Skip

American Writers on America
February 10, 2007 6:17 PM   Subscribe

Writers on America is a collection of essays by various American authors on different aspects of America. It was conceived in the direct aftermath of 9/11 as a way to introduce readers to a United States that is not prominent in American pop culture. It is published by the US State Department and distributed by embassies. Michael Chabon writes about growing up in the utopian planned city of Columbia, Maryland. Bharati Mukherjee writes On Being an American Writer rather than an Indo-American one. Charles Johnson writes about a great uncle who started a milk company, and after that went belly-up in the Great Depression, founded a construction business. The other authors with essays in the volume are Elmaz Abinader, Julia Alvarez, Sven Birkerts, Robert Olen Butler, Billy Collins, Robert Creeley, David Herbert Donald, Richard Ford, Linda Hogan, Mark Jacobs, Naomi Shihab Nye and Robert Pinsky. On Voice of America Eric Felten interviewed Mark Jacobs, George Clack, executive editor of the publication and Joseph Bottum, books and arts editor of the Weekly Standard. NPR interviewed Clack and Elmaz Abinader [RealAudio] about the project and On the Media interviewed Clack by himself.
posted by Kattullus (34 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
That is super cool -- how often do you say, "Boy, am I glad the government spent my money on that."? We're proselytizing. We're handing out some secular Americana version of Books of Mormon. That is not a bad thing.
posted by Methylviolet at 6:52 PM on February 10, 2007


We're handing out some secular Americana version of Books of Mormon. That is not a bad thing.

So... propaganda is a wonderful thing when it pimps your team but not when it does the same for the other guys?
posted by Clay201 at 7:01 PM on February 10, 2007


Heh. I grew up in the utopian planned community of Columbia, MD. My folks moved in around the same tome the Chabon family did, into a middle-income townhouse development on the other side of Wilde Lake (named, unfortunately, not after Oscar, but after the banker who facilitated the land deal on which the "city" was founded), in a neighborhood named Bryant Woods, after the poet William Cullen Bryant, whose statue sits behind the big 42nd St New York Public Library, overseeing Bryant Park.

Chabon gets it right, but he and his family moved away before he could see the erosion of the ideals James Rouse (whose famous actor grandson, Edward Norton, was a schoolmate of mine) espoused. Outside developers bridled under the restrictions yoked on them by the Columbia Association (zoning regulations that attenuated profits by forcing a certain number of subsidized low-income developments per single-family, higher-income developments). Eventually they bought tracts of land outside Columbia, developed them to be high-income areas, sent the kids to Columbia high schools, and applied to be subsumed into the growing suburb. As Mr. Rouse and the Rouse Company turned its development eye to giant shopping malls in reclaimed waterfront areas (Baltimore's Harborplace, Boston's Faneuil Hall, New York's South Street Seaport), the oversight of Columbia's "vision" became more and more slipshod. Eventually, with enough new rich development to merit new schools, the older schools in the older parts of Columbia became poorer, and new developments fought for their kids to be bused into richer districts. Sound familiar?

Still, it was a hell of a place to grow up in the seventies, and while many of the kids of early Columbia felt a betrayal upon meeting an outside world that wasn't as harmonious as their youth, there were just as many of us (particularly on my side of the lake, with its more diverse housing scheme) who felt like we'd grown up in a little version of a big city.
posted by breezeway at 7:07 PM on February 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


The term propaganda is bad because everybody reads it as "Lies", or maybe "Lies that are written and tested with the goal of making people do X". If this is what it says it is, attempting honest communication is not a bad thing. Exchanging pamplets is a lot better than exchanging bullets, and even if the words exchanged at first are dishonest, conniving and downright factually incorrect, it is more likely that communication will improve than degrade, imho, and not communicating never helped anything.
posted by SomeOneElse at 7:11 PM on February 10, 2007


No, it's a wonderful thing then too, Clay. Why not?

