I'm continuing my series of Q&As with individuals who have strong opinions on the America-Europe divide. Martha Bayles, an old friend of mine, writes cultural criticism for The Wall Street Journal, The Wilson Quarterly and other publications too numerous to mention. We first met in 1994 when I interviewed her about her book, Hole In Our Soul, an acute study of the state of American popular music. Martha and her husband, the political scientist, Peter Skerry, were living in Washington DC at the time. After a brief stint in California, they're now back on the East Coast. As well as teaching at Boston College and Boston University, and building up air-miles on regular trips to Europe, Martha blogs on film at the ArtsJournal.com site, Serious Popcorn. She's currently at work on a book about US public diplomacy.
We did the interview by e-mail. I've added links where appropriate.
Q - Do Americans - opinion-makers and "ordinary" people alike - realize how poor America's international image actually is?
Most opinion-makers are aware of the problem, but given the polarization of political debate these days, they tend to give only two explanations: "They hate us because we're so good," and "They hate us because we're so evil." To some degree, these extremes are reflected in popular opinion. But I suspect most Americans have not really gotten the message about our poor image. As many visitors have remarked, the United States is a huge country, a universe unto itself. The only foreigners most Americans ever meet are those who have struggled to immigrate here, which of course only reinforces the feeling that the whole world wants to be like us.
Q - There's a school of thought that MTV will be America's secret weapon in the war against Islamic fundamentalism? If Europe has fallen in love with American pop culture, why shouldn't the Middle East go the same way?
First of all, Europe's love of American popular culture was forged half a century ago, when we were exporting Duke Ellington, not 50 Cent. For all its liberating message to people living under the Nazis and Soviets, American popular culture in the 1940s and 50s was not a counterculture in the 1960s sense. Even during the Sixties (and later), it made sense to continue exporting pop culture, because, as people like Vaclav Havel will attest, America's counterculture had a way of becoming the counterculture of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.
But I doubt this will work today. First, much of what we export is not counterculture but gutter culture; and second, we export it to socially conservative countries that do not have a robust concept of artistic freedom. We might make friends if we sent the best, but at the moment we seem to be making enemies by sending the worst.
Q - A decade after publication of "Hole in Our Soul", are you more or less pessimistic about American pop music?
More pessimistic and, I might add, less interested. My impression is that music no longer holds centre-stage, especially for the young, who are too engrossed in the Internet, video games, and other media to care passionately about a widely shared body of music. They download what they like from a huge and eclectic marketplace, then move on to other things. The possible exception is hip-hop, but that doesn't make me feel better, because when Eminem starts looking like an old master compared with, say, Lil Jon (the current king of "crunk"), then you know something is wrong.
I've been writing about hip-hop lately, and it depresses me. Not since the height of nineteenth-century minstrelsy have so many Americans derived so much enjoyment from seeing so many demeaning racial stereotypes. And today the issue is global. The women's magazine Essence recently launched an online debate about the image of black women in rap videos, and according to former editor Diane Weathers, that debate now includes Africans: "They are disgusted by what their African-American brothers and sisters are doing in entertainment. They wonder if we've lost our minds."
Q - Some Americans argue that the European media are so hopelessly biased against the US that there's no point even trying to overcome their prejudice. Do you sympathize with that point of view?
Nah. You don't know till you try, and we haven't been trying. I don't think the European media are about to change their tune about President Bush and his administration. But maybe they could be brought around to not dumping on 290 million other Americans?
Q - Is the central problem anti-Americanism or anti-Bushism?
The two are hard to separate, since so many of the warts, boils, cankers, and running sores attributed to Dubya are also attributed to the rest of us, especially if we live in a red state like Texas. My own state, Massachusetts, is so blue, "Deep Indigo" could be its official song. So I hear Bush-bashing all day. But it bores me. My not very political mother used to express her hatred of Richard Nixon by draping a dish-towel over the TV whenever he appeared. From watching her do that, I learned that hating politicians is a waste of energy and proof of political naivete. As for hating whole countries... well, that's just dumb.
Q - If you were given Karen Hughes' job as head of public diplomacy, what would be your first steps?
