Friday, November 14, 2008

Want to join the Foreign Service? Advice from a "public diplomacy" diplomat

Dear Ms. [...]:

... I'll try to answer your question re preparing to join the Foreign Service [FS] as best I can:

1. Don't daydream about joining the FS by cramming to "pass the FS exam." Before trying to "become a diplomat," please consider this: live overseas, learn a foreign language(s) and read history. All this takes time, not instant "exam-preparation-gratification."

2. Graduate-level courses in "public diplomacy" can do you no harm (expect if you have to pay for them), but remember that there are no fool (full?)-proof guides to PD. It's essentially learned by experience in the field rather than by "stimulated (simulated?) situations" in the classroom.

3. Be aware that public diplomacy, as implemented by the State Department, is an official US Government function, for better or for worse. So, if you wish to be an FSO [Foreign Service Officer], be psychologically ready for the endless embassy "staff meetings," "getting along with colleagues," side of the FS life, which (if my biases are not completely off target) is really what is most "tested" on the FS oral exam (or at least when I took it, too many decades ago).

4. Keep up with foreign affairs as best you can by reading major dailies and magazines, if only to "fake" -- please find a better word -- your way through the FS written exam, again as I experienced it. (After all, knowledge is a life-long search, with no one ever really knowing the automatically "right answer.")

5. Leave your options -- and sense of humor -- open. There’s life (far more financially profitable but perhaps far less rewarding) before, during, and beyond the FS.

6. Most important: remember the Foreign Service is a service -- a service to your country as you -- and (unfortunately) as circumstances allow -- can best carry it out.

best, john

Thursday, November 13, 2008

US Public Diplomacy/ Obama America's "image" in world: an important article

Judith Siers-Poisson's blog

Black man, black woman, black baby /White man, white woman, white baby /White man, black woman, black baby /Black man, white woman, black baby."

Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet

There is no doubt that the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States is historic. But does framing him as America's "first black president" show that we have not come nearly as far as we'd like to think?

The mainstream U.S. news -- and the majority of the American public, whether for or against him -- consider Barack Obama to be the first African American President. While he is certainly a member of the black community (and much more literally African-American due to his father being a Kenyan immigrant), he is also equally part of the white community. His mother was white. The grandmother who helped raise him (and whom he tragically lost to cancer on the eve of his election) was also white. But historically, and apparently to this day, to be black to any degree is to be exclusively black. Is our celebration of Barack Obama as the first black president proof that we haven't moved very far past the "one-drop rule"?

A Drop of Black, and You Never Go Back

The one-drop rule is the perception that any amount of non-white ancestral heritage makes a person non-white. But there is more than one interpretation of the concept. For some, the distinction is based on physical traits. If you appear to have black features, then you are black, whether it is more or less than 50% of your ancestry. Slightly differently, some believe that if there is even the most dilute black blood in a person's make-up, there will be a tell-tale sign of some kind that will prove the mixed heritage -- a birth mark, the shape of the crescent in the nail bed, or others.

But what we are seeing with the advent of Barack Obama as a national figure fits more within yet another third interpretation. Philosophy professor and author Naomi Zack defined it in her 1998 book, Thinking About Race. "One-drop rule: American social and legal custom of classifying anyone with one black ancestor, regardless of how far back, as black.” I asked Zack for her comments about Barack Obama. She replied: "Why is someone with an African father and a white mother, who if race were real would be mixed race, considered 'Black?' Why is it not also absurd to refer to that person as 'a multi-racial African American'?"

In 1994, legal scholar Julie C. Lythcott-Haims wrote in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review that the one-drop rule "still exists today; Americans who are part-Black are socially considered Black, and only Black by most Americans. ... The one-drop rule is so ingrained in the American psyche that Blacks and Whites do not think twice about it."

In 1997, we saw Tiger Woods as a multiracial person being reduced to one facet of his identity. On Oprah Winfrey's show, he was asked if it bothered him to be referred to simply as African-American. He responded, "It does. Growing up, I came up with this name: I'm a 'Cablinasian'" (meaning Caucasian-Black-Indian-Asian). "I'm just who I am," Woods told Winfrey, "whoever you see in front of you." Sportswriter Ralph Riley wrote about Woods' background and the one-drop rule, without naming it. "Tiger's Asian heritage defines him as thoroughly as any other aspect of his makeup, although we tend to throw everyone brown and American with nice lips into the black blender."

It isn't just white culture that follows the one-drop rule, as Tiger Woods experienced in 1997. A May 1997 article in Time magazine looked at the reaction to Woods' statement on Oprah. "Kerboom! a mini-racial fire storm erupted. Woods' remarks infuriated many African Americans who hailed his record-setting triumph at the Masters as a symbol of racial progress but see him as a traitor. To them Woods appeared to be running away from being an African American ... In their rush to judgment, the fearful apparently never stopped to consider that Woods was not turning his back on any part of his identity but instead was embracing every aspect of it."

Fast-forward to November 2006 and in a 2006 Zogby International poll, 55% of whites considered Obama as biracial after being told that Obama's mother was white and his Kenyan father was black. Even more Hispanics -- 61% -- also saw Obama as biracial. But interestingly, 66% of the blacks polled classified Obama as black.

The October 23, 2006, cover story in Time magazine shows that we still have a hard time letting people of mixed racial backgrounds "embrace every aspect" of being "just who I am." In the story, titled "Why Barack Obama Could Be the Next President," reporter Joe Klein compared Obama to Colin Powell, and employed the one-drop assumption: "Powell and Obama have another thing in common: they are black people who -- like Tiger Woods, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan -- seem to have an iconic power over the American imagination because they transcend racial stereotypes." Although Obama and Woods are both multiracial, Klein referred to them solely as black and even as "iconic" African-Americans.

What Race Is, and Isn't

Historically, race has been treated as a natural category for classifying human beings. The assumption that people can be grouped into distinct races has political overtones and motives. Activities such as slavery, domination, and oppression have been justified in large part by claims that those who dominate are inherently different (and superior) to those they dominate. Modern science, however, has shown that this system for classifying people has little if any basis in biology or genetics.

According to the current position on race of the American Anthropological Association, drafted in 1998, "The concept of race is a social and cultural construction... Race simply cannot be tested or proven scientifically ... It is clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. The concept of 'race' has no validity ... in the human species." According to the U.S. Census Bureau, race is "self-identification by people according to the race or races with which they most closely identify. These categories are sociopolitical constructs and should not be interpreted as being scientific or anthropological in nature. Furthermore, the race categories include both racial and national-origin groups." When speaking of human genetic variations, scientists today study "populations" rather than "races," a more precise term that avoids the misleading assumption that superficial characteristics such as skin color group automatically with other characteristics such as intelligence or character. In everyday life, however, "race" is still the most commonly used term and the most widely accepted concept.

Barack Obama's life experience makes him a particularly interesting case study in the problems inherent in trying to classify people by race. Obama is the son of a Kenyan man who came to study in the U.S. He was born and raised by his white maternal family in multiracial, multiethnic Hawai'i, and spent a portion of his young life living in Indonesia. He is "black" in the sense that he has an African father, but his experience growing up is quite different from that of a "typical" African American. Of course, the idea that there is a "typical" African American experience is itself rather suspect. Generations have passed since the first Africans arrived on American shores, and many African Americans have a variety of non-African ancestors with Native American, Caucasian or other roots. Ironically, therefore, Obama's mixed ancestry may be the most "typical" characteristic he shares with other African Americans.

We're Not There Yet

Even when Obama's mixed racial background is mentioned, the one-drop assumptions and default terms come into play. In a November 8, 2008 article titled "'Mutts Like Me' -- Obama Shows Ease Discussing Race," writer Alan Fram focuses on a comment that the president-elect made about what type of puppy his girls would bring to the White House with them. "Obviously, a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me," Obama said. Fram seems to be getting to the heart of the matter, saying "The message seemed clear -- here is a president who will be quite at ease discussing race, a complex issue as unresolved as it is uncomfortable for many to talk about openly. And at a time when whites in the country are not many years from becoming the minority." However, old habits die hard. Fram also says, "By now, almost everyone knows that Obama's mother was white and father was black, putting him on track to become the nation's first African-American president."

