Monday, April 30, 2012

Culture Vultures Meet in Salzburg, Austria (Day 2, April 29)

Culture Vultures Meet in Salzburg (Day 2, April 29)
(for the program of the Seminar, see)

I'm one of the participants taking part, regrettably a day late, in the April 28-May 2 "Public and Private Cultural Exchange-Based Diplomacy: New Models for the 21st Century" conference largely funded by the Sterling Clark Foundation. The event is being held at the Salzburg Global Seminar, housed at a palatial 18th estate with a spectacular view of the Alps (and where the film The Sound of Music was partially filmed).

On April 29, I attended a plenary session, "Shifting Economic Power: New Parameters of Engagement in a Multi-Polar World" and two "breakout sessions" -- one for the above plenary, and the other for "Re-Imagining Public and Private Roles in International Cultural Engagement for the 21st Century." In the evening, I was present at a "Firechat Chat" on "The Role of Museums in International Engagement."

Seventeen persons taking part in the seminar are from the United States; 35 are from other countries, including in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and Latin America. These individuals represent a wide variety of professionals, from the government and private sector (including foundations), concerned with culture and cultural diplomacy.

This blog will not summarize the intellectually stimulating sessions in detail, but rather highlight points (some of which are not unfamiliar to the arts community) that I found noteworthy. Specialists looking for a comprehensive coverage of the conference (and its recommendations) will be rewarded by its final report which will appear in the near future. Some main points of the sessions I attended:

"Re-Imagining Public and Private Roles in International Cultural Engagement for the 21st Century "(Breakout Session)

--Culture is in need of support and recognition from governments. Politicians do not consider culture a priority.

--There are many reasons to fund the arts with public money, from enlightening citizens to engaging foreign countries ("engagement" as a purpose of cultural diplomacy is a oft-repeated word in the conference). Increased tourism can be an added benefit from the promotion of culture, as can creating income-producing crafts for developing countries. The political class should be made aware of these positive results stemming from culture.

--Non-governmental funding for culture is hard to obtain, even in the U.S., where more money for support of the arts originates from private sources than in countries where there is a long tradition of state sponsorship for them. One conference participant pointed out that, in a Latin American nation, private money, when it is given away, is usually intended for the church, because (as is not the case with the arts), this act of philanthropy supposedly can save your soul.

--Cultural activists should help artists find ways to earn an income themselves rather than depend on private grants or state subsidies. The internet site Kick-Start is an intriguing model on how to stimulate "grass-roots" cultural projects.

--Culture can create a sense of national identity in some countries, but not so much in the U.S., marked, in the words of a participant, by "a mess of cultural ideas." In China, culture is a "glue" used by the government to bind the population together.

"Shifting Economic Power: New Parameters of Engagement in a Multi-Polar World" (Plenary Session)

--In our increasingly multipolar world, emerging countries in Asia are asserting themselves culturally and showing national pride. A "tectonic shift," marked by a global shift of power to "the Rest" (in contrast to the West), is taking place.

--Among elements of emerging powers' cultural engagement are the government, the media, and the diaspora.

--The West must develop partnerships with the new Asian powers, and find innovative models of collaboration with them.

--Hybrid cultures traverse tradition; a cosmopolitan spirit is needed for engagement.

--Non-democratic systems (e.g., the Soviet Union) can appreciate the power of culture more than democratic ones. Brazil, under dictatorship, supported high culture more than when it turned to democracy. Culture doesn't necessarily mean civilization (e.g., Nazi Germany).

--When a civil society compromises on its basic values, it risks putting its culture in danger by not enabling its creators.

--In the U.S., matters are moving backward in cultural engagement. Supporting books on religion is a current trend.

--Europe, whose ethnic composition is changing drastically, needs "help" in learning how to engage with the rest of the world culturally.

"Shifting Economic Power: New Parameters of Engagement in a Multi-Polar World" (Breakout Session)

--Persons who could have enriched the conference by their presence: young leaders, members of the savvy social-media new generation.

--Culture in Russia has always been a part of its history. State-supported culture there continues to be the norm, with the government trying to win over youth by encouraging more up-to-date cultural events. Currently in Russia there are only three foundations promoting culture.

--In China, the internet has created a "community beyond borders" that is marked by cultural entrepreneurs. Trading in cultural products will be most profitable in the future.

--Thomas Friedman's "flat world" may be an efficient economic model by removing the obstacles to the global distribution of goods, but to stimulate cultural engagement what is needed is a multidimensional world that prizes diverty.

--There are certain principles (whose implementation varies according to time and place) that should guide cultural engagement (a) responsible leadership, which depends on a harmonious relationship between artists/creators, funders/supporters, and audiences/public (b) involvement of the new generation (c) Making the voice of culture heard by government and society; assuring that it has a seat at the table.

--Proper training is essential for successful cultural engagement.

"The Role of Museums in International Engagement" (Fireside Chat)

--Issues pertaining to museums discussed included: educating the public; exchange projects; national identity; encouraging multiple voices rather than creating a repository of permanent knowledge; self-censorship; the place of foreign objects in the institution that houses them; repatriation and loans of collections; the art marketplace.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Seminar: Public and Private Cultural Exchange-Based Diplomacy: New Models for the 21st Century


At the onset of the 21st century, cultural diplomacy is encountering new challenges as policymakers, artists, and cultural leaders adapt to a rapidly changing global environment. This change is being driven by multiple factors, including the emergence of a multi-polar world, the growing influence of rapidly developing nations in Asia, South America, and the Gulf, increasing urbanization, rising educational levels, and accelerated scientific and business innovation. At the same time, the arts are experiencing seismic shifts emanating from more pluralistic and inclusive definitions of culture, a greater preponderance and acceptance of arts activity at all levels, and increased participation in the arts through broadcast, digital, and social media. Making matters even more complicated, our world is being recast by forces of cohesion and division. While digital technology and integrated markets are interconnecting global societies as never before, political, cultural, and religious tensions continue to create divides. Thus, the landscape for cultural diplomacy has changed dramatically and, consequently, the priorities and methods of cultural diplomacy need to change with the times and align more fully with new modes of cultural and political engagement.