1) Demand plenipotentiary powers. 2) Exhume Benjamin Franklin and send him back to France. 3) Sponsor a traveling theatre group performing the Oresteia in Arabic. 4) Hire an assistant who in addition to being Egyptian and speaking Arabic (like Dina Powell) is a Muslim, not a Coptic Christian.
Q - What's the most common European misunderstanding about American life? And the most common American misperception about Europeans?
Hard questions! To the first, I would say religion. We recently had a visitor from France, a scholar who is the daughter of Algerian Muslim immigrants, and she was very surprised to learn that evangelical Protestantism is not something new in America but our oldest and most deeply ingrained religious tradition, excluding Indian beliefs. (By the way, it is now politically correct to say "Indian" instead of "Native American.") Anyway, the Bible-thumpers we have always had with us. Not only that, but they have always been involved in politics. Just to cite two examples: the abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, were motivated by strong biblical religion; and so was the 1960s civil rights movement. On the latter topic I recommend a recent book by the historian David Chappell (not the comedian) called A Stone of Hope. It highlights the way most academic historians have neglected the religious aspect of the whole movement, not just Dr. King but the rank and file. This perennial aspect of American political culture is in bad odour these days, because it is active on the right, as opposed to the left. But it has always been there, and I do not believe it is "taking over," any more than it ever has.
American misconceptions about Europeans could fill a library. As I said earlier, Americans are amazingly insular, a fact that can be comic, tragic, or just plain infuriating, depending on the context.
Culturally I feel both sides are losing their way, due to a shared misunderstanding of what it means to be democratic. The American Scholar, a famous 1837 essay by my fellow New Englander, Ralph Waldo Emerson, throws a tight-rope across the culture gap between fretful, inferior America and serene, superior Europe, and invites the audience to cross.
My touchstone here is a seeming contradiction in Emerson's argument. In one passage he praises modern literature for paying attention to "the near, the low, the common"; in another he condemns "the mind of this country" for being "taught to aim at low objects." To sort out this out, we need only ponder what Emerson means by "low." In the first instance, he is referring to people of humble origin and modest means, the daily round, and local and regional life as opposed to aristocratic heroes, exalted deeds, and fabled foreign lands. In the second, he is speaking about the baser aspects of human nature, its vices and failings.
If this interpretation does not leap out at us, it is because the two meanings of "low" have become tangled. We think of our societies as democratic, yet increasingly, the lesson being conveyed to young people not only by the grossness of popular culture at its worst, but also by much of what passes for higher education, is that the sensibilities of those at the bottom of society are necessarily base, and that equality consists in privileging that baseness over anything that resembles liberal learning, because the latter is just a fig leaf over elite greed.
The logic is similar to that of the old aristocratic idea that the "lower orders" are morally inferior to their "betters." Emerson took strong exception to this notion, and held up America as a country where, ideally, virtue and cultivation could abide among the low, and vice and vulgarity could be recognized and corrected among the high. I find this a congenial ideal.
Q - What do you consider the best American and European films of the last decade?
Could we skip this one, please? Not because there haven't been any good ones, but because I can never answer questions like this. My mind goes blank.
Q - Is there a solution to Hollywood's current box office malaise? What do you think of the red-state view that the "values gap" is to blame?
The solution is to make going to the movies an appealing prospect, which it is not. Long before we humble consumers figured out that we were not alone in preferring to watch DVDs at home, the industry had us pegged. For some years now, Hollywood has been happy to take its real profits from shiny little discs ("Blood Out Tha Wazoo! Own it now!") than from all those dreadful cineplexes with their icky decor, endless ads and previews, crummy projection and sound, and sticky floors.
Yet much as I dislike cineplexes, I regret the prospect of no more movie-going. Like railroads, movie theaters are so full of memories and meanings, it hurts to think of them as obsolete. At the moment such feelings attach mainly to those theaters that have a sense of place and history. Fortunately, many of these in the States are now part of a chain called Landmark, which does a pretty good business showing first-run independent and foreign films. But Landmark theatres do not exist in many parts of the country, and that leaves millions stuck with the choice between cineplex and home. I wonder, then, why some smart entrepreneur doesn't enter this market with a new kind of cineplex.