There's a big difference between saying, "there are really neat things about our culture outsiders might not see, here they are, look," and "AmeriCUH, fuck YEAH!"
posted by Methylviolet at 7:11 PM on February 10, 2007


o, it's a wonderful thing then too, Clay. Why not?

The US propoganda is bad for the following reasons:

First of all, it's bad because it's bullshit. It's bullshit in the same sense that TV commercials for Wal-Mart, the line fed to you by a used car salesman, and the pitch of a religious fanatic bent on converting you are all bullshit. It's telling you only what they want you to know and none of what they don't, all for the purpose of getting you to bend over and take it up the ass. And how much of what they tell you is untrue or misleading as hell? You never find out until after you've put your money down.

Second, because it's incredibly condescending, pathetically egotistical, and a touch racist. Oh, these poor, ignorant islamic fascist radicals (aka every single person in the middle east who isn't Jewish or Christian or working directly for the US); they don't understand that we here in this country are human beings and that we have good qualities as well as bad and if we could just lift them up out of their ignorance by explaining to them how utterly wonderful we are most of the time, then everything would be so much better. Because, you see, these people are basically children. They support whichever group of people makes the prettiest speeches, writes the best stories. They're not capable of making reasoned, intelligent decisions based on facts about how a particular policy will hurt or help them. They don't oppose US policy because they think it causes death and oppression in their countries; no, they only oppose it because of their own backwards ignorance and the teachings of their crazy religious leaders. So if we just fill their soft little noggins with some warm and fuzzy tales of life here in America, they'll see that we're really their buddies and won't mind us shooting up their cities.

There are a thousand and one examples of middle easterners being aware of the good parts of American culture, of realizing that we are people with good and bad points just like everyone else. These people are not dumb. At least, no dumber than any other large group of people in the world.

Third, because even if all of the above were not true, the whole thing would still have the same net effect. The target audience is still going to identify it as propoganda and brush it off. The only change it will make will be to further cement our image as some kind of Orwellian superpower that drops bombs on people and then tries to convince them that it's for their own good. I mean, a book distributed by the US State Department in the moddle east for free? If the Chinese State Department put together a book about how wonderful China was and distributed it here in the US for free, what would we, regardless of the content of the book, think was going on? What sane reason is there to think the people in the middle east will react any differently? They'd have to be total idiots not to see it as a propoganda effort.

So that's what's wrong with the US propoganda. Any propoganda put out by the people in the middle east will have more or less the same qualities.
posted by Clay201 at 9:38 PM on February 10, 2007


Hookay, Clay -- you appear to be against propaganda as a general thing. (And please notice that I, not Kattallus, used the term.) Did you actually read the linked essays? Any thoughts on artistic merit there? Triumph of the Will is one of the masterpieces of cinema, regardless of intent.

I acknowledge the long history of American involvement and encouragement of global forces that often result in widespread devastation (or silence and active discouragement which have the same effect), and try to speak, act and vote accordingly. This, in an essay commissioned, published and distributed by the American government. Say what you want about America, you cannot get around the fact that you can say whatever you want about America, or anything else.
posted by Methylviolet at 12:01 AM on February 11, 2007


From On Being An American Writer:

That's the reason, perhaps, that I have clung so fiercely to the notion of my un-hyphenated, mainstream place in American writing. Perhaps it's too great a stretch for critics and reviewers to see me, and writers like me, as anything other than "Indian," "Indo-American," or "Asian." I'm far more impatient with hostility from Indian and India-born American scholars in "post-colonial" disciplines who instinctively disparage anything with an American provenance.