The revitalization of cultural engagement will require new energies and forms of collaboration between artists, cultural organizations, governmental and intergovernmental bodies, private foundations, corporations, and other citizen groups. The purpose of this Salzburg Global Seminar session is therefore to conduct an informed exchange among these constituencies, by bringing together policy experts, artists, cultural leaders, heads of cultural institutions and foundations, corporate leaders, and others committed to international cultural engagement to explore the evolving purposes, forms, and tools of cultural diplomacy in the 21st century. Plenary sessions and working groups will focus on the following themes: new pathways for government-sponsored cultural diplomacy; cultural organizations on the frontlines of arts exchange; new roles for NGOs and the private sector; and cultural diplomacy and exchange in the digital age. The convening is intended to foster a fresh exchange of ideas and to develop new rationales and approaches for cultural engagement at a pivotal moment in the evolution of cultural diplomacy.

The Program of the Seminar

Public and Private Cultural Exchange-Based Diplomacy: New Models for the 21st Century 490th Salzburg Global Seminar

Saturday, April 28 – Wednesday, May 2, 2012


SATURDAY, 28 April 2012


12:30 Lunch
15:30 Coffee/Tea


Stephen Salyer
President, Salzburg Global Seminar
Margaret Ayers
President and CEO, Robert Sterling Clark Foundation
Susanna Seidl-Fox
Program Director, Culture and the Arts, Salzburg Global Seminar


The Historic 18th Century Home of the Salzburg Global Seminar

18:30 DINNER



MODERATOR: Andras Szanto (Session Rapporteur) Writer, Arts Consultant,
New York, United States and Budapest, Hungary
Karen Hopkins, President, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, United States
Arturo Navarro, Executive Director, Mapocho Cultural Center, Santiago, Chile
Yasushi Watanabe, Professor, Keio University, Tokyo, Japan
Xiang Xiaowei, Deputy Director General, Bureau for External Cultural Relations, Ministry of Culture, Beijing, People’s Republic of China

Followed by RECEPTION

SUNDAY, 29 April 2012


Michael Kaiser, President, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC, United States

MODERATOR: Andras Szanto, Session Rapporteur

Sari Bermudez, Chief Executive Officer, Inter-American Culture and Development Foundation, Washington, D.C., United States; former President, National Council for Culture and the Arts, Mexico
John Brown, Author, John Brown’s Public Diplomacy Press and Blog; Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University, Washington, DC, United States
Joy Mboya, Artistic Director, The GoDown Arts Centre, Nairobi, Kenya
Corina Suteu, Director, Romanian Cultural Institute, Romania, New York, United States


10:30 Coffee/Tea

12:30 Lunch


Vishakha Desai, President, Asia Society, New York, United States

MODERATOR: Andras Szanto, Session Rapporteur

Raj Isar, Independent Cultural Advisor; Professor, Cultural Policy Studies,
American University of Paris, France
Moukhtar Kocache, Program Officer, Ford Foundation, Cairo, Egypt
Michael Schindhelm, Writer, Cultural Manager, and Theater and Film Director, Zurich and Moscow
Claudia Toni, Expert on Public Policies for Arts and Culture; Chief Consultant
for Music and Dance, Sao Paulo State Public TV and Radio, Sao Paulo, Brazil


15:30 Coffee/Tea


18:30 Dinner

MODERATOR: Andras Szanto, Session Rapporteur
Michael Conforti, President, Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, United States
Yuko Hasegawa, Chief Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Japan
Görgün Taner, General Manager, Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, Istanbul, Turkey
Mats Widbom, Director & Cultural Counselor for Sweden, The Swedish Institute,
Paris, France; former Director, Museum of World Culture, Gothenburg, Sweden




Vernon Ellis, Chair, British Council, London, United Kingdom

MODERATOR: Andras Szanto, Session Rapporteur


Basma El Husseiny, Managing Director, Al Mawred al Thaqafy, Cairo, Egypt
Olga Garay, General Manager, Department of Cultural Affairs, Los Angeles, California, United States
Rita King, Vice President of Business Development, Science House, New York, New York, United States
Lowery Stokes Sims, Charles Bronfman International Curator, Museum of Art and Design, New York, New York, United States



10:30 Coffee/Tea


12:30 Lunch



Oussama Rifahi, Executive Director, Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, Beirut,

MODERATOR: Andras Szanto, Session Rapporteur


Joshua Fouts, Executive Director, Science House Foundation, Science House, New York, United States
Dieter Bogner, Museum Planner, Art Historian, Author, and Collector of Site-Specific Contemporary Art Installations, Vienna, Austria
Susan Sollins, Executive Director, Art21, New York, United States


15:30 Coffee/Tea


18:30 Barbecue



10:30 Coffee/Tea


MODERATOR: Andras Szanto, Session Rapporteur


12:30 Lunch


MODERATOR: Andras Szanto, Session Rapporteur

15:30 Time to visit Salzburg


Venetian Room



Followed by PARTY

Departures after Breakfast

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Can the Humanities Be Saved?

