FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A Serious Conversation

by MARK JACOBS

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: jacobs@counterpunch.org

 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

June 27, 2017
Jim Kavanagh
California Scheming: Democrats Betray Single-Payer Again
Jonathan Cook
Hersh’s New Syria Revelations Buried From View
Edward Hunt
Excessive and Avoidable Harm in Yemen
Howard Lisnoff
The Death of Democracy Both Here and Abroad and All Those Colorful Sneakers
Gary Leupp
Immanuel Kant on Electoral Interference
Kenneth Surin
Theresa May and the Tories are in Freefall
Slavoj Zizek
Get the Left
Robert Fisk
Saudi Arabia Wants to Reduce Qatar to a Vassal State
Ralph Nader
Driverless Cars: Hype, Hubris and Distractions
Rima Najjar
Palestinians Are Seeking Justice in Jerusalem – Not an Abusive Life-Long Mate
Norman Solomon
Is ‘Russiagate’ Collapsing as a Political Strategy?
Binoy Kampmark
In the Twitter Building: Tech Incubators and Altering Perceptions
Dean Baker
Uber’s Repudiation is the Moment for the U.S. to Finally Start Regulating the So-called Sharing Economy
Rob Seimetz
What I Saw From The Law
George Wuerthner
The Causes of Forest Fires: Climate vs. Logging
June 26, 2017
William Hawes – Jason Holland
Lies That Capitalists Tell Us
Chairman Brandon Sazue
Out of the Shadow of Custer: Zinke Proves He’s No “Champion” of Indian Country With his Grizzly Lies
Patrick Cockburn
Grenfell Tower: the Tragic Price of the Rolled-Back Stat
Joseph Mangano
Tritium: Toxic Tip of the Nuclear Iceberg
Ray McGovern
Hersh’s Big Scoop: Bad Intel Behind Trump’s Syria Attack
Roy Eidelson
Heart of Darkness: Observations on a Torture Notebook
Geoff Beckman
Why Democrats Lose: the Case of Jon Ossoff
Matthew Stevenson
Travels Around Trump’s America
David Macaray
Law Enforcement’s Dirty Little Secret
Colin Todhunter
Future Shock: Imagining India
Yoav Litvin
Animals at the Roger Waters Concert
Binoy Kampmark
Pride in San Francisco
Stansfield Smith
North Koreans in South Korea Face Imprisonment for Wanting to Return Home
Hamid Yazdan Panah
Remembering Native American Civil Rights Pioneer, Lehman Brightman
James Porteous
Seventeen-Year-Old Nabra Hassanen Was Murdered
Weekend Edition
June 23, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Democrats in the Dead Zone
Gary Leupp
Trump, Qatar and the Danger of Total Confusion
Andrew Levine
The “Democracies” We Deserve
Jeffrey St. Clair - Joshua Frank
The FBI’s “Operation Backfire” and the Case of Briana Waters
Rob Urie
Cannibal Corpse
Joseph G. Ramsey
Savage Calculations: On the Exoneration of Philando Castile’s Killer
John Wight
Trump’s Attack on Cuba
Dave Lindorff
We Need a Mass Movement to Demand Radical Progressive Change
Brian Cloughley
Moving Closer to Doom
David Rosen
The Sex Offender: the 21st Century Witch
John Feffer
All Signs Point to Trump’s Coming War With Iran
Jennifer L. Lieberman
What’s Really New About the Gig Economy?
Pete Dolack
Analyzing the Failures of Syriza
Vijay Prashad
The Russian Nexus
Mike Whitney
Putin Tries to Avoid a Wider War With the US
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail