still, the task of the Democratic sect couldn’t have been simpler: nominate someone who seemed, to the majority of Americans, less shady than the babbling businessman who trounced his Republican opponents. The Democratic choice fell on “the most qualified person ever to seek the presidency”.

Barack Obama, who used this phrase is perhaps too young to recall the credentials of Richard Nixon, or the denial “I am not a crook”. Which of the two finalists for the race to the White House is the pot and which the kettle, I leave you to decide. The fact that neither of these parties could put forward a less disagreeable candidate has exposed the bankruptcy of American political establishment.

Thomas Carlyle once complained (in Latter-Day Pamphlets. III. Downing Street) : “England … is … sunk now to a dim owlery, and habitation of doleful creatures, intent only on moneymaking and other forms of catching mice, for whom the proper gospel is the gospel of M'Croudy [an oblique allusion to the political economist R. J. McCulloch], and all nobler impulses and insights are forbidden henceforth? Perhaps these present agreeable Occupants of Downing Street, such as the parliamentary mill has yielded them, are the best the miserable soil had grown? The most Herculean Ten Men that could be found among the English Twenty-seven Millions, are these? There are not, in any place, under any figure, ten diviner men among us? Well; in that case, the riddling and searching of the twenty-seven millions has been successful. Here are our ten divinest men; with these, unhappily not divine enough, we must even content ourselves and die in peace; what help is there? No help, no hope, in that case.”

It has been said that a democratic election is a way of deciding the result of a civil war without having one. The result of the November elections in USA would spare the country a civil war between the supporters of two highly unpopular candidates, but that is small comfort for those who dread the wars the new president will wage in other parts of the world. Many of us may not even be able to content ourselves with dying in peace.

Is there really no hope? Not in the short-run. Not until an entire generation of voters has been equipped with a scientific frame of mind, trained to examine rival claims in the light of solid evidence without being swayed by stump orators and self-seeking liars. To quote Bernard Shaw: “It is not the ignorance of the uneducated that threatens us most, though it has become very dangerous now that Votes for Everybody, masquerading as Democracy, has been established on the assumption that everybody is politically omniscient. Ignorance can be instructed: it is easy to write on a clean slate. But the slates in our schools are not clean: they are scrawled all over … with … fabulous history, barbarous superstitions, obsolete codes and slogans, and the accumulated nonsense and rubbish of centuries; for these slates are never cleaned; and anyone attempting to clean them is punished [remember Manning?], or, if out of reach [like Snowden], is denounced as an enemy of God and Man.”

Cleaning the slates of American classrooms—in order to make school leavers good citizens, inoculated against jingoism, patriotic poetry and dithyrambic literature, imbued with a critical attitude that can resist appeals to the prejudices of the previous generations—is not among the promises made by either of the leading contenders.

(K. Razi Naqvi ( The author, a professor emeritus in the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (in Trondheim), has recently published a book entitled “Can Science Come Back to Islam?”).