Posted By Janice Fiamengo at on April 22, 2012 @ 12:00 am In Uncategorized | 74 Comments

When I finally landed a tenure-track position at a Canadian university, I was ecstatic and full of hope — exhilarated by the opportunity to teach students about literature and ideas and to have conversations with colleagues equally in love with literature and ideas. I didn’t realize that my experience as a university teacher of English would have much less to do with these passions than with the distortion of the university’s core mission in the name of pedagogical and political orthodoxy.

To begin with, the student writing that came across my desk left me aghast. I had taught before, but I was unprepared for the level of illiteracy, the stunted vocabularies, near-complete absence of historical knowledge, and above all the extraordinary apathy of many English majors. The most basic of expression rules — the difference between it’s and its, the incorrectness of “would of” for “would have,” the role of the apostrophe or semi-colon, the fact that “a lot” was two words — were beyond the grasp of the majority, no matter how often I reviewed grammar or devised mnemonic devices. And the sheer sloppiness and muddled thinking in the essays, where the titles of poems and authors’ names were frequently misspelled and dates were wildly inaccurate, suggested a fundamental indifference to the subject matter.

Not only was my students’ writing appalling, but I soon encountered their resentment at being told about it. “Who are you to tell me I can’t write?” was the attitude — once expressed in those very words. More than one student insisted that her other teachers had always rewarded her with high marks for her “creativity.” Most believed themselves more than competent. After sitting with one young woman explaining the cause of her failing grade, I was befuddled when her only response was a sullen: “This doesn’t exactly make me feel good.” When I responded that my job was not to make her feel good, she stood haughtily, picked up her paper with an air of injury, and left my office without another word. In her mind, I later realized, I had been unforgivably cruel.

I was up against it: the attitude of entitlement rampant amongst university students and nurtured by the utopian ideology that permeates modern pedagogy, in which the imposition of rules and identification of errors are thought to limit student creativity and the fostering of a hollow self-esteem takes precedence over the building of skills on which genuine self-respect might be established. In the Humanities subjects in particular — and in English especially, the discipline I know best — such a philosophy has led to a perilous watering down of course content, with self-validation seen as more important than the mastery of specific knowledge.

With this philosophy has come a steady grade inflation. The majority of students in English courses today can expect a B grade or higher merely for warming a seat and handing in assignments on time. The result, as I soon discovered, was a generation of students so accustomed to being praised for their work that when I told them it was inadequate, they simply could not or would not believe me. They seemed very nearly unteachable: lacking not only the essential skills but also the personal gumption to respond adequately to criticism.

When I mentioned my dismay to fellow teachers, a number were sympathetic, sharing stories of student resistance and unwarranted smugness. One told me of her humiliation at being hauled before the department head by a posse of disgruntled students who alleged that the grades she had awarded were at least 5% lower than their average, and must therefore be raised to correspond with their accustomed level. Rather than laughing them out of his office, the department chair undertook to investigate the matter, informing the instructor that if the allegation was found to be correct, her marks would have to be revised. In the end, the case was not as straightforward as the students had claimed and my colleague’s marks were allowed to stand, but the damage to her sense of authority — and the outrageous notion that a professor’s marking could be determined by precedent and forcibly harmonized with previous grades, regardless of quality — had already taken effect.

Other professors with whom I spoke were not so sympathetic. They stressed the personal challenges students faced at university, the need to consider so-called alternative pedagogies to pique student interest. In other words, the problem was mine if students did not “feel good.”

One colleague suggested — when I complained that not a single student had read the assigned novel on the day we were to begin discussing it — that I should show a film on a related subject for a change of pace. At a professional teaching workshop designed to re-ignite one’s teaching passion, I was told that group discussion need not be stymied by the fact that students came to class unprepared; a student who had done the assigned reading could explain the reading to the others in the group so that all could participate and benefit. The message was clear enough: being hip and cheerful and expecting little and demanding nothing were the keys to happy classroom encounters. And student happiness — not commitment to the subject — was unquestionably the goal.

As Mark Steyn analyzed in his recent book [1] on the decline of America, the emphasis on a vacuous therapeutic empowerment of the student body has led to a drastic lowering of expectations in North American post-secondary institutions. Students now read less than ever before for their courses, and professors are under increasing pressure to evaluate students in non-traditional ways (i.e., outside of tests and essays). The burgeoning number of students who register with a disability complicates evaluation: teachers are expected to accommodate invisible learning problems — their nature undisclosed due to privacy considerations — which mandate that they provide extra time on in-class tests, refrain from imposing late penalties, provide their lecture notes to students, or allow them to write exams on a word processor. The emphasis in hiring decisions on student evaluations of teachers — see, for example, the public website “Rate My Professor,” in which students’ often crass assessments are posted for all to see (“She’s hot!” “His voice puts you to sleep”) — makes it increasingly attractive to instructors to earn popularity, or at least to avoid attack, by giving high grades and making their courses fun rather than demanding.
As traditional content is removed from courses, it is often replaced by non-academic material, specifically a devotion to “social justice” that masquerades as critical analysis despite the fact that the impartial weighing of evidence so necessary to such analysis is largely absent from its championing of victims. In books such as The Professors [2], David Horowitz has shown the dominance of Leftist activists at American colleges and “the extent to which radicalism at the very edges of the American political spectrum [has] established a central place in the curriculum of American universities.” A recent report [3] by the California Association of Scholars laments the widespread politicization of teaching, pointing out the extraordinary imbalance of liberal to conservative scholars at California universities (29:1 in the Berkeley English Department, for example), a situation that certainly applies across North America. Many professors in the Humanities and Social Sciences devote themselves less to teaching their particular disciplines than to decrying the presumed crimes of the United States, sympathizing with Islamic terrorists and other violent dissidents, calling for the overthrow of the capitalist world order, and condoning plans for the destruction of Israel.