Think Borders. Think Starbucks. Millions of people gravitate to these places, because while not historic or exclusively highbrow, they offer pleasant, interesting surroundings and fare suited to human beings over the age of 12. Why not do the same with a chain of small, classy movie theatres? They could even serve latte!
Q - You say in your recent Wilson Quarterly article on public diplomacy [see end of post for full text] that Hollywood films no longer portray American values in a positive light. Is there any way of correcting this without resorting to censorship?
I don't think I put it quite so sweepingly, but there is reason to worry about the increasingly coarse and violent tone of movies (and the rest of popular culture). In his book, The New American Militarism, military historian Andrew Bacevich notes the recent heightening of Hollywood's usual tendency to glorify high-tech warfare against dehumanized enemies. And I must say, this aspect of many blockbusters, even those occurring in fantasy universes, is troubling. "Hollywood" is not a monolith, of course. For all the debasement, it can still work wonders. But even the best films often violate the norms of reticence still honored by most people in the United States, never mind overseas. Our entertainment industry now operates with less constraint than ever, and foreign governments have lost their grip on what their people can see and hear. This new freedom confers many blessings. But it also drives a global version of what the old Hollywood moguls called "a race to the bottom."
Q - If you could move to a European city, which would it be?
Berlin or London, because of the terrific people I know there.
Q - What's the most important attribute Americans could learn from Europeans? And vice-versa?
Americans could take a few lessons in how to behave in public places, and how to deal with people who do not happen to speak their language. Europeans could learn how to treat all kinds of people with the same casual friendly respect. I am describing the lessons taught by ideal types on both sides, of course.
****My thanks to Martha for sparing the time to answer my questions.
****Go here to read the previous Transatlantic Voices interview with Jeff Gedmin, of the Aspen Institute.
****UPDATE: See below for the full text of Martha's Wilson Quarterly article, "Goodwill Hunting".
by Martha Bayles
To walk through the Zoologischer Garten district of Berlin is to experience a version of America. The fast-food chains, video and music stores, and movie marquees all proclaim the "coca-colonization" of Europe. But just a block away, on the relatively quiet Hardenbergstrasse, stands a small building that from 1957 to 1998 represented the best of U.S. cultural diplomacy: Amerika Haus. Though this faded modernist edifice has never been formally closed, the casual visitor is met by a locked entrance, a chain-link fence, an armed guard, and a rusted sign directing all inquiries to the U.S. embassy, where, of course, the visitor will be met with cold concrete barriers and electronic surveillance. Gone are the days when Amerika Haus welcomed Berliners to use the library, attend exhibitions and concerts, and interact with all sorts of visitors from the United States.
Cultural diplomacy is a dimension of public diplomacy, a term that covers an array of efforts to foster good will toward America among foreign populations. The impact of any public diplomacy is notoriously difficult to measure. But there is scant encouragement in polls like the one recently conducted by the BBC World Service, which shows that, in more than 20 countries, a plurality of respondents see America's influence in the world as "mainly negative." Doubtless such attitudes have as their immediate target the invasion of Iraq and the abuse of prisoners in U.S. detention facilities. But deeper currents are also at work, antipathies that have been gathering for years and are only now bubbling to the surface.
The term public diplomacy is admittedly a bit confusing because U.S. public diplomacy, though directed at foreign publics, was originally conducted by private organizations. The pioneer in this effort was the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, founded in 1910 on the principle (described here by historian Frank Ninkovich) that "government, although representing the will of the people in a mechanical sense, could not possibly give expression to a nation's soul. Only the voluntary, spontaneous activity of the people themselvesâas expressed in their art, literature, science, education, and religionâcould adequately provide a complete cultural portrait."
Ninkovich notes further that, to the wealthy and prominent individuals who led Carnegie (and the other foundations that soon followed), understanding between nations meant cordial relations between cultural, scholarly, and scientific elites. Thus, Carnegie established the standard repertory of cultural relations: exchanges of professors and students, exchanges of publications, stimulation of translations and the book trade, the teaching of English, exchanges of leaders from every walk of life.
