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Cold war cultural production returns

by Michael Wize Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2002 at 7:27 PM

>The Bush administration has recruited prominent American >>writers to contribute to a State Department anthology and >>give readings around the globe in a campaign started after >>9/11 to use culture to further American diplomatic >>interests.

>>U.S. Writers Do Cultural Battle Around the Globe
>>December 7, 2002
>>The Bush administration has recruited prominent American
>>writers to contribute to a State Department anthology and
>>give readings around the globe in a campaign started after
>>9/11 to use culture to further American diplomatic
>>The participants include four Pulitzer Prize winners,
>>Michael Chabon, Robert Olen Butler, David Herbert Donald
>>and Richard Ford; the American poet laureate, Billy
>>Collins; two Arab-Americans, Naomi Shihab Nye and Elmaz
>>Abinader; and Robert Pinsky, Charles Johnson, Bharati
>>Mukherjee and Sven Birkerts. They were all asked to write
>>about what it means to be an American writer.
>>Although the State Department plans to distribute the
>>60-page booklet of 15 essays free at American embassies
>>worldwide in the next few weeks, one country has already
>>banned the anthology: the United States. The Smith-Mundt
>>Act of 1948, renewed when the United States Information
>>Agency became part of the State Department three years ago,
>>bars the domestic dissemination of official American
>>information aimed at foreign audiences.
>>"There were Congressional fears of the government
>>propagandizing the American people," said George Clack, the
>>State Department editor who produced the anthology. The
>>essays can, however, be read on a government Web site
>>intended for foreigners
>>(usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/writers). "We do not
>>provide that address to U.S. citizens," Mr. Clack said,
>>adding, "Technology has made a law obsolete, but the law
>>lives on."
>>Despite the domestic blackout, the participants are focused
>>on the potential abroad. "There is the perception abroad
>>that Americans feel culturally superior and are
>>intellectually indifferent," said Mr. Ford, who won the
>>Pulitzer in 1996 for his novel "Independence Day." "Those
>>stereotypes need to be burst." He added that he was eager
>>to go to Islamic nations to help "humanize America" and
>>present a more diverse picture of public opinion than is
>>conveyed by the Bush administration. "With a government
>>like the one we have, when not even 50 percent of Americans
>>voted for the president, the diversity of opinion is not
>>represented," he said.
>>Stuart Holliday, a former White House aide to President
>>Bush who is overseeing the anthology publication as
>>coordinator of the State Department's Office of
>>International Information Programs, said: "We're shining a
>>spotlight on those aspects of our culture that tell the
>>American story. The volume of material is there. The
>>question is how can it be augmented to give a clearer
>>picture of who we are."
>>Before the cold war ended, the United States often sent
>>orchestras, dance troupes and other artists abroad to
>>infiltrate Communist societies culturally. Writers like
>>John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Albee and E. L. Doctorow
>>gave government-sponsored readings in Eastern Europe that
>>used literature on behalf of American interests.
>>"People lined up for blocks," recalled William H. Luers, a
>>former American ambassador to Czechoslovakia and later
>>president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, speaking of
>>Mr. Updike's appearance at the embassy in Prague in the
>>But the United States Information Agency, which ran that
>>campaign, was folded into the State Department in 1999, and
>>over the last 10 years such programs have been severely
>>Since 9/11, though, the State Department has increased its
>>efforts to communicate American values to overseas
>>audiences. Mr. Holliday described the anthology, for
>>example, as complementing efforts by Charlotte Beers, a
>>former Madison Avenue advertising executive who is now
>>under secretary of state for public diplomacy, to sell the
>>United States to often hostile Muslim populations.
>>Her campaign includes "Next Chapter," a television show
>>broadcast by the Voice of America in Iran, a worldwide
>>traveling exhibition of photographs of the ravaged World
>>Trade Center site by Joel Meyerowitz, the distribution of