As Horowitz explains, the radicalization of the Humanities and the decline of academic standards are closely related, with political commitment often necessitating the abandonment of scholarly integrity. Many teachers of English no longer care much about prosody or literary history or correct grammar because such subjects seem trivial beside the grand social struggles that claim their allegiance. It may well seem more urgent to combat racism than to combat the comma splice, to analyze patriarchal privilege rather than Jane Austen’s irony; and when right thinking is more important than rigorous thinking, details can be overlooked in the cause of student enlightenment. Combine this with an administrative emphasis on filling seats and a state commitment to student access, and one has the perfect academic storm, one that sweeps away scholastics and whirls in crude social engineering.

That many of my colleagues seemed sincere in their commitment to history’s underdogs cannot excuse the damage caused by their policies and by their skewed teaching practices — for their ideological convictions were often imported into the classroom, where a balanced overview of course material was sacrificed to the politics of “race, class, and gender.” Students learn quickly enough in such courses that success requires them to adopt approved positions: to be skeptical of Western nations’ claims to equality and justice, to understand their country’s history as a record of oppression, and to look with ready admiration at non-Western cultures, which they are taught to see as superior. Young white men learn early on that history’s villains are usually white men. Lesbian identities, Aboriginal culture, and Sharia law are protected from critical appraisal by charges of homophobia, genocidal racism, or cultural imperialism. Instructors often choose the texts on their syllabus not to represent the traditional scholarly consensus on the important and best literature of the period but rather to represent a range of victim groups presented in noble conflict with the forces of social prejudice. Literature is taught not because it is valuable in itself but because it teaches students to denounce inequality and to empathize with victims, and to feel appropriately empowered in grievance or guilty by association.
Indeed, some students become so immersed in Leftist ideology — a kind of secret society whose code language they have learned in fear and trembling and now exercise with pride — that they believe it the only possible view of the world and have never seriously considered alternatives except as the deplorable prejudices of the hateful unwashed. Their conviction of rightness has revealed itself in a multitude of anti-intellectual and repressive behavior on university campuses across the country.

What is to be done? De-radicalizing the Humanities will be no easy task, for the ranks of the professoriate are filled with instructors who see their primary responsibility to be that of advancing ideological goals. True believers as they are, they will not be easily dissuaded from their cause, and dissenters from Left orthodoxy often feel overwhelmed, beleaguered, and under threat. Yet saving the Humanities for genuine scholarship has never been more urgent, and it is heartening to know that articulate champions of reform such as Horowitz and others, including Richard Cravatts, Stanley Fish, and David Solway, continue to raise their voices in dismay and stalwart hope. Some day, perhaps, if the decline is not irreversible and if more courageous professors will stand against the corruption of the academic enterprise, departments of English might once again become places where professors and students pursue a love of literature.

Via MC on Facebook

Monday, April 23, 2012

Exclusive Interview with U.S. Diplomat Peter Van Buren on American Public Diplomacy

Interview with American Diplomat

Image from

1. Public Diplomacy (PD) is a hard term to define. Some say it’s just a euphemism for propaganda. The Department of State’s definition is “engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences.” For some  traditionally-minded diplomats and commentators, the term “public diplomacy” is an oxymoron (true diplomacy, they argue, is practiced behind closed doors, not in public).  How would you define PD? 

Any communications strategy, from advertising to propaganda to social media to whatever you want to call it, plays second to reality—actions really do speak louder than words. So as long as deaths in wedding parties from misplaced drone attacks, atrocities by soldiers and videos of Abu Ghraib exist, you are not going to fool anyone regardless of how many Tweets you send out. In an age of increasingly prevalent media, the usual bullshit of the Secretary standing up in Geneva proclaiming support for human rights while people in their own countries see the U.S. overtly supporting nasty autocrats will dominate mind space. Here’s a graphic (not my work) that illustrates the point:

Look at the outcome of the Haditha massacre in Iraq: 24 unarmed Iraqis were slaughtered by an out-of-control group of Marines in 2005, and now, seven years later, the case is finally concluded and no one is going to jail. You can Tweet and Facebook until the end of time, but that story will resonate for even longer within the Arab world.

The Haditha outcome also illustrates the point of relevancy. While most FSOs and almost all of the American public are probably ignorant about what happened in Haditha, the incident is well known among politically-minded Iraqis. On the day when everyone there was talking about the guiltless conclusion, U.S. Embassy Baghdad PD was bleating happily about jazz and some art exhibit. The appearance—to Iraqis—was one of trying to change the topic, change the channel, to distract from the real issue of the day.

So whatever PD is, it can only be less effective than what the U.S. is actually doing.

2. Edward R. Murrow, the famed newsman and Director of the United States Information Agency during the Kennedy administration, is often quoted as saying that public diplomacy, as regards the formulation of policy, should be seriously taken into consideration at the take-off, not at the crash landing. More bluntly, you can’t put lipstick on a pig. What is your view on the relationship between public diplomacy and policy?

See above.

3. As you know, the above-mentioned United States Information Agency (1953-1999), which handled public diplomacy during the Cold War, was consolidated into the State Department a few years after the collapse of Russian communism, thereby reflecting a historical pattern of the USG abolishing its “propaganda” (anti-propaganda?) agencies (e.g., the Committee on Public Information [1917-1919], the Office of War Information [1942-1945]) when a global conflict is over. Nostalgic USIA veterans tend to regret the dissolution of “their” independent agency, a relatively small organization (by Washington standards) giving its overseas officers considerable flexibility to act, on behalf of U.S. national interests, as they saw fit according general policy guidelines and local conditions (as an ex-USIA senior official told me over lunch not long ago, “we got away with murder”). Not amused by such declarations of independence (often unspoken), strait-laced State Department employees referred to USIA as “Useless,” a play of words on USIA’s overseas designation, USIS (United States Information Service). What’s your take on PD now being, bureaucratically, a State function? Does it make PD more manageable and streamlined?