Should embracing the multiracial background of people like Barack Obama or Tiger Woods take away from the pride and sense of accomplishment that different communities take in his achievements? Is it really less of a victory for blacks if Obama's mixed race is acknowledged and celebrated? In a November 10, 2008, article for titled "Our Biracial President," James Hannaham wrote, "Obama's biracial. ... This is not to say that he hasn't received some of the same treatment as black Americans, or that he is not welcome among them, or that people should denigrate his need to make his background understandable to people who think that 'biracial' means a type of airplane. It suggests something far less divisive. It means that black and white people (not to mention other ethnicities chained to the binary idiocy of American race relations) can share his victory equally."

In 1967, there were still sixteen U.S. states that had laws on the books banning interracial marriage. That isn't a typo -- 1967. It was in that year that the US. Supreme Court unanimously struck down laws banning interracial marriages with these words: "The freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides within the individual and cannot be infringed on by the State." Barack Obama's parents met, married, and gave birth to him in Hawai'i in the early 1960s. It is a matter of chance that they were not in one of the states where interracial marriage and sex was illegal. In addition, the 2000 U.S. census was the first one in which respondents could choose to identify themselves as belonging to more than a single race. Given that recent history, perhaps we could all celebrate how far we have come by electing a biracial President.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Islam and the West: The Myth of the Green Peril: Not be Missed for US Public Diplomacy

Islam and the West: The Myth of the Green Peril
November 5, 2008 by Leon Hadar,

The 9/11 attacks and the ensuing "war on terror" have provided an opportunity for the U.S. foreign policy establishment, suffering from Enemy Deprivation Syndrome since the Cold War's end, to settle on a potential new bogeyman. It is radical Islam, or the "Green Peril" – a term I used in an article 15 years ago in Foreign Affairs, spring 1993. I challenged Samuel Huntington's clash-of-civilizations paradigm, which predicted that the West and Islam would engage in a long and bloody struggle over control of the Middle East, including its oil resources. The neoconservative ideologues who hijacked President George W. Bush's foreign policy apparatus have embraced Huntington's notion of a confrontation between Islam and the West. They see it as a way to justify American military power, to establish U.S. hegemony in the Middle East while imposing American values, the so-called "freedom agenda," to deal with the rise of Islamofascism, a Khomeini-like creature, armed with a radical ideology, equipped with nuclear weapons, and intent on launching a violent jihad against Western civilization.

According to this neoconservative dogma, which Bush has attempted to apply in Mesopotamia, a free and democratic Iraq would become a model for political and economic reform in the Arab world and the broader Middle East, and a series of mostly peaceful democratic revolutions would be unleashed from the Islamic frontiers of China, through Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, to the Balkan borders. Hence, following the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Bush supporters recalling the dramatic changes in Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union's collapse expected the democratic dominoes to fall in Syria and Iran, while arguing that Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution" and the planned election in Palestine reflected the shape of things to come.At the same time, even the more liberal and internationalist foreign policy pundits like New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, critical of some aspects of the neoconservative agenda, insisted that the U.S. needed to launch a massive campaign to help modernize/democratize/liberalize/secularize the Arab Middle East and by extension the entire Muslim world, preferably through public diplomacy and education, and as a last resort, military force.

Indeed, against the backdrop of U.S. involvement in two major wars in the Middle East and the increasingly assertive position of Iran and its regional allies, a consensus is evolving among Washington's chattering class about the obligation to launch a Wilsonian campaign to bring the Middle East into the modern age, while extinguishing radical Islam. Washington's failure to do that would not only endanger Israel and other Mideast allies. With stratospheric energy prices igniting anxiety in Washington over access to Persian Gulf oil resources, the civilization-clash theory has acquired a economic veneer. Imagine if Osama bin Laden controlled the Middle East's energy assets, a.k.a. "Arab Oil," and used them as a "weapon" against the West!

New foreign policy paradigms, like new religions and political ideologies, are produced by intellectual entrepreneurs hoping to win status and influence over those seeking power. At the same time, politicians use these worldviews to mobilize public support as they lead the nation/people/class against an outside threat that allegedly challenges core interests and values. From this perspective, the new Islamic bogeyman promoted by entrepreneurial neocons has clearly served the interests of Washington's Iron Triangle of bureaucrats, lawmakers, and interest groups, as well as foreign players who have pressed for growing U.S. military engagement in the Middle East.For the Iron Triangle, the Islamic threat – very much like Communism during the Cold War – helps create expanding budget pressure for defense, covert operations, and the current favorite interest group, while allowing foreign players like the Israelis, the Indians, or the many 'Stans to highlight their own roles as Washington's regional surrogates. At the same, neocon intellectuals and their adjunct brigades of "terrorism experts" have increased their access to governmental decision-making and the media and reaped other political and financial rewards.