Say what you want about its propoganda uses, but Mukherjee's essay is actually an indictment of what passes for literary intellectualism in American academia from a writer's standpoint -- exactly, as Methylviolet says, "neat things about our culture outsiders might not see" (and demonstrating how being critical of existing institutions is a thoroughly American trait). She brings up salient points on subjects like how easy it is for American ethnic minorities to be pidgeonholed through the hyphenation process, how the specifically American qualities of American fiction compares to the larger context of the concerns of world fiction, and the interrelatedness of place, identity, and writing. These aren't the "warm and fuzzy tales of life here in America" that you're spasmodically railing against -- you'll find that in bling-bling music videos and re-runs of Friends being pumped out by America media conglomerates. Rather, Mukhergee's essay presents a nuanced America that is cognizant of its relation to the larger literary world. And there are other essays in the collection that are even more directly critical of other aspects of America (including politically), as pointed out in the Clack interviews.

Did you even read the essays at all? (For example, which one said that America "drops bombs on people and then tries to convince them that it's for their own good"?) Personally, I think that the variety of views included are a solid counterpoint to the simplistic good vs evil rhetoric coming out of the current adminstration's mouths. Whitman may as well have been speaking for America itself when he said "I am large, I contain multitudes." I don't find the contents of this "propoganda" objectionable -- I just wish the government would, in their own governance, reflect the writers' own struggles with what it means to be American. Instead of just, you know, bundling and distributing this sentiment to foreigners.

N.B. Though I don't know her well, I've had regular workshops with other writers regularly at Mukhergee's place years ago, so I'm thoroughly biased due to her hospitality.
posted by DaShiv at 12:59 AM on February 11, 2007


Say what you want about its propoganda uses, but Mukherjee's essay is actually an indictment of what passes for literary intellectualism in American academia from a writer's standpoint ...

...as Methylviolet says, "neat things about our culture outsiders might not see"


Okay. But what the hell do these things have to do with the occupation of Iraq, the attacks on the twin towers, the occupation of Afghanistan, etc? Why are they an appropriate follow up to our assault on innocent people in two countries?

(and demonstrating how being critical of existing institutions is a thoroughly American trait).

That's just more rampant egotism... precisely the sort of thing I was critisizing above. It's not an "American trait" any more than it's a Brazilian trait or a Honduran trait. It's a human activity. You can find it in fascist dictatorships and in constitutional democracies. You will often fail to find it where it is sorely needed.

She brings up salient points on subjects like how easy it is for American ethnic minorities to be pidgeonholed through the hyphenation process...the interrelatedness of place, identity, and writing. These aren't the "warm and fuzzy tales of life here in America"

They're not? You could've fooled me. Let's go ask a Palestinian whose home has been bulldozed if this type of writing sounds like it concerns issues of life and death or if it sounds more like the things one would think about if one lived in an ivory tower. Whatever the author's original intent, the State Department is using this stuff to paint an ideal picture of the US. It's like a brochure for a very expensive college handed out to inner city gang members. It says 'Here, you don't get shot or imprisoned. Instead, your struggles take place on paper.' For a lot of people in the world, that's extremely warm and fuzzy.

which one said that America "drops bombs on people and then tries to convince them that it's for their own good"?

I never said that those words were contained in one of the essays. The act of distributing them as propoganda, though, says it loud and clear. As do many of our other actions, press conferences, articles, and speeches.

And that really is what we're doing. We're shooting these people and then trying to convince them we're not the bad guys. We could be sending them Shakespeare (one of the few writers in history every bit as good as his rep.); I would be making essentially the same arguments.

The point is that we should be trying to convince them with our actions. If we really want to be friends with them, we should be withdrawing from their countries, paying them reperations, and apologizing. Since we're not doing any of those things, any cosmetic gestures we make - such as this one - are an insult.

Imagine someone shot your mother, escaped punishment, then sent you a book of poetry inscribed with something like "This will show you another, better side of me. I don't want you to judge me solely by my actions. Which, by the way, I'm not apologizing for." What would your response be? Seriously.