You can see the themes of relevancy and credibility running through this interview.

State Department output, what we say out loud, is characterized by caution above all else, a weird play on the Hippocratic Oath. But the “safest” things to say (We urge all sides to reconsider, Mistakes were made) have little value outside Foggy Bottom. A bit of vitality is needed, and PD lacks that now. In what foreign country do people routinely turn to a PD news source? Anything that flows into the State Department gets filtered out into the equivalent of “male pale and Yale,” usually three days after the story has moved off the front pages. Safe, for sure, but also irrelevant. Often, irrelevant by choice if not by policy.

For example, to enflame my ulcer, I just flipped over to Twitter. Several Embassies are Tweeting “Happy Earth Day” in unison, obviously a central command meme of the day from Washington. So what? Nothing wrong with Earth Day, but so what? Is the U.S. not still the world’s predominant carbon fuels burner? What is the specific goal of sending Happy Earth Day Tweets out in English to whomever?

Alec Ross, State’s alleged social media king, Tweets today “97 years ago today, modern chemical weapons 1st used in war. German troops released chlorine gas on the front lines at Ypres, killing 5,000” with no link or explanation. I am not even sure what the point of that is, never mind how it might play into any of the national goals of the U.S.. Alec Tweets out these odd “fun facts” regularly, to what point I do not know.

The lack of content, of vitality, also means that State only practices half of the social media equation. I see little evidence of interactivity, though people do try and break through the screen and ask visa questions, usually very specific to a person/case type questions because they cannot get them answered from inundated Consular sections. Posts crow over how many people watched or viewed something, but very rarely entertain true interactivity. I am sure they are afraid of it, afraid of saying anything that hasn’t been cleared by several layers above them. That may be great for career security (the goal) but it does little to really put social media to use. Just the opposite, really.

4. The invasion and occupation of Iraq is considered by many a public-diplomacy disaster. Your own book on your one-year Foreign-Service experience (2009-2010) in that country has, as part of its title, “How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” For those who have not had the opportunity to read your admirable volume, where/how did U.S. PD go so wrong in Iraq? Is it possible to say that America did, on occasion, do certain things right in its attempts to remake (in its own image) the cradle of civilization?

My experience with PD in Iraq was all propaganda all the time. PD’s conception of PRT work was simply to over promote any small thing we did that wasn’t a complete failure. If we dug a well, not necessarily a bad thing, the headline was “Bringing Water to Mesopotamia.” Every PRT project had to include an interview with some Hollywood backlot Iraqi praising the United States, because as we know only White People can help the Brown Skinned of the world. PD didn’t even try to balance or nuance a story; they wrote entirely for themselves and their bosses and Washington. People in Iraq certainly knew the truth, living it 24/7 in a world without water, electricity or sewers or schools, so who was PD trying to fool if not themselves? I wrote about this in more detail here and included a PD video piece so your readers can see for themselves what their tax dollars paid for.

5. The new social media, some argue, are redefining public diplomacy, with the buzzword “public diplomacy 2.0,” coined during the Bush administration, still quite à la mode inside the beltway.  Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Alec Ross, according to a twitterer attending his recent talk at American University, stated that “I don’t think of myself as a public diplomacy official. I think  ... public diplomacy is more old-school American propaganda.” In your view, how important/effective are the social media as a tool for the State Department to engage (a favorite word of the current administration) “key international audiences”?

To begin, you must have a goal—sell soap, get people to switch from Coke to Pepsi, turn out to vote, stop joining al Qaeda, something you can use to know if you have succeeded and completed what you started out to do. Social media as practiced by the Department is amateur hour. A bunch of people led by the State Department's oldest living teenager Alec Ross think they understand media because they are banging away and getting weirdly excited by numbers. Success seems to be measured in how many followers an Ambassador has. Yet no one is interested in looking into the substance of social media. When I comment on interactive Embassy web pages or State Twitter accounts on my own blog at, what I see are desperate people trying to get a visa question answered. They have no outlet to ask such questions because Consular sections are under siege, so they bombard social media. When I do see some questioners try and aim for more substantive topics, the replies from State are canned official language, statements that are “clearable” only because they are content-free or simply ape the party line.

So what is social media as practiced by State able to accomplish? You’d think given its emphasis and the money spent that someone would be interested in a Return on Investment study, a way to map out what was accomplished. But State does not work that way—it is all about the “doing” and not about the “getting done.” Social media as practiced is just another flim-flam, foisted on State this round by another short-timer political appointee whose connections to the Secretary mean he can do no wrong. Or, perhaps more honestly, no one has the guts to question his pronouncements. Anyone who has been at work in Foggy Bottom for more than a few years can recall similar flim-flams when Faxes and email were going to reduce the need for overseas personnel (we can do it all from Washington!), or web home pages or video conferencing. All can be useful tools, but you have got to have a goal and you have got to measure your way toward that goal. Otherwise it is just flavor of the month stuff. Didn’t we have virtual embassies for awhile in some 3-D online world game thing?

6. The USG-supported Broadcasting Board of Governors,  which (according to its homepage) became “the independent entity responsible for all U.S. Government and government-sponsored, non-military, international broadcasting on October 1, 1999” (e.g., Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Sawa) and whose mission is “to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy,” is under considerable criticism these days for management failures and for intending to cut back on staff and programs. Based on your foreign-service experience of over two decades, what do you think is the reaction of overseas audiences to USG –supported broadcasting such as Voice of America? Are such broadcasts still necessary for U.S. national interests in an age when information is becoming more and more readily available? In a broader sense, can a journalist, in your view, be a true, objective master of her trade (and can her reports be trusted as reliable) if her paycheck comes from Uncle Sam (to cite Kim Andrew Elliott, a fast-media guru, "Journalism and public diplomacy are very different, indeed adversarial, endeavors").