The problem is that foreign policy paradigms are intellectual constructs that reflect the imaginations of their producers and the interests of their promoters, not necessarily reality. As a result, when policies formed on the basis of such conceptual frameworks are implemented, reality tends to bite. Hence, during the Cold War, the notion of a global and monolithic Soviet-led Communism made it inevitable that the U.S. would confuse the national interests that drove the policies of Vietnam, China, and Cuba with the global interests of the Soviet Union, leading to disastrous U.S. policy outcomes. Similarly, after the Soviet Union had vanished into thin air, Americans discovered that the collapse of Communism failed to unleash political and economic freedom in the former Soviet Empire. Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia have acquired membership in the Western club, a reflection of their European political cultures, while many of the more backward 'Stans have embraced authoritarian political orders and statist economic systems. Russia seems to have chosen its own unique Third Way of state capitalism.During the 1990s there was talk in Washington about the challenge the West was supposedly facing from a new East Asian model, represented by Japan and other emerging economies in the region. The champions of this model included Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's leader, and Huntington, who embraced the idea of a "Sinic" civilization. They argued that unique East Asian Confucian values such as family, corporate, and national loyalty, the precedence of society's stability and prosperity over personal interests and freedoms, and a strong work ethic and thriftiness are why East Asians support authoritarian governments and the collective well-being rather than democracy, and why state-managed capitalist economies are more successful than Anglo-American ones. But the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s and the region's diverging political and economic systems (Singapore vs. Taiwan) have undermined the notion of a monolithic and successful Asian model, although China's dramatic economic rise may have revived it.

Similarly, the time has come to challenge the grand idea that the Muslim world, or the Middle East, or the Arab world – terms that seem interchangeable in the American media – has a unique and monolithic political and economic culture that makes it resistant to the West's modernizing effects. Note that here again, a multitude of labels, including democracy, capitalism, secularism, and feminism, are used in association with modernity and Westernization.The proponents of this idea suggest that only an American-led effort to "export" democracy to that region of the world would bring about the necessary cultural, political, and economic reforms, making Middle Easterners/Arabs/Muslims "more like us." "Us" includes a not very monolithic West, with America's Deep South, where racist legislation predominated until the 1960s; Switzerland, where women were finally given the right to vote in 1971; the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism; Germany's social capitalism; libertine Las Vegas and prudish Salt Lake City; and "law-abiding" Northern Europe and "corruption-infested" Southern Europe. And so it goes.

Hence, careful study of the cultural, political, and economic entity called the West reveals diverse and evolving attitudes about what it means to be a Westerner in the 21st century. This depends very much on values and interests, political principles, religious faiths, racial background, economic and social status, gender, education, sexual orientation, and even the political and the economic systems citizens embrace under certain environmental conditions and historical settings.

The fact that there isn't a one-dimensional Westerner makes it easier to understand why the one-dimensional Muslim or Arab doesn't exist either – except, that is, in the rival twin minds of radical Muslims who promote the ideology of al-Qaeda and the Christian Right Westerners who advance neoconservative dogma.

Notwithstanding Washington's propaganda regarding the global threat of Islamofascism, there are no common ideological foundations that unite the various strains of Islamic-influenced groups. The hugely divergent groups include the secular Arab nationalist movements of Ba'athism and Nasserism, combining socialist and fascist ideologies imported from Europe; Saudi Arabia's dominant and strict religious doctrine of Wahhabism; the revolutionary and millennialist dogma that guides the ruling Shi'ites in Iran and their Middle Eastern satellites; the Kemalist secular, republican, and statist tradition of Turkey, challenged now by modernist and pro-free-market and democratic Islamist parties that want Turkey to join the European Union; the tolerant and multicultural societies and capitalist economies of Indonesia and Malaysia; the radical Islamists of South and Central Asia; Westernized, multiethnic, and multireligious Lebanon; and, finally, Moammar Gaddafi's strict and somewhat bizarre form of the Islamic revolutionary system in Libya.From this perspective, the Muslim world or the Middle East or the Arab Middle East is a mosaic of nation-states, ethnic groups, religious sects, and tribal groups, and a mishmash of political ideologies, economic systems, and cultural orientations. Some of these players have gradually joined the modern age and play an active role in the global economy: Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, and the UAE. Others have clearly remained on the margins of the recent economic and technological revolutions: Sudan, Mauritania, the Gaza Strip, and Yemen. Most Islam-dominated states find themselves somewhere in between: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Libya.

