Tuesday, January 8, 2013

New Initiatives in Cultural Diplomacy: A Comment

Yesterday (January 7) I had the privilege to attend a one-hour forum, "New Initiatives in Cultural Diplomacy," presented by the University of Southern California Annenberg Center on Communications Policy and Leadership, the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, and the Public Diplomacy Council. The event's venue was the American Foreign Service Association in Washington D.C. Among the 80-person audience were key individuals from the diplomatic, media, and academic world.

The elegant and brilliant Adam C. Powell III, Senior Fellow, USC Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, and the equally charismatic Morris "Bud" Jacobs, President, Public Diplomacy Council, gave brief introductory remarks. Jacobs noted, quite astutely, that cultural diplomacy's importance was inversly related to the funding it received.

Speakers were (in order of their ten/fifteen minute presentations): Aluwani Museisi, First Secretary, Socio-Economic and Development, Embassy of the Republic of South Africa to the United States; Roger J. Whyte II, Director of Special Events, Washington Performing Arts Society; Anita Maynard-Losh, Director of Community Engagement, Arena Stage; Pennie Ojeda, Director, International Activities, National Endowment for the Arts. The moderator was Susan Clampitt, a consultant to nonprofit and foundations in organizational capacity.

Museisi said that although he, as a diplomat, was "paid" to speak, he personally strongly believed that cultural programs brought people together and thus underscored our common humanity. He outlined some of his embassy's cultural current and future initiatives. Whyte, whose bio includes "producing the logistics of the First Lady's trip to Haiti," spoke about his collaboration with the South African Embassy. Maynard-Losh, who (among her many activities) conceived and directed an Alaska Native-inspired production of MacBeth, summarized her cultural outreach activities in India. Ojeda, who provides expertise and guidance on international cultural policy issues with the U.S. Department of State, power-pointed the international activities of the National Endowment for the Arts, focusing on "Southern Exposure," a program to introduce North Americans to Latin American culture. (I am citing from the hand-out at the meeting).

The speakers admirably demonstrated their deep commitment to culture. But as they spoke I could not quite agree with what they perceive culture to be. Essentially, for them, it is an instrument for a purpose other than itself. At the risk of simplifying, their views on culture seemed to me to be, in a nutshell:
  • A tool in an embassy's efforts to present a positive image of a country (e.g., South Africa) as multicultural and diverse (Museisi)
  • Yet another "program" that has to be organized efficiently (Whyte)
  • A kind of social/political therapy that gives the oppressed/underprivileged (e.g.. young women in India), a chance to "speak out" (Maynard-Losh)
  • An activity -- gentle social engineering with international dimensions -- that constantly needs funding (Ojeda)
"Engagement" and "listening" were key words in the compelling speakers' presentations. I'm not quite sure what "engagement" exactly means; it reminds me of an over-priced ring for someone you might never marry. As for "listening," thank God Picasso created while not waiting for anyone to "listen."

Distant from the distinguished speakers' minds seemed that culture:
  • Provides a magic moment, in and of itself, that goes beyond national/state/bureaucratic/political/gender-focused interests
  • Is not merely about social events that from a PR perspective have to "look great"
  • Doesn't necessarily mean making discriminated-against persons in poverty-stricken countries feel good about themselves, an attitude reflecting a kind of missionary condescension from citizens in a "homeland" where children get murdered in an elementary school
  • Is not a state/corporate program, needing millions of taxpayers' dollars to administer, that supposedly "brings people together"
In response to such utilitarian views on culture, I could not help but think of La Fontaine:
Ô douce Volupté, sans qui, dès notre enfance,/ Le vivre et le mourir nous deviendraient égaux.
But, as the flip side of the same "pleasurable" coin, the unique treasures of culture (please, please don't call them "new initiatives" -- since when do "initiatives" need the adjective "new"?) can be terrifying and unsettling, produced by often thank-God mad outsiders who question everything, including culture itself.

This "dark" side of culture (think of Burroughs or Céline) -- part of our human condition here on planet earth -- was totally missing from our speakers' memorable wonder bread presentations.


Heather said...

Nice post. I, too, believe "culture" has become a buzzword that is tossed around too easily and, as a result, has lost its true meaning. "It's part of our culture" has been used as an excuse to preserve cruel practices (i.e. sati, female circumcision).

Gopi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gopi said...

Great article i too accept your culture its a new Initiatives keep up your good work doing PhD Research Methodology

Joe B. Johnson said...

John elevates this program, which I attended, and makes me feel rather crass. My own account (@ www.publicdiplomacycouncil.org) asks the question: who's paying and why?