Credibility is the key. If you look at the very successful penetrations of American society by foreign “public affairs,” you see sources of news and entertainment that are clearly allied with a foreign entity (China Xinhua News,, al Jazeera, the BBC) and do not try to hide that fact. Yet, at the same time, they are aggressive in presenting a side of news that is missing in America’s mainstream media, often pointing out the “other side” to a story or not shying away from reporting U.S. Government mistakes and misjudgments. Their credibility comes not from being pro-Russia, but from tapping into a need in the U.S. for alternative news sources.

People are too sophisticated now, even in the developing world, to be reached via crude propaganda—America=Good, al Qaeda=Bad. That costs those sources their credibility and thus their audiences. Who cares what U.S. broadcasting into the Arab world has to say, or crap like Radio Marti? Most of the time it is just self-referential: Obama made a speech and PD says “Here’s Obama’s Speech” in case you missed it elsewhere or really want to plod through 1500 words on Earth Day. No one independently quotes their opinions, no one considers them vital or important the way al Jazeera became simply by filling a real gap in what people wanted to hear.

If the U.S. would try and learn a bit more about what people want, they might find a more ready audience. Instead, our “public diplomacy” programming seems designed more to please our bosses in Washington than to really reach people abroad.

Try it now—go to and imagine yourself a young, politically charged Iraqi. What is on that page that demands your attention? The Cold War ended years ago and we are still talking about jazz.

7. The Smith-Mundt Act (1948), the legislation that provides the statutory basis for U.S. public diplomacy, prohibits the State Department from disseminating domestically USG information intended for overseas audiences. Do you think this firewall, in the Internet age, is anachronistic? Or is there something to be said about prohibiting the U.S. government from “propagandizing” the American people? Would you abolish/amend the Smith-Mundt Act (or, since so few Americans know anything about it, simply let it live on, untouched, in its obscurity, letting sleeping dogs lie)?

I think Smith-Mundt died on the vine already, whether it exists as a law still or not. Given both the ubiquity of the web and the fact that almost all of the U.S. public diplomacy spew is in English, I think we already know who the target audience is. For example, all the phony grief that gets expressed every time a new round of terrible atrocity photos emerge from Afghanistan certainly is not fooling the mothers of the dead Afghans; it is designed to make us feel better here at home. The Afghans know exactly what is happening in their homes and villages, even if the U.S. Government can get away with calling each atrocity just another act of some bad apples. By the way, how many bad apples does it take before you have a whole pie full of them?

8. In the how-many-angels-can-dance-on-a-pin tradition, there is quite a lot of talk, among the PD community both outside and inside of academe, about how to measure the results of public diplomacy. Do you think that there is a scientific way to gauge the impact of PD, both short-term and long-term? Or is the practice of public diplomacy, in the words of scholar Frank Ninkovich, essentially “an act of faith” that, in its often-flawed attempts to make our small planet a better world through greater international understanding, cannot be reduced, in well-intentioned efforts to evaluate it, to statistics on a chart or an executive summary on yet another think-tank report?

The old saying, any road will get you there if you don’t know where you’re going, applies here. If I was allowed back into the building and to ask a question of someone important in Public Affairs, I’d ask this: why isn’t your whole “PD” strategy built around sending out messages in bottles dropped into the ocean? Now of course the analogy only goes so far, but just as the message in the bottle strategy can be dismissed with a quick thought experiment (who knows who reads what, and what they do after the read it), can anyone really make a different claim for the State Department’s current efforts?

Metrics start with a clear goal, an end state to use the military term, and work backwards from there. One of the core problems with the State Department, and the one that most significantly contributes to the Department’s increasing irrelevance in foreign policy, is that State seems just content to “be,” to create conditions of its own continued existence. So, if social media is a new cool thing, and Congress will pay for it, then social media it is. What if instead the organization had more concrete goals? Then we could measure back from them. I’ll not trouble readers with my own list of foreign policy goals, but if the best you can come up with is something so broad as “engage the public” then you are pretty close to having no real goal at all. Best to throw notes into the ocean and hope for the best.

Bonus: One cheap and easy way for a non-thinker to dismiss these points is to say “Well, sure, it is easy to ask the questions, but where are Van Buren’s answers? If he wants metrics, what does he propose?”

Of course that is a silly line of reasoning. Change begins with the questions, the point of asking is to stimulate the search for answers and solutions. It would be easier if all the solutions to all of the PD problems could be laid out in a short interview, but life ain’t that way cowboys. Don’t dismiss important questions for lack of easy answers. Instead, realize there are higher goals than obedience and career climbing and at least allow room for the Questions and admit the need to look for Answers.

As a starting point, perhaps consider this: When you get a machine that is so immense and so bureaucratic and so career promotion oriented, the mission will be lost and truth and honesty are mere bystanders eventually wrecking any positive mission. The whole concept of institutions and how they are managed and sized needs to be examined big time. The solution, if there is any, is breaking it down into small autonomous offices or missions or programs that link together but are managed separately eliminating an immense hierarchy.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Loving Like?

"I do not like eggs in the file.
I do not like them in any style."

--Dr. Seuss

If there is one word in the English language I have come not to love, it is the word "like."

Indeed, even in my pre-adolescent youth, the "I like Ike" button rubbed me the wrong way. Somehow the "like-Ike" combo didn't sound right.