There is no doubt that some parts of the Middle East are "notable for [their] disturbingly low profile in matters of economics and globalization," as Zachary Karabell, a Middle East expert and investment banker, put it. After all, the region, with its 350 million people, located at the intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa and renowned for its historical legacy as the Cradle of Civilization as well as its huge energy resources, would be expected to be on par with other leading emerging economies. Its GDP is more than $900 billion a year. Its economic growth rate is about 5 percent per year.

The recent rise in energy prices has benefited some parts of the region, in particular the booming oil states in the Persian Gulf. In contrast to the oil explosion of the 1970s, these states are now investing their profits in the region, encouraging stock market growth, a surge in real estate developments, and the building of modern economic infrastructure that is helping to turn the UAE and other Persian Gulf states into centers of global commerce and finance like Singapore.

At the same time, there are signs that Arab economies that have been ruled for decades by military dictators – Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, and now perhaps even Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Libya – are taking important steps to reform their economies and open them to foreign investment and trade. Through the efforts of France and the rest of the EU, the creation of a European-Mediterranean economic club could accelerate this process and encourage the return of expatriates, including many professionals and businessmen, from the West.

In a way, Western powers have been responsible for the fact that military dictatorships retarding economic reform have controlled Mideast nation-states for so long. The geostrategic competition among outside powers, especially during the Cold War, encouraged the U.S. and its allies to exploit regional conflicts like the Arab-Israeli one and to provide military and economic support to local strongmen who were supposed to serve the outsiders' interests. But the time has come for Western powers, particularly the EU, to focus efforts on an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and to create incentives for the region to open up to the global economy. This includes liberalizing their economies, reducing tariff barriers, and encouraging direct foreign investment.

While free trade is not a panacea, it could be a necessary building block for a more peaceful and prosperous Middle East. It could encourage the rise of a professional middle class with values more in tune with modern ideas and technologies. That effort could also help reduce poverty and economic inequality, and all of these could foster what Erik Gartzke, a Canadian political economist, describes as "capitalist peace."

Indeed, when globalization seems to be bypassing the Middle East, it's important to remember that the region was once a center of global commerce, and that its merchants and traders – Syrians, Lebanese, Jews, Armenians, Greeks, and others – helped spread the culture of business across the Mediterranean and throughout the world. That old Spirit of the Levant could be revived under these conditions of capitalist peace and help transform the Middle East from the global economy's backwater into one of its most powerful engines.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Message from Harry C Blaney III

Dear John,

I think we have an extraordinary opportunity to not only "rejuvenate" public diplomacy but also help reshape it for the 21st century....key will be first that we have Obama who will just in himself help that process with the world, and that is a great opportunity we should not waste and we need to follow that with a strong proposal for not only a new and unified (and funded) PD "agency," but also for a set of policies and programs that show a new face of America that is relevant to our current challenges and the landscape beyond our borders. But to make that possible all of those who care about this issue will need to work in a large measure of unity and express it in a strong and effective voice (this should naturally be what the profession is all about!).

First, we need to get to the transition team on State and national security, and second we need to have some public debate on this with op-eds and getting on talk shows, third work on the Hill. And it need to start now. ...

Cheers, Harry

Senior Fellow, Center for International Policy

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Rejuvenate Public Diplomacy! Bring Culture Back to the White House

Note: An updated version of the below appeared in Common Dreams

The many reports that have appeared on the failures of American public diplomacy during the Bush years have stressed its limitations in the area of information and educational programs. What some call the third pillar of public diplomacy -- cultural programs -- has, however, been little mentioned.