Then suppose your friend picks up the book and tells you "Oh, but the poems are really beautiful. You should totally read them. Look, in this one, the poet takes a stand against violence." You'd smack him in the nose.
posted by Clay201 at 2:03 AM on February 11, 2007


Technically, yes, this is propaganda. What prompted me to make an fpp of it was that I was reminded of the Chabon essay by this post on Languagehat's blog. Googling for the essay I was surprised that the booklet existed on the interblags, as I was aware of the Smith-Mundt Act. I thought it interesting enough to post, both as an artifact in and of itself, giving witness to a particular moment in time, the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and as a good essay anthology. I was particularly struck by the lack of rah-rah-ism in the essays. If there's a overarching message in the essay it definitely isn't "America is teh shiznits" but rather "Americans are human beings." Second, it has a particular personal significance to me because I picked up the booklet while my wife and I were waiting to be interviewed for my visa application to the US. I started on the Chabon essay and liked it enough to take it home with me to read later.

I didn't want to use the word propaganda because I didn't want to suggest that the writers had written disingenuous essays. For better or worse the word propaganda has bad connotations, while marketing, of which propaganda is a form, hasn't (unless you're Bill Hicks). Also, this is primarily a collection of essays about "being American," and while this put out by the US government, this isn't all that different from, say, a collection of essays about Bob Dylan. The purpose may be different but at its core, Writers on America is simply another anthology.

Also, clay201, I suspect that, unlike me, you're an American citizen, and therefore are unaware to how America is perceived by the rest of the world. I'm using perceived here both as "what people think of it" and "how they experience it." Due to the pervasiveness of American pop culture it is very easy for non-Americans to fall into the trap of thinking that the US is familiar to them and unexotic, that because they've watched so many tv shows and films set in America, not to mention read so many books by American authors and listened to so much American music, they understand the US. I have two friends, a couple, who've just started graduate school in New Jersey (philosophy and classics) who were shocked at their own culture shock. They expected to know America in a way they wouldn't have expected to know, say, Thailand or Italy.

This is compounded by the cockroach-like tenacity of the intellectual theory of anti-Americanism (curse you Cornelius de Pauw!). For a lot of people outside of the US, most everything that they don't like and identify as a new development in their culture they attribute to corrupting American influence. To give an example from Iceland, recently giving out stars for book reviews has become a common practice (like with movie reviews). While I was there recently I heard some people call this an Americanization of literary criticism. I've never seen anything like it in this country (except of course for "starred reviews" in Kirkus, PW and LibraryJournal... oh, and come to think of it, I think Entertainment Weekly gives lettergrades). Some people, and these are young, hip, American-culture versed individuals, just assumed that this had to come from America because this was something new that they didn't like. This is similar to the common British reflex of saying that any neologism considered aesthetically objectionable is an Americanism (having spent scant time in Britain I'm relying on Bill Bryson for this point).

I note from your profile, clay201, that you live in the South. What I've described is similar to the way the rest of the US views the South. Just because they know a whole lot about it, they assume they know it. People, and this can apply to intelligent, thoughtful people too, don't realize that what they read and watch isn't a substitute for experience. I mean, they do on an intellectual level, but all this seeps into the subconscious and has an effect, so you end up with huge swaths of people with completely misguided ideas about the US/the South.

Yes, Writers on America is propaganda, but this is the best kind of propaganda, because it isn't peddling lies, but truth. Subjective truth, but truth nonetheless. It never talks down to its readers and it never tries to pull one over on them. It doesn't make any claims to American exceptionalism. In a purely descriptive way this is propaganda, but this is not lies. It's intended to give people a new perspective.

And that is a good thing.

(I do realize that I may sound like I bought the propaganda hook, line and sinker. But if the message is "Americans are human beings" I have to say that I did buy that message. Unless all of y'all are just elaborately constructed robots made for the express purpose of messing with me)

Now, I don't consider every essay in this booklet to be solid gold. In fact, most aren't. For instance, the Billy Collins essay didn't do anything to change my opinion of him for the better, and neither did the Sven Birkerts essay. Only a few of them have stayed vivid in my memory, the ones by Chabon, Johnson, Mukherjee and Abinader. But four essays out of fifteen imprinting themselves on my brain is much higher than the average.

