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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

>>( "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 ,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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