This is not surprising. As I pointed out, not very originally, in a long essay, "Arts Diplomacy: The Neglected Aspect of Cultural Diplomacy," and in a recent book review on the arts and democracy, Americans are uneasy not only with federal government support for the arts, but with the very notion of "culture" (high culture with a "capital K") itself. Our Puritan roots -- and they are still alive and well -- underscore that overcoming the all-encompassing fear of predestined eternal damnation can be achieved (but not with certitude, which makes us work even harder) through "busy-ness" (business), not the "dangerously" hedonistic pursuit of pleasure (See, of course, Max Weber).

When we Americans do allow ourselves time for lassitude, we do so, as a rule, in a very planned, business-like manner (or totally "drop out" through drugs). Las Vegas, "sin city," is the best example of this pleasureless, high-strung "fun-fun-fun," which has little to do with the dolce far niente, a key -- frivolous "art for art's sake" types would say -- to savoring life in an aesthetic (meaningful?) way.

We Americans are known worldwide for our power to "entertain" (and Hollywood-style entertainment, it could be argued, is essentially about biological "relaxation" -- comparable to a satisfying bowel movement or "pigging-out" on junk food). Mindless blockbuster movies and vulgar pop "music" are among our most profitable exports.

Based on my experience in the Foreign Service (and, needless to say, personal biases), however, I have found that many foreigners, no matter what social class or education, don't understand why our official diplomatic missions show so little interest in presenting "serious" American culture to them (and course "serious" depends on whom you're talking with).

Non-Americans are aware that the U.S. does have splendid orchestras, theaters, museums. I don't want to suggest, mind you, that America is without culture; I simply want to say that "culture" does not play the central role in American life that it plays in other countries in continental Europe, Asia, and parts of the Middle East. An Italian government official said at a White House conference that her country's Ministry of Culture was as important in Italy as is the Petroleum Ministry in Saudi Arabia. What she said about the Saudis/Italy could apply to the U.S., perhaps.

Foreigners are struck by how little the world's most powerful nation does -- in an "official" way -- to display its art to interested persons. Interestingly but not surprisingly, when the USG does -- all too rarely -- fund cultural activities overseas, it likes to call them "workshops." That, of course, spares the State Department of being accused of frivolity by Congresspersons claiming to represent the hard-working taxpayer; artists are working, so everything's ok, no money is being wasted. Another favorite Foggy Bottom "cultural" program, by the way, is "arts management" -- and yes, that's very important business. Again, let's get 'em artists working -- i.e., producing as if in a corporation -- right.

During the past eight years, many abroad have considered America hostage to a crude & rude "cowboy president." Bush, despite his Yale and Harvard "education," has been seen as uncivilized (a word all too often used by critics of America, which is far too busy reinventing itself to be "civilized"), not only because of his barbaric, scorched-earth "shock and awe" policies (for which Americans will pay a price for many years) but also, I would suggest, because of the little respect he showed toward the fine arts (in Russia, there was a rumor that Bush, in a St. Petersburg palace, stuck chewing gum beneath the table at which he was sitting).

The favorite form of relaxation for this preppy cheerleader reformed alcoholic is physical exercise (of course, nothing wrong with that), an activity also much favored by his football-crazy Secretary of State (it was reported that a preferred topic of their discussions is sports -- as Americans were dying in Iraq?, some may ask).

Among the many not-so-subliminal "W" messages, during the past eight miserable years, to the homeland, was the following: "I, your mission-accomplished commander in chief -- while engaging in my 'free time' in communications with the Almighty -- work too hard during the day to listen to music or read a book" (I personally wonder if he's ever really read the Bible, one of the great literary masterpieces). Say a "prayer" and in bed by 10 pm. No nonsense.

Under Bush, the presidency was totally divorced from culture; how many persons in the world associate "Dubya" with an exhibit or concert (or an experimental artistic project on the Internet)? Very few, if any; indeed one of Bush's "pleasures" was to show Saddam Hussein's handgun to White House visitors. In all fairness to the Bushes, First Lady Laura the Librarian showed an interest in books; and a picture of Bush that will always be remembered is his holding a book -- yes, Bush with a book!: My Pet Goat, in front of students at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, on September 11, 2001, as flames ravaged the World Trade Center in New York.