Yet this private, elite-oriented approach to public diplomacy was soon augmented by a government-sponsored, mass-oriented one. In 1917, when America entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson's Committee on Public Information (CPI) enlisted the aid of America's fledgling film industry to make training films and features supporting the cause. Heavily propagandistic, most of these films were for domestic consumption only. But the CPI also controlled all the battle footage used for newsreels shown overseas, and its chairman, George Creel, himself believed that the movies had a role in carrying the gospel of Americanism to every corner of the globe.
The CPI was terminated after the war, and for a while the prewar approach to public diplomacy reasserted itself. But the stage had been set for a major shift, as Washington rewarded the movie studios by pressuring war-weakened European governments to open their markets to American films. By 1918, U.S. film producers were earning 35 percent of their gross income overseas, and America was on its way to being the dominant supplier of films in Europe. To be sure, this could not have happened if American films had not been hugely appealing in their own right. But without Washington's assistance, it would have been a lot harder to make the world safe for American movies.
And so began a pact, a tacitly approved win-win deal, between the nation's government and its dream factory. This pact grew stronger during World War II, when, as historian Thomas Doherty writes, the liaison between Hollywood and Washington was a distinctly American and democratic arrangement, a mesh of public policy and private initiative, state need and business enterprise. Hollywood's contribution was to provide eloquent propaganda (such as director Frank Capra's Why We Fight), to produce countless features (good and bad) about every aspect of the struggle, and to send stars (such as Jimmy Stewart) to serve directly in the armed forces. After the war, Washington reciprocated by using subsidies, special provisions in the Marshall Plan, and general clout to pry open resistant European film markets.
The original ethos of private, elite-oriented public diplomacy took another hit during the Cold War, when all of America's cultural resources were mobilized as never before. In response to the Soviet threat, the apparatus of wartime propaganda was transformed into the motley but effective set of agencies that, until recently, conducted public diplomacy: the Voice of America (VOA, dating from 1941), the Fulbright Program (1946), the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (1953), and the U.S. Information Agency (USIA, also begun in 1953).
The cultural offensive waged by these agencies had both an elite and a popular dimension. And outside these agencies, a key element in reaching Western elites was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an international organization that pretended to be privately funded but was in fact funded covertly (more or less) by the CIA. The Congress for Cultural Freedom's goal was to enlist American, West European, and other intellectuals around the world to counter Soviet influence through scholarly conferences, arts festivals, and opinion journals, such as Preuves in France, Encounter in England, and Quadrant in Australia. Looking back, one is struck by the importance all parties placed on these and other unapologetically elite-oriented efforts.
Yet one is also struck by the importance of American popular culture. It is hard to see how the contest for popular opinion could have been won without such vibrant and alluring products as Singinâ in the Rain (1952), On the Waterfront (1954), Twelve Angry Men (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), and The Apartment (1960). But as the Canadian writer Matthew Fraser notes, the original World War I-era pact between Hollywood and Washington contained an important proviso: Hollywood studios were obliged to export movies that portrayed American life and values in a positive manner. Through the early years of the Cold War, especially during the Korean conflict, Hollywood continued to make patriotic and anti-communist films. But this explicit cooperation ended with Senator Joseph McCarthy's attacks on communists and fellow travelers in the film industry. And by 1968, during the Vietnam War, only a throwback like John Wayne would even think of holding up Hollywood's end of the bargain.
Yet Washington never stopped boosting the export of films. In part this was simply good business. But the government also agreed with the sentiment expressed in this 1948 State Department memo: "American motion pictures, as ambassadors of good willâat no cost to the American taxpayersâinterpret the American way of life to all the nations of the world, which may be invaluable from a political, cultural, and commercial point of view."
