Friday, July 31, 2009

The Professor vs. the Cop

It had nothing to do with race -- it had to do with the arrogance of both involved. Both think they're God's gift to mankind. A little humility is in order, for both of them.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Forgotten Kitchen Debate and American Public Diplomacy

If there was one theme at today's impressive conference at George Washington University's "Face-off to Facebook: From the Nixon-Khrushchev Kitchen debate to Public Diplomacy in the 21st Century", it is that US public diplomacy [PD], though its tools of persuasion have changed during the past fifty years, is, above all, about human beings connecting with one another rather than a government "pushing a message" on a "target audience."

Often cited during the conference were the words of Edward R. Murrow, the Director of the United States Information Agency (USIA) during the Kennedy administration, who famously said that USG overseas outreach “is not so much moving information or guidance or policy five or 10,000 miles. … The real art is to move it the last three feet in face to face conversation."

To be sure, during the Cold War, PD's official message ("telling America's story," the logo of the United States Information Agency) was, on the books, essentially about the United States speaking to, rather than with, the rest of the world.

But as Jack Masey, USIA Chief of Design of the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, pointed out about the exhibition, what really worked best in the case of our Cold War "enemy" was that Russians were able to connect with real-life Americans -- the young US exhibition guides (fluent Russian speakers) with whom Russians talked about a wide variety of subjects, some of which had little to do to do with the exhibition itself.

Exhibition guide George Feifer, in his memorable account of his Moscow stay, stressed how important it was to him to speak with Russians directly and how much he had learned about their post-Stalin society through their one-on-one exchanges.

The second part of the conference dealt with "The New Media in Today's Public Diplomacy." Here too a key word was "connect." The new media make it possible for persons throughout the world to link up on matters of shared interest via cyberspace -- rather than, as was arguably the case -- to be manipulated by centrally-controlled twentieth-century old media, government or CNN.

But a key question, asked by a member of the audience, is how the "connections" made possible by the new media can, in fact, act as a last-three-feet-personal, "human presence."

Maybe the new media/computer games can eventually lead to such real-life interaction. But are not more person-to-person cultural/educational exchanges, supported by our government in our national interest, still needed to make such cyber-initiated connections possible in the real world we all live in?

Saturday, July 11, 2009


The more I think about Twitter, the more I am inclined to believe that its current popularity can be seen as an effort nostalgically to return (at least in America) to an idealized "democratic" world (as Jefferson described it), where citizens directly interacted with one another, with no intervening "state/main stream media" filters telling them what they (the citizens) should be telling one another.

So Twitter is, as I see it, at heart, a longing to be part of a local community/home-town situation, with living and breathing persons wanting simply to talk to one another, just wanting, in the most basic of human longings, to say "hello" and telling one another "what's going on, neighbor." (Of course, breathing is not part of the cyberspace universe).

Monday, July 6, 2009

Soft power and soft vowels

First, the bad news:

President Obama mispronounced Russian President Medvedev's name (listen to You-tube) when he first arrived in Russia.

It should be Medvedyev (e.g., the "d" before one way of pronouncing the word "due" [dyoo]), not Medvedev (e.g., the "d" in "down" [doun]), as the president said.

Here's the rule, from my college Essentials of Russian -- fourth edition by A.V. Gronicka and H. Bates-Yakobson (1964), p. 14.

"Consonants, when followed by a soft vowel ... become 'palatalized' or 'softened'; that is, they are produced by flattening the mouth resonator (pressing the tongue up against the roof or palate of the mouth) and are subsequently marked by a raised timbre."

I hope I'm not being a pedant here. But ours is a president who is a stickler for pronouncing persons' names correctly, as a recent article points out.

Public diplomacy is in the details, including getting foreign names right (forget the abstractions of high-falutin' "strategic communications" theory about how to influence people).

And now the good news.

In his speech at the New Economic School (July 7, his last day in Russia) Barack Hussein Obama pronounced the last name of
Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev [ˈdmʲitrʲɪj ɐnɐˈtolʲjɪvʲɪtɕ mʲɪˈdvʲedʲɪf] correctly.

I guess we have the American Embassy in Moscow and the State Department to thank for this pronunciation "reset."

Spasibo, tovarishchi! Long live the eternal friendship between the United States and Russia!