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A Serious Conversation


It was an SRO crowd in the huge, stark lecture hall at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. The UCAD campus is like the Senegalese capital itself–most of the wealth you see is human. There were no windows in the lecture hall, and the doors were closed to block the sounds of hallway traffic. It was before noon, but the heat was intense in the big, airless room. It seemed not to matter. You can tell when students listen; you can tell when they care. The questions they asked, in English–their third language, after Wolof and French–removed any doubt I might have had. “You’ve talked about diversity in American writing, but aren’t there things that American writers share? What do they have in common?”

I was in Senegal in connection with a collection of essays published by the State Department. At the end of the session at UCAD, students mobbed me. Everyone who had a copy of Writers on America wanted it signed. Those who didn’t have a copy asked me to sign their notebooks, or even loose pieces of paper. The questions about writing, and about the United States, did not quit coming until I got into a car and left campus.

It was an extraordinary experience. The intellectual curiosity, the hunger for contact, the high spirits and humor of several hundred students would be invigorating anywhere, at any time. In a 96%-Muslim country in West Africa, in the wake of a U.S. war in Iraq that just about all of them opposed, it seemed to me nothing short of amazing. Despite an unpopular foreign policy, despite a near universal perception of American heavy-handedness, people still want to talk. It’s too bad that Americans seem incapable of carrying on a serious conversation.

In his rich and moving new book, Terror and Liberalism, Paul Berman takes note of President Bush’s inability to make himself understood when he speaks to the world. The communication gap is more than a question of oblique syntax. Bush’s ideological shell, Berman points out, works both ways: political discourse outside his conservative frame of reference doesn’t penetrate, and when he tries to articulate the motivation for his foreign policy his vocabulary is inadequate. There’s nothing wrong with evoking words like freedom and democracy, but without the right verbs they come off sounding like slogans. Who’s not for freedom and democracy? The result is an imbalance in the projection of U.S. power. Militarily we are unchallengeable, except through terror’s asymmetric tactics. In terms of ideas, though, right now we are scarcely engaged.

Berman talks about the importance of what he calls a “war of ideas” to address the deficit. Although the term is problematic, the need he identifies is not. Actors such as the unions, which kept up a vigorous international presence during the Cold War, may not be equipped to respond this time around. Of the likely possible players Berman mentions, wealthy American foundations are the most novel and the most promising.

Berman’s sad but safe assumption is that, whoever else may get involved, the U.S. government won’t be mounting much of an effort in the war of ideas. Since the September 11th attacks, a torrent of talk has been loosed on the subject of public diplomacy, an ungainly term to describe the State Department’s public outreach work. Edward R. Murrow’s classic formulation, “telling America’s story to the world, warts and all,” is still a useful evocation of the work despite the fact that both the story and the telling of it have become more complicated since the 1950s. Is the federal government attempting to tell America’s story–more precisely, America’s stories–today?

The preponderance of what gets labeled as public diplomacy is in fact press and information work, and the State Department does an unimpeachable job of communicating U.S. policy messages around the world. At another extreme, State makes a minuscule attempt to project American culture with enterprises like the Jazz Ambassadors, a handful of groups that tour under State Department auspices to countries with limited exposure to American culture. Such so-called cultural diplomacy is the thinnest vestige of more muscular attempts to convey American values and influence foreign public opinion through the arts in the early years of the Cold War. Today, between press work and State’s risible cultural effort lies a big hole, into which Berman’s war of ideas fits nicely.

So who gets to tell our stories? Who should be holding that serious conversation about ideas with foreign audiences? Who has the right, and the credibility, to speak for our fractious and ebullient polity? Not the neocons. Their red-meat rhetoric falls on deaf ears outside the U.S. Its appeal is distinctly narrow. And not the traditional left, either. The left’s ethic of vegan virtue scarcely qualifies as politics; its horror of dirty hands represents an aesthetic choice more than a coherent political alternative. The gap between the conservatives’ unappealing triumphalism and the reactionary left’s “I’d rather not” is as big as the one between State’s press work and its cultural diplomacy.

Berman calls for “a new radicalism” to provide the voices we need to talk with the world. Well, maybe. And inshallah. More likely than any sort of radical politics, and more likely to succeed with foreign audiences, is the emergence of what could be called a new progressive center. This is the neighborhood where the Democratic Party would hang out, if there were any intellectual force left in the party. Absent such force, the kind of decentralized, diffuse effort Berman evokes–foundations and NGOs and human rights organizations–a network looser, even than Al Qaeda’s, holds the most hope for America to pick up its conversation with the world.

If we’re going to talk, what shall our medium be? Technology’s smooth appeal makes the case easy for radio and television, and certainly efforts like Radio Sawa have their place, and it’s an important place. At the same time, the limits of technology were on painful display in State’s abortive attempt to convey “shared values” through the placement of slick TV spots, which proved nearly unplaceable in the Muslim countries that were their target.

The conversation we need to have will not be an easy one to sustain. It calls for complete sentences, coherent paragraphs, thoughts that connect one to the next. In that kind of conversation, in a war of ideas, books may still be the most potent weapon we have. Books, libraries, and American speakers will do more to advance the conversation than radio or television or the Internet.

I share Berman’s doubts about the U.S. government’s ability to make a serious contribution to that conversation, but it’s still worth agitating for one. Is it unrealistic to think that the Bush administration would endorse and fund a major push by American thinkers, American ideas, whose convictions went beyond neocon narrowness? Probably. Still, Nixon did go to China. Maybe someone who works for the President will recognize the need for a serious conversation and recognize, at the same time, that neoconservative ideas simply won’t play.

Bush is frequently portrayed as something of a risk taker. Maybe someone who works for him will remind him that political capital is like Monopoly money–it only spends while you’re playing the game. At this point, it seems deadly clear that it is in the national interest to give a satisfactory answer to the Senegalese university student who asked me: “I understand what you’ve said about your national diversity. Now tell me: what is that Americans have in common?”

MARK JACOBS is a writer and former foreign service officer. His fourth book, a novel called A Handful of Kings, is forthcoming from Simon and Schuster. His other books include A Cast of Spaniards (Talisman House, 1994); Stone Cowboy, (Soho Press, 1997); and The Liberation of Little Heaven, (Soho Press, 1998). He currently plays lead guitar and sings in The Last Chance Garage Band, a rock & roll band with no commercial potential whatsoever. He can be reached at:


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