That same sentiment led the State Department to value popular music, too. Building on the wartime popularity of the Armed Forces Radio Network, the VOA began in 1955 to beam jazz ("the music of freedom," host Willis Conover called it) to a regular audience of 100 million listeners worldwide, 30 million of them in the Soviet bloc. The Russian novelist Vassily Aksyonov recalls thinking of these broadcasts as "America=s secret weapon number one . . . a kind of golden glow over the horizon." During those same years, the USIA sought to counter Soviet criticism of American race relations by sponsoring wildly successful tours by jazz masters like Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie. The tours revealed a dissident strain in popular culture, as when Armstrong during his 1960 African tour refused to play before segregated audiences. The former USIA officer Wilson P. Dizard recalls how, in Southern Rhodesia, the great Satchmo attracted an audience of 75,000 whites and blacks, seated next to each other in a large football stadium. Striding across the stage to play his first number, he looked out at the crowd and said, "It's nice to see this."
The countercultural tone of much popular culture in the late 1960s and 70s might have led one to think that the government's willingness to use it as propaganda would fade. But it did not. In 1978, the State Department was prepared to send Joan Baez, the Beach Boys, and Santana to a Soviet-American rock festival in Leningrad. The agreement to do so failed, but its larger purpose succeeded: America's counterculture became the Soviet Union's. Long before Vaclav Havel talked about making Frank Zappa minister of culture in the post-communist Czech Republic, the State Department assumed that, in the testimony of one Russian observer, "Rock 'n' roll was the . . . cultural dynamite that blew up the Iron Curtain."
Yet all was not well in the 1970s. American popular culture had invaded Western Europe to such an extent that many intellectuals and activists joined the Soviet-led campaign, waged through UNESCO, to oppose "U.S. cultural imperialism". And there was no Congress for Cultural Freedom to combat this campaign, because a scandal had erupted in 1967 when the CIA's role was exposed. At the time, George Kennan remarked that "the flap over CIA money was quite unwarranted. . . . This country has no ministry of culture, and CIA was obliged to do what it could to try to fill the gap." But his was hardly the prevailing view.
It was also true that by the 1970s the unruliness of popular culture had lost its charm. Amidst the din of disco, heavy metal, and punk, the artistryâand classâof the great jazz masters was forgotten. Hollywood movies were riding the crest of sexual liberation and uninhibited drug use. And a storm was gathering on the horizon that would prove not only indifferent but hostile to the rebellious, disruptive, hedonistic tone of America=s countercultural exports. In 1979 that storm broke over Tehran, and Americaâs relation to the world entered a new phase.
With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, U.S. public diplomacy also entered a new phase. Under Charles Z. Wick the USIA's annual budget grew steadily, until in 1989 it stood at an all-time high of $882 million, almost double what it had been in 1981. But with unprecedented support came unprecedented control. Cultural officers in the field were urged to "stay on message", and at one point Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley were placed on a list of speakers deemed too unreliable to represent the nation abroad.
This close coordination between policy and the agencies of cultural diplomacy may have helped to bring down the Berlin Wall. But it also made those agencies vulnerable after victory had been declared. In the 1990s Congress began making drastic cuts. At the end of the decade, in 1999, the USIA was folded into the State Department, and by 2000 American libraries and cultural centers from Vienna to Ankara, Belgrade to Islamabad, had closed their doors. Looking back on this period, the U.S. House of Representatives Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World reported, in 2003, that Astaffing for public diplomacy programs dropped 35 percent, and funding, adjusted for inflation, fell 25 percent.
Meanwhile, the export of popular culture burgeoned. This was hardly surprising, given the opening of vast new markets in Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere. But the numbers are staggering. The Yale Center for the Study of Globalization reports that between 1986 and 2000, the fees (in constant dollars) generated by the export of "filmed and taped entertainment" went from $1.68 billion to $8.85 billionâan increase of 426 percent.
But if the numbers are staggering, the content is sobering. The 1980s and â90s were decades when many Americans expressed concern about the degradation of popular culture. Conservatives led campaigns against offensive song lyrics and Internet porn; liberal Democrats lobbied for an FCC crackdown on violent movies and racist video games; and millions of parents struggled to protect their kids from what they saw as a socially irresponsible entertainment industry. And to judge by a Pew Research Center survey released in April 2005, these worries have not abated: "Roughly six-in-ten [Americans] say they are very concerned over what children see or hear on TV (61%), in music lyrics (61%), video games (60%) and movies (56%)."