Today, "like" as a verb/linguistic tic is all over our American language space.

As a verb, on Facebook: You express your opinion by clicking on "like." But what does a "Facebook-like" really mean? When you think about it, such a "like" means nada.

The "like" option in Facebook was, I would say, inspired by Wall-Street PR talk.

When on Tee-Vee so-called financial experts are questioned about a (non-sexual) "position," they say: "I like" (name your company). If asked, do you own any of the stocks you like, they answer no, I do not like any of the stocks I like.

"Like," as suggested above, is not only America's no. 1 verb, it's, like, its most humongous verbal tic in our, like, most, like, likeable land.

Sit, like, on a subway in the imperial capital (Washington, D.C.) without an i-pod in your ears, and, like, your aural space will be, like, invaded by "likes" uttered by cell-phone users of every age. Few are the "like" (lice?)-infested sentences in these conversations that don't begin and end with "like."

Walk on the street in America today (a disappearing activity in our, like, car-addicted country), and overhear teeny-boppers and aged hippies actually talking, like, to one another directly rather than via cell-phones, and the "like"-invasion will be confirmed: "Like" is the salt-and-pepper of their talk, with pubescent girls' acidic voices, like, screeching "like" like chalk on a blackboard, enough to drive you nuts if you're not, like, hard of hearing.

I can't help thinking: Would Humbert Humbert, of Lolita fame, have been infatuated with 12-year-old Dolores Haze had she been like-chattering away on a cell phone?

Will our diplomats, especially those involved in public diplomacy, end up communicating with the world by constantly using "like" and other such vague and disconnected language? Well, maybe they will (after all, they do represent how our country thinks and talks), but as a way significantly to "engage," the buzzword of the current administration, with overseas audiences, their efforts may have, at best, mixed results, even with the use of the latest social media, one of which, Twitter, limits messages to 140 character (well, like, enough characters for, like, "like," but little else).

But, hey, not to, like, worry. Like, God bless America (and, for Nabokov, Lolita was America) and its, like, non-declining, like, language, which I, like, like (but certainly find hard to love in its current direction).

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

On the Secretly Serviced and Pubic (no typo) Diplomacy

POTUS Visits and Public Diplomacy: Doing Nothing While Waiting for Nothing to Do - John Brown, Huffington Post, November 13, 2010;  image from

See also the just-appeared article by Ambassador Brian Carlson, "Public Diplomacy and POTUS Visits," Public Diplomacy Council (Wednesday, April 18th 2012), with below image:

Term "Secretly Serviced" is from the The Daily News phrase at.

BTW, Why do SS officers flaunt

goofy spy-vs.spy shades? Surely not to blindfold bloodshot eyes ... but perhaps to assure that the movement of their alert irises, not always focused on presidential protection 24/7, are nevertheless not deciphered by an ever-vigilant enemy (or, dare I say, the president himself?). Image from

On SS salaries, see which notes: "If you are applying for a Secret Service job that pays on a salary basis, there are a few things you need to know about how it works. The biggest difference between salary and hourly pay is that your salary does not correllate with how many hours you work. Whether you work 40 hours in a week or 80, you will still receive the same amount on your paycheck. Employers have the right to schedule salary employees as they deem necessary. Typically, salaried employees generally don't have sick/personal time, so you won’t have to be concerned about your pay being docked if you need to take time off. Most employees on salary are considered exempt employees and are not entitled to overtime pay. Some qualify as non-exempt employees and are eligible for

overtime pay [JB emphasis; were those in Colombia on overtime pay?].
Because most salaried employees do not get paid overtime, make sure you know how many hours your employer will expect you to work. Some Secret Service salaries are considered base salaries, with the addition of bonuses for your exemplary performance. A bonus

can be a way to reward you for those long hours, even though you don't get paid overtime." Above Image from; below from

See also Anthony Mercado, "Secret Service Expense Accounts," "In the case of 21 Secret Service agents and soldiers assigned to protect the President of the United States, we're discovering, your hand gets slapped for hiring Colombian call girls while figuring out how to protect the leader of the free world in a foreign country. After an internal investigation by Congress,

you might get fired. According to one room at the Hotel El Caribe in Cartagena, Columbia, where the 21 presidential protectors had the alleged trysts, runs $178 per night or roughly $3,738 per day for 21 rooms. Now, the Secret Service has sent more agents (we don't know how many) to Columbia to investigate the alleged misconduct. Maybe the Hotel El Caribe has given the new resident agents a 10 percent discount

for the embarrassment." Above uncaptioned image from; below image from

Additional image from, under the headline
: "Hillary's Partying [in Colombia]: Bigger Embarrassment than Secret Service Scandal?"

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

BBG Reception iho New Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Soneshine

April 10, I had the pleasure of attending a late-morning Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG)- organized reception in honor of Tara Sonenshine, the new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department.

Having had, in the past, the "third degree" inspection by security staff at the Voice of America's Cohen Building (where the reception was held), I was most surprised -- and immensely relieved -- to have been met by a polite VOA staff member at the entrance of this building who, when I mentioned that I was going to the Sonenshine reception, directly led me, after politely asking for my ID (which, given the gentle tone of the person asking me for it, I had no qualms in providing) to the VOA Briefing Room where it was held.

At a welcoming table outside the Briefing Room, guests were provided with a name tag and materials on BBG's latest initiatives. All very professionally and, most important, kindly, done.

I was at the reception for some 45 minutes, and had a chance to exchange words for a few moments with the most articulate and refreshingly unpretentious VOA Director and, as well, the Director of VOA's Pashtun Service, also open to discussion. I then spoke with a most knowledgeable senior member of RFE/RL about the challenge/opportunities of the new social media to US International Broadcasting.