And finally (and I really should go to sleep now), this booklet isn't specifically aimed at any one part of the world. This is distributed in every US embassy. I picked up my copy in Reykjavík.
posted by Kattullus at 2:19 AM on February 11, 2007


Due to the pervasiveness of American pop culture it is very easy for non-Americans to fall into the trap of thinking that the US is familiar to them and unexotic, that because they've watched so many tv shows and films set in America, not to mention read so many books by American authors and listened to so much American music, they understand the US.

Yes, if an Iraqi, a Palestinian, and a Turk moved to the US to live, they'd find a lot that surprised them. So what? The same could be said of a German moving to Pakistan, a Chinese citizen spending a few years in Australia, or a Brit in Brazil. How does any of this relate to the crimes the US is currently committing against a number of countries in the middle east?

You seem to be very concerned that these people "understand" us. Why? Why is that so important to you? Does the rapist give a flying fuck if his victim understands him? Should a hitman explain his life story to his mark so that the two men bond before the one pumps six bullets into the other? Why is it so noble for the oppressor to try to acquaint the oppressed with his/her culture?
posted by Clay201 at 5:20 AM on February 11, 2007


Sorry Clay201, I simply don't agree that the illegal military actions of a corrupt administration invalids all American embassy efforts overseas. Since embassies not only serve political/diplomatic functions but are also responsible for maintaining economic, cultural, and scientific relations between countries, then why is it "egotism" for it to perform its cultural promotion mission by collecting and disseminating to the world how a number of prominent American literary figures dissects its own cultural identity (which again falls squarely into the cultural relation/promotion role of any country's embassies)? Or should America be the exception to the embassy rule and instead rely upon its media conglomerates to define America's cultural ideals abroad?

Given that the literary/cultural propoganda being distributed by the embassies in no way attempts to whitewash America's military actions (and is in fact occasionally quite critical of it), it's hard for me to find this objectionable. In fact, it is precisely because they went through the effort to solicit works from notable writers without politically steering the results that makes this collection an interesting one. It would be rather easy to find more (hilariously) distorted cultural propoganda being disseminated by the embassies of other countries.

Also, nowhere is it said that self-criticism is a uniquely American trait (certainly none of the authors included, and certainly not me). Perhaps you see the inclusion of this within a piece of official propoganda as "egotism", but I see the use of self-criticism here as a remarkably candid depiction (and a reminder to both America and the world) of America as being very much ambivalent (and some might even call it house divided against itself) regarding all the abuses in the name of America's so-called "War on Terror". Does it soften or excuse the military actions of the Powers That Be? Of course not. But it is rather disengenous to expect diplomatic relief or financial restitution from an embassy's cultural propoganda about American culture. Or is it that unlike other countries, America's foreign policies are so irredeemable as to render cultural and all other embassy roles irrelevant? Hell, why stop there -- why not wipe all legislative activity off Congress's calendar to have it address America's wrongs abroad, other legislative concerns of Congress be damned?

I'm all for people throwing their bodies to clog the machines of war, especially ones waged illegally by crooks that half the country voted against. In this case though, it's hard to see how these essays can be construed as being a part of the "war effort". However: that the State Department has actually published a thought-provoking collection of essays by notable American writers about the American identity without any hint of imposing an "official slant" on them? I have no idea if it will become an effective piece of propoganda overseas, but it's certainly an interesting anthology that contains at least a few essays worth a read.

Are these essays all moot in the context of recent American military policies in the world? Depends on how personally affected and what the political opinions are of those you ask, I'm sure. Seems like the original poster is both part of the target audience (i.e. non-American) and found it interesting enough to post, so there's one data point in any case. As an American, to me it's better than most of the other ways in which the government is putting my tax dollars to work, that's for sure.

Not surprised about the essays by Billy Collins et al. -- notable writers don't necessarily mean the best ones.
posted by DaShiv at 5:47 AM on February 11, 2007


Christ, here I went to sleep thinking I'd added a bit to people's understanding of Chabon's hometown and taken a tangential part in a literary and intellectual exercise that it frankly surprised me to see on the State Department website for all the honest mixed feelings it had about the States. And then I wake up and find I'm some kind of tangential stooge for the running dogs of American imperialism! I'm so ashamed of myself. Not only is what I wrote propaganda, but the story I have to tell is. My life as an American is all just propaganda!

Could somebody hit me in the head with a truck to make these propagandist memories stop itching so? I just want to be a citizen of the world!
posted by breezeway at 6:17 AM on February 11, 2007


What a tiresome and disappointing thread. I'm glad I started clicking on the links before reading the comments; it's like seeing a city created by a noble vision ruined by developers who come in and turn it into just another slum. I'd blame Methylviolet for getting the derail going in the first comment, but that comment didn't use the word "propaganda," it was just an expression of inncocent pleasure that the government was spending our money on something worthwhile for once.

Clay 201: Can you really not grasp how unspeakably boring your droning rants are? Propaganda propaganda US bad propaganda propaganda Palestinians violence blah blah propaganda... I know, I know, I'm just another American who doesn't want to acknowledge the evil that my country perpetrates and wants to hide my head in the sand and talk about Art or some damn thing. The only thing worth doing in this world is to express one's outrage over and over, especially on MetaFilter, because once the generals and presidents and so on bear the brunt of our outrage (they all read the Blue, of course) they will see the error of their ways and the world will be a beautiful place. To talk about anything else is to betray humanity, comrades!

Like DaShiv said: Did you even read the essays at all? I read the Chabon and Mukherjee and had to express my enthusiasm before immersing myself further. What wonderful essays! I just discovered Chabon's writing a couple of weeks ago, via his serialized novel in the NY Times (it's funny, Kattullus, I thought your link was going to go to this LH post, but I'm glad you liked the one on street names), and now I'm even more eager to read his work; this is just wonderful stuff:
In a sense, the ongoing work of my hometown and the business of my childhood coincided perfectly; for as my family subsequently moved to the even newer, rawer Village of Long Reach, and then proceeded to fall very rapidly apart, Columbia and I both struggled to fill in the empty places, to feel our way outward into the mysterious gaps and undiscovered corners of the world. In the course of my years in Columbia, I encountered things not called for by the members of the Working Group, things that were not on the map. There were strange, uncharted territories of race and sex and nagging human unhappiness. And there was the vast, unsuspected cataclysm of my parents' divorce, that redrew so many boundaries, and created, with the proverbial stroke of the pen, vast new areas of confusion and dismay...
And Mukherjee is thoughtful and convincing: "In countries that have no reliable instruments of redress, writers are often pressed into service as the first witness, or last resort. But in liberal democracies with well-established institutions, fiction writers can afford a modicum of vigilant trust, freeing themselves to celebrate the impacted glories of individual consciousness. That's why Joyce and Proust and Woolf and Borges and Nabokov never got the Nobel Prize." I imagine Clay 201 would have told those writers to stop navel-gazing and write about how awful the occupation of Palestine was.

Thanks for the superb post, Kattullus; sorry the thread got so ugly.
posted by languagehat at 7:15 AM on February 11, 2007


Oh, and thanks for your comment, breezeway; you did indeed add to my understanding of what Chabon wrote about.
posted by languagehat at 7:16 AM on February 11, 2007


One day I'll snap my fingers and make Billy Collins disappear. He's the Paris Hilton of American poetry (without the sex tapes, thank God), famous only for being famous. It's comical to watch him go from discussing the scope and vision of Whitman, to his own soggy stanzas, plop-plopping down the page. No wonder his speaker has to take a before-dinner nap in the Tintern Abbey poem. I nearly took one myself. There's nothing he can't trivialize.