>>videos spotlighting tolerance for American Muslims and a
>>pamphlet showing Muslims as part of mainstream American
>>Christopher Ross, the State Department's special
>>coordinator for public diplomacy, has advocated reviving
>>official cultural programs abroad as a "cost-effective
>>investment to ensure U.S. national security" and a way to
>>combat "the skewed, negative and unrepresentative" image of
>>America that he says most people of the world absorb
>>through mass culture and communications. Yet even some of
>>the authors expressed mixed feelings about just how
>>effective such cultural exposure would ultimately prove.
>>In an interview, Billy Collins quoted Auden's famous line
>>that "poetry makes nothing happen," but Mr. Collins
>>tempered that comment by adding: "I think there are some
>>cases where it can. I don't think a group of American
>>writers is going to bring peace to the Middle East, but it
>>puts something in the media that is a counterbalance to the
>>growling and hostilities that fill the pages. It would have
>>a positive and softening influence on things." And while
>>Mr. Collins said he has agreed to join a tour abroad, he
>>added, "It's not a particularly good time for unarmed
>>American poets to be wandering around Jordan and Syria."
>>Ms. Abinader was more optimistic about the potential for
>>the literary initiative to change foreign perceptions. "I
>>don't think I'm going to grab a terrorist by the lapels and
>>say, `There's a better way of doing things,' " she said.
>>"But what you can do is inspire a different kind of power.
>>That's the power of the word."
>>Some of the anthology's authors, paid $2,499 by the
>>government, praise the freedoms they enjoy in the United
>>States, but the collection by no means presents an
>>uncritical picture of the United States. Julia Alvarez, a
>>novelist and poet who moved from the Dominican Republic
>>when she was young, writes that America is not "free of
>>problems or inequalities or even hypocrisies." Robert Olen
>>Butler says that the United States, though `built on the
>>preservation of the rights of minorities, has sometimes
>>been slow to apply those rights fully." Michael Chabon
>>tells of crime and racial unrest in his hometown, Columbia,
>>The poet Robert Creeley said that although the Sept. 11
>>attacks led to an outpouring of poetry to express sorrow,
>>this "passed quickly as the country regained its
>>equilibrium, turned to the conduct of an aggressive war
>>and, one has to recognize, went back to making money."
>>Ms. Abinader, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants to
>>Pennsylvania, recalls being subjected to racist remarks by
>>her classmates because of her dark complexion. Later in her
>>academic career, she says, "feelings toward Arabs became
>>more negative and sometimes bordered on distrust, even from
>>my own colleagues."
>>The other Arab-American in the volume, Naomi Shihab Nye,
>>was asked to contribute after the State Department took
>>note of an open letter she wrote "to any would-be
>>terrorists" the week after Sept. 11. "I beg you, as your
>>distant Arab cousin, as your American neighbor, listen to
>>me," she wrote in the letter distributed on the Internet
>>and printed in several Arabic-language newspapers. "Our
>>hearts are broken, as yours may also feel broken in some
>>ways we can't understand unless you tell us in words.
>>Killing people won't tell us. We can't read that message.
>>Find another way to live. Don't expect others to be like
>>Some 31,000 English-language copies of the new anthology
>>will be available abroad. Editions in Arabic, French,
>>Spanish and Russian are also being prepared. Additional
>>translations into two dozen other languages are expected,
>>with a total of about 100,000 copies likely to be
>>distributed in the next few years. Mr. Holliday said he
>>hoped that the essays would also be reprinted in foreign
>>newspapers and that students abroad would use the texts as
>>course material and to learn English.
>>All but one of the articles appear for the first time in
>>the volume; the essay by Mr. Chabon is a reprint.
>>Mr. Luers applauded the anthology but urged a more
>>coordinated and intensive program of cultural diplomacy.
>>"We have to find ways to convey not just propaganda but the
>>richness of this country's culture," he said. "It's
>>pathetic that we don't make an effort. Very educated people
>>abroad don't realize the depths of our culture behind
>>McDonald's and the violent movies."
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