To spice things up, I was not-so-gently castigated by a senior, enormously intelligent, BBG executive for the contents of my Blog, "John Brown's Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review," which regularly contains items (not my own) critical of the BBG. My ironic response, which did not fully satisfy him, was that I, in compiling this Internet labor of love (love of labor?) was, essentially, that of "a medieval monk writing about the plague years." I was glad to notice, however, a smile on his face.

In the very informal, friendly setting of the reception, I had a chance to meet Ms. Sonenshine, who was kind enough to exchange a few words with me. Frankly, at a loss of what to say to her (at the risk of sounding obsequious, she is a very impressive lady, both in mind and presence), I shared, in the hope of being humorous, a slightly embellished anecdote with her and those around her.

"When I was serving as a Foreign Service Officer in Serbia [officially then as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, unrecognized by the USG], in the mid-1990s," I noted, "I had a talk with a Serbian cab driver as we drove to my requested destination. I uttered words in my broken Serbian for some ten minutes, after which he said, in a perfect Oxford accent, 'You don't speak Serbian badly for a Russian.'"

Ms. Sonenshine laughed.

The BBG has been under immense criticism in recent years. I may be a sucker for people-to-people encounters but this modest one-hour event -- coffee and pastry were available, and no official speeches were given, at least when I was there, all of which cost the US taxpayer little -- showed the human face of the BBG, at least to me.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Why we should not fix the imperial capital's Metro escalators

Before I speak about the DC metro's escalator failures, a few introductory remarks:

We Americans are, let's face it, overweight (put simply, obscenely fat, in a world where many have not enough to eat) more than ever in our history.

To stop this disquieting trend (and is it not disquieting, to the body and the mind?) we need not yet another Federal Program, but simply for us as citizens, on our own, to engage (an over-used buzzword by the current administration) far more than we do in the most elementary of human activities -- walking, including walking up stairs (hey -- this will save us money going to an expensive gym to "lose weight"), to prevent/overcome the troublesome US obesity epidemic, which is costing taxpayers immense sums of money in terms of  medical care -- and I am talking as an overweight person myself.

We need to get out of the plastic cocoon of  physical immobility, part of our consumer culture that forces us, with our silent agreement, that we non-stop eat, eat, eat; incessantly stare, stare, stare at (while being in an airless office cubicle or as a suburban couch potato) TV/the Internet; endlessly gas-guzzling drive, drive, drive (often to nowhere except the shopping center to "buy food"), without using any muscle of our temporal, divinely-given bodies that envelop our souls while on this small planet and that make our lives worth living (pardon the superficial spirituality).

Now to get back to the Metro DC

I say to the imperial capital's authorities and to us DC citizens, who do not have full representation in Congress, despite Washington being the capital of the "free world": Maybe they/we should dump efforts to "fix" DC's Metro failed elevator system. Such constant USA malfunction would put a Third World country to shame and, given Metro's efforts to overcome this bureaucratic/technical "issues" ("issue": 21st Century Newspeak), I am skeptical it can ever solve it with success. (I lived in Moscow from 1998-2001; never did I see, for all that city's malfunctions, an escalator breakdown in its metro system). But that was another era.

Instead of expensive "repairs,'  let's think big:

Dear DC/Federal government/committed public transportation citizens: Get rid of most escalators altogether. Encourage a new lifestyle: let citizens, of all ages (including 64-year geezers like myself) actually to walk up/down non-moving stairs on their way down/up the metro station. It will do wonders for them at their early-morning staff meetings. Having had some exercise, they will feel relaxed, and friendlier toward their colleagues. And they won't have to spend their hard-earned dollars on Starbucks "coffee" to feel "energetic." After "work," following a good hike up the Metro non-moving stairs, they can settle back with friends/family over dinner -- not that we Americans have any "time" for breaking bread with others, including family members, after "work" -- we're too busy collapsing in front of Jay Leno/Jon Stewart Tee-Vee-humor, a sure recipe for assuring that we will have indigestion with the take-out food that makes us obscenely obese.

Of course, for those who read this piece without a sense of irony, as its modest proposal  with a serious intent (walk more, eat less) is a near-impossibility: It does not suggest excluding means of making it possible for disabled citizens to use public transportation, including Metro elevators (today, as is the case with escalators, all-too-often out of order).

American efficiency

Meanwhile, a final word regarding America and the world, my main intellectual interest: While the escalators/elevators don't work in the subway of  the imperial capital of the country that put an American on the Moon (some justifiably wonder, actually, why), are Americans in in a position to claim that we should teach the world about American efficiency?

My suggested official answer; I mean, like, if the DC system, like, doesn't, like whatever. Well, like, ok,  whatever ...  Sorry, I 'm on my cell-phone. Twitter me via ...forgot what I said, like, facebook  whatever  ...

Happy April Fool's Day

Statement by Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Alec Ross – Office of the Spokesman, U.S. Department of State, April 1, 2012: At a recent meeting with me at American University pertaining to the subject of public diplomacy, students in the audience recorded my statements via twitter. A brilliant blogger not present at this event accused a university twitterer of inaccurary in summarizing my comments (which were not taped or transcribed), and one detailed-minded former teacher, also not among the audience, castigated this same twitterer for misrepresenting, by the use of quotation marks, my remarks, which are not available in written form.

While I am far too busy innovating/twittering myself to comment on the accuracy/inaccuracy of the tweets regarding my AU presentation, I wish to praise those who came to the defense of what I really had to say even if they never actually heard me say it. I apologize to them for using more than 140 characters as I most gratefully laud their courageous struggle on my behalf.