Also, what languagehat said.
posted by sleevener at 9:20 AM on February 11, 2007


This paragraph from the Billy Collins essay elucidated for me exactly what's wrong with Billy Collins:

I was especially surprised to discover how steeped many of my poems were in the American idiom, because for years I had consciously avoided using fad dialects or making references to contemporary culture. I knew that a phrase such as "frequent flyer," "hatch-back," or "Jello shot" would in time make a poem sound dated and thus could drastically shorten its shelf life. "Shelf life" is probably another example. I had tried to favor a more universal vocabulary, not a purely elemental diction of "rock," "cloud," "sky," and "tree," but a diction that leaned in that direction and was reluctant to allow in the linguistic news of the day. Ezra Pound put it most succinctly when he defined poetry as "the news that stays new." And I admired Mary Oliver's advice regarding a poet's notion of an audience: "...write for a stranger born in a distant country hundreds of years from now." I wanted to include that stranger of the future in my audience, and I did not want him to have to consult a footnote for "Wonder Bread" or "Big Mac."

Not only does he consider his contemporary readers to be idiots, but also every reader that will ever live. Call me a cynic, but I have a feeling that people will know what a big mac is long after everyone will have forgotten Billy Collins. I'm completely mystified how he drew that conclusion from Pound's "the news that stays new" maxim.
posted by Kattullus at 9:59 AM on February 11, 2007


I'm sure I didn't mean to chum for trolls with my remarks. I think the essays are fascinating -- interesting in themselves, and interesting as have been chosen for inclusion in this project. Thanks, Kattullus, for the links.
posted by Methylviolet at 11:29 AM on February 11, 2007


Bingo, Katullus. Thanks for the post! Lots of interesting reading.
posted by sleevener at 12:30 PM on February 11, 2007


Clay 201: Can you really not grasp how unspeakably boring your droning rants are? Propaganda propaganda US bad propaganda propaganda Palestinians violence blah blah propaganda...

It is certainly true that honest discussions of these issues tend to be repititious as fuck. That's because when you strip away all the bullshit, there's really not much to it. We wanted the oil, we went over there, we killed a bunch of people, we took it. End of story.

Or at least it would be if there weren't a thousand and one efforts to make the whole thing more complex than it is. This thread is an excellent example. We're being told that America's relationship with other countries in the world has more than a little bit to do with how its culture is percieved by them (even though there's a mountain of evidence to the contrary). And now, look, isn't this great; we've got hundreds of pages of text to delve into important issues like "identity" and "what passes for literary intellectualism." We get to sit around and talk about our culture and pretend that these discussions have something to do with what's going on in the Middle East or Africa or Europe.

I know, I know, I'm just another American who doesn't want to acknowledge the evil that my country perpetrates and wants to hide my head in the sand and talk about Art or some damn thing. The only thing worth doing in this world is to express one's outrage over and over,... To talk about anything else is to betray humanity, comrades!

If you're having a conversation with an Iraqi whose family has been shot or a Palestinian whose home has been taken away then, yeah, it is pretty disgusting to bring up any topic besides, you know, how sorry we are that we've done this to them and what we intend to do to stop it from happening again. To whatever extent this book is our contribution to that conversation, someone needs to wash our mouths out with soap.

especially on MetaFilter, because once the generals and presidents and so on bear the brunt of our outrage (they all read the Blue, of course) they will see the error of their ways and the world will be a beautiful place.

Metafilter debates have, as far as I can tell, little or no impact on important events in the real world. I imagine they effect the people who participate directly in them, but I could be wrong about that.
posted by Clay201 at 12:41 PM on February 11, 2007


Clay201, I don't think you're a troll. You've always seemed like an upstanding guy on MetaFilter. I know you don't mean to be offensive, but you're coming off that way. I don't mind that the thread got derailed. I knew when I posted this that there was a good chance this would result in an argument about propaganda. You're coming as offensive because of the way you appear to think of human beings who aren't American citizens. Don't you think that every single person who'd see Writers on America could identify it as coming from the US State Department? Don't you think people can adjust the lenses through which they read these essays to understand from what impulse they arose? Don't you think that other people in the world are aware of what's happened in the Middle East, the Philippines, Latin America and elsewhere?