Given that Americans are reluctant to support their culture overseas -- Hey, why should we? We've got Hollywood doing that! Get real! We're in the middle of a hell of a recession! First things first! -- it cannot be expected that public diplomacy will receive the funding to significantly increase its cultural programs under the new administration (but then one never knows; miracles do happen).

Meanwhile, however, instead of waiting for miracles, Americans with an appreciation for the arts -- and such Americans, many of them, do exist, more than foreigners are willing to acknowledge, as snobs among the overseas elite (many of them sending their children to colleges in the U.S. no American can afford) hold their "culture" as a superiority point over the bons sauvages in the New World -- such Americans should encourage the new president, Barack Obama, to make the White House a more culture-friendly place. As was the case during the Kennedy years, the residence of our Chief Executive should be a venue for cultural activities of all types, ranging from concerts to poetry readings, to which foreigners (including, needless to say, visiting heads of state and other official representatives, including in the field of culture) would be invited.

Non-Americans felt that the Kennedys were "one of them" because of the presidential interest in the arts. No reason why the articulate Barack and his elegant spouse cannot show the same interest in the enchanting sides of life while they serve in the White House (and they do not necessarily have to be culture-vultures to do so; after all Ian Fleming was one of JFK's favorite authors).

Bringing culture to the White House would do much to demonstrate to the world that Americans can, indeed, value the arts. True, we'll never have a Ministry of Culture (nor should we), but if our new president (a published author who has a literary bent) takes the arts seriously (and I do not mean solemnly) and shares this appreciation publicly with his fellow citizens and other inhabitants of Mother Earth, it will help show our small planet that the cowboy presidency is indeed over and that after eight xenophobic years we Americans are again trying to connect with the rest humankind -- a humankind defined, in many ways, by its greatest cultural achievements, of infinite variety throughout the world.

And, finally, how about starting off the new administration on the right cultural footing, by having a poet (say the Library of Congress's Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan, who has written about the "idle maunderings poets feed upon") read at the Obama inauguration, just as Robert Frost (ironically, something of a Puritan himself) did when John F. Kennedy assumed the presidency?

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Persuasion and Enchantment

Public Diplomacy can't make up its mind about what it's about -- and that's fine. I'm thinking of writing a piece on the tension between persuasion and enchantment as the "goal" of public diplomacy. Pentagon/State Dept green-shades types, corporate think-thank funders, beltway heavy-hitters, etc. (sorry for the generalization) are heavily into PD being a form of "persuasion" -- i.e., make 'em do what we want 'em to do (basically, propaganda). But it's not that simple. There's a role for enchantment (you want a definition? Find it on the Internet!) in American public diplomacy: How about enchantment instead of "shock and awe" or "convincing the natives" -- i.e, the rest of the world -- about the virtues of our so-called all-American values? Ben Franklin, considered by many our first "public" diplomat, would have understood this, but few of our "strategic communications" experts even consider it (enchantment): not "serious" and "quantifiable" enough for them. We've gotta to win that war on terror right now ... (as if Franklin were not "fighting" the most important American war of them all -- the War of Independence).

"Ô douce volupté, sans qui dès notre enfance Le vivre et le mourir nous deviendraient égaux."

I do eat freedom fries.

Second Life

What I most like about Second Life is that, at least superficially, it is a bit like a Brazilian carnival (on the other hand, it also reminds me of the lifeless Giant supermarket where I shop, so different from open-air markets throughout the world, with their real-world smells and agitation). To my parochial, earth-bound taste, there are sinister sides to SL that are not (at least to yours truly) so appealing: a kind of fake-light, all-enclosingness to SL (like the neon shadeless illumination at Giant), as if SL were more "After" Life (without Virgil!) than a door-opening "Second" Life. And, could there be nothing better, for the sake of humanity (at this stage of human "evolution"), than the human presence in all its breathing, sun-lit (I must also arctic-cooling, to be PC) humanity? ... but maybe we all are "emerging" beyond this all-too-human state, like the fish leaving the deep oceans to become a terrestial lizard (do I have the right specie?), as Darwin's revelations tell us (but then man makes evolution looks ridiculous, to paraphrase the famous phrase; is there really an "evolution" -- or should it be a "devolution"). Cynics would say: whom would you rather spend a evening with: a human being or a clam?