We can discern a troubling pattern leading up to September 11, 2001. On the one hand, efforts to build awareness of the best in American culture, society, and institutions had their funding slashed. On the other, America got the rest of the world to binge on the same pop-cultural diet that was giving us indigestion at home. It would be comforting to think that this pattern changed after 9/11, but it did not. Shortly before the attacks, the Bush administration hired a marketing guru, Charlotte Beers, to refurbish America's image. After the attacks, Beers was given $15 million to fashion a series of TV ads showing how Muslims were welcome in America. When the state-owned media in several Arab countries refused to air the ads, the focus (and the funding) shifted to a new broadcast entity, Radio Sawa, aimed at what is considered the key demographic in the Arab world: young men susceptible to being recruited as terrorists.
Unlike the VOA, Radio Sawa does not produce original programming. Instead, it uses the same ratings-driven approach as commercial radio: Through market research conducted by regional firms, its program directors decide which popular singers, American and Arab, will attract the most listeners, and they shape their play lists accordingly. The same is true of the TV channel al-Hurra, which entered the highly competitive Arab market with a ratings-driven selection of Arab and American entertainment shows.
It would be unfair to say that these channels (and such recent additions as Radio Farsi) are indistinguishable from the commercial fare already on the Arab and Muslim airwaves. After all, they include State Department-scripted news and public affairs segments, on the theory that the youthful masses who tune in for the entertainment will stay for the substance.
Yet this approach (which is not likely to change under the new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Karen P. Hughes) is highly problematic, not least because it elevates broadcasting diplomacy over the "people-to-people" kind. It was Edward R. Murrow, the USIA's most famous director, who defended the latter by saying that in communicating ideas, itâs the last few feet that count. The defenders of the new broadcast entities point to "interactive" features such as listener call-ins. But itâs hard to take this defense seriously, when, as foreign service veteran William Rugh reminds us, "face-to-face spoken communication has always been very important in Arab society. . . . Trusted friends are believed; they do not have the credibility problems the mass media suffer from."
It may be tempting to look back at the Cold War as a time when America knew how to spread her ideals not just militarily but also culturally. But does the Cold War in fact offer useful lessons? The answer is yes, but it takes an effort of the imagination to see them.
Let us begin by clearing our minds of any lingering romantic notions of Cold War broadcasting. Are there millions of Arabs and Muslims out there who, like Vassily Aksyonov, need only twirl the dial on their radios to encounter and fall in love with the golden glow that is America? Not really. Itâs true that, before 1991, the media in most Arab countries were controlled in a manner more or less reminiscent of the old Soviet system. But after CNN covered Operation Desert Storm, Arab investors flocked to satellite TV, and now the airwaves are thick with channels, including many U.S. offerings. Satellite operators like Arabsat and Nilesat do exert some censorship. But that hardly matters. The Internet, pirated hookups, and bootlegged tapes and discs now connect Arabs and Muslims to the rest of the world, with a force unimagined by East Europeans and Russians of a generation ago.
Furthermore, the Arab media bear a much closer resemblance to ours than did those of Soviet Russia. For example, a hot topic of debate in Arab homes, schools, cafes, and newspapers these days are the "video clips" â essentially, brief music videos â that occupy about 20 percent of satellite TV fare. Because most are sexually suggestive (imagine a cross between Britney Spears and a belly dancer), video clips both attract and offend people. And those who are offended, like the Egyptian journalist Abdel-Wahab M Elmesseri, tend to frame the offense in terms of American culture. "To know in which direction we are heading," he wrote recently, "one should simply watch MTV."
It is indeed odd, in view of the Bush administration's conservative social agenda, that $100 million of the money allocated for cultural diplomacy goes to a broadcast entity, Radio Sawa, that gives the U.S. government seal of approval to material widely considered indecent in the Arab and Muslim world: Britney Spears, Eminem, and the same Arab pop stars who gyrate on the video clips.
Here the lesson is simple: Popular culture is no longer "America's secret weapon". On the contrary, it is a tsunami by which others feel engulfed. Of course, the government is not about to restrict the export of popular culture or abandon its most recent broadcast efforts. Nor should the government impose censorship while preaching to the world about free speech. What the government could do, however, is add some new components to its cultural diplomacy, ones that stands athwart the pop-cultural tide. Here are some suggestions.
* Support a classical radio channel B classical in the sense captured by Duke Ellington=s remark that there are only two kinds of music, good and bad. Instead of mixing American bubblegum with Arab bubblegum, mix American and European classics (including jazz) with Arab classics. Include intelligent but unpretentious commentary by Arabic speakers who understand their own musical idioms as well as those of the West. Do not exclude religious music (that would be impossible) but at all costs avoid proselytizing. Focus on sending out beautiful and unusual sounds.
* Support a spoken poetry program, in both English and (more important) Arabic. Itâs hard for Americans to appreciate the central position of poetry in Arabic culture. But in his study of Arab media William Rugh notes that newspapers and electronic media have long presented poetry. Assuming they do so in a fairly stuffy, pedantic fashion, the American channel could offer a respectful but refreshingly down-to-earth alternative.
* Invest in endangered antiquities abroad. The model here is the Getty Conservation Institute, whose efforts in Asia and Latin America have helped to build a positive image for the Getty in a world not inclined to trust institutions founded on American oil wealth. The U.S. government, along with the British Museum and American museums and private individuals, has been working to rectify damages resulting from war and occupation in Iraq, but much more could be done.
* TV is a tougher field in which to make a mark, because it is more competitive. But here again, the best strategy may be to cut against the commercial grain with high-quality shows that present the high culture not just of America but also of the countries of reception. It might take a while for audiences to catch on. But in the meantime, such programs would help to neutralize critics who insist that Americans have no high culture â and that weâre out to destroy the high culture of others.
* Launch a people-to-people exchange between young Americans involved in Christian media and their Muslim counterparts overseas. The existence of such counterparts is not in doubt. Consider Amr Khalid, a 36-year-old Egyptian TV personality who has made himself into one of the most sought-after Islamic speakers in the Arab world by emulating American televangelists. Indeed, his Ramadan program has been carried on the Christian Lebanese network, LBC. Or consider Sami Yusuf, the British-born singer whose uplifting video clips provide a popular alternative to the usual sex-kitten fare. His strategy of airing religious-music clips on mainstream Arabic satellite music channels rather than on Islamic religious channels parallels precisely that of the younger generation of American musicians who have moved out of the "ghetto," as they call it, of contemporary Christian music.
One obstacle to the sort of people-to-people exchange here proposed would be the injunction against anything resembling missionary work in many Muslim countries. For that reason such a program would probably have to start on American turf and involve careful vetting. But the potential is great. Not only would the participants share technical and business skills, they would also find common ground in a shared critique of what is now a global youth culture. In essence, American Christians and foreign Muslims would say to each other: "We feel just as you do about living our faith amid mindless hedonism and materialism. Here's what we have been doing about it in the realm of music and entertainment."
If just a few talented visitors were to spend time learning how religious youth in America (not just Christians but also Muslims and Jews) create alternatives to the secular youth culture touted by the mainstream media, they would take home some valuable lessons: that America is not a godless societyâquite the opposite, in fact; that religious media need not engage in hatred and extremism; that religious tolerance is fundamental to a multiethnic society such as the United States. If the visitors were ambitious enough to want to start their own enterprises, the program might provide seed money.
During the Cold War, the battle for hearts and minds was conceived very differently from today. While threatening to blow each other to eternity, the United States and the Soviet Union both claimed to be defending freedom, democracy, and human dignity. Without suggesting for a moment that both sides had equal claim to those goals, it is nonetheless worth noting that America's victory was won on somewhat different grounds: security, stability, prosperity, and technological progress.
Our enemies today do not question our economic and technological superiority, but they do question our moral and spiritual superiority. To study the anti-American critique mounted by radical Islam is see oneself in the intellectual equivalent of a fun-house mirror: The reflection is, at once, both distorted and weirdly accurate. And ironically, it resembles the critique many American religious conservatives have been making of their society all along. A wise public diplomacy would turn this state of affairs to Americaâs advantage.