I'm positive that you'd answer all these questions in the affirmative, but your comments make it seem that you assume the opposite. Of course people realize who publishes it, I mean, the first sentence of the introduction mentions both the U.S. Foreign Service and the State Department. Of course every reader realizes why this is distributed to American embassies and will read these essays with a critical eye, searching for untruth. Of course non-US citizens are acutely aware of what the United States get up to in the world.

You seem to have taken on the mantle of speaking for everyone who isn't an American citizen. Know what, we don't need to be spoken for. We have our own voices, our own words and we can explain quite cogently what it is that we think. We don't need you to speak for us. Frankly, that you presume to do so is rather offensive. I don't think you meant what you wrote that way, but that's how you're coming off.
posted by Kattullus at 8:47 PM on February 11, 2007


Don't you think that every single person who'd see Writers on America could identify it as coming from the US State Department?

Yes. Which is one of the reasons (as I said previously) that we shouldn't be sending this out through the state department. It might as well have a great big sign on it that says "Here's some pro-US propoganda! Come and get it!" I think that's insulting to the target audience. It suggests that we think they're dumb enough to be suckered by propoganda. It also suggests that we think their objections to our crimes will be silenced if we can just convince them we're wonderful people. I know that every time I've ever seen propoganda from other countries, I've regarded it as an insult to my intelligence for precisely these reasons. I'm just following the golden rule here.

You seem to have taken on the mantle of speaking for everyone who isn't an American citizen.

Nope. Not even a little bit. I'm speaking as an American citizen. My concerns here are the policy and actions of my government, for which I'm responsible. I want my government to act in a moral and humane manner towards the people in Iraq, Palestine, Iran, etc. They're not doing it.

The people we're attacking in the middle east can and do speak for themselves. Whether we choose to listen to them is another question.
posted by Clay201 at 12:44 AM on February 12, 2007


In addition to what Kattullus said, you're coming off as a troll because you're so obsessed with OMG PROPOGANDA!! that you're totally uninterested in the merits of the actual essays, which is what the link is about. One gets the impression that you wouldn't care if the book contained a cure for cancer: if it's paid for by the US government, which is KILLING PEOPLE IN OTHER COUNTRIES, you hate it and want it destroyed and forgotten. Don't bother trying to accuse me of being a stooge for the government; anybody who's ever known me, or for that matter read my contributions to MeFi, would laugh themselves silly at the idea. But I'm somehow able to discuss other topics without reminding everyone at every possible moment that TEH GOVERNMETN IS BAD AND DOES BAD THINGS!!11! You're like those atheists who drop into threads about, say, Sufi musical traditions or the art of the Gothic cathedral to say THERE IS NO GOD AND RELIGIOUS PEOPLE ARE DUMM!! You get one point for correct thinking and lose a hundred points for making an interesting discussion difficult or impossible (depending on how determined your derail is).

MetaFilter is a place for discussion. Saving the world is out the door and to the left. Try to learn the difference.
posted by languagehat at 6:36 AM on February 12, 2007


you're so obsessed with OMG PROPOGANDA!!

Actually, I'm still pretty astounded that anyone is willing to come right out in the open and speak in favor of propoganda. Not sure I've ever seen that stance taken on metafilter before.

But anyway, yeah, I do think propoganda is a bad thing all the time. If you want to communicate something that's true or just have open communication in general, there are a thousand other methods available. (Let me know if you'd like an example or two.) The p word is only necessary when you have a line of bullshit to sell.

you're totally uninterested in the merits of the actual essays

I wouldn't say "totally" but pretty close to it, yes. I've stated that explicitly at least once already and explained why.

If the essays were actually about, say, the US invasion of Iraq, then my opinion might change, but propoganda is propganda, so I doubt there'd be a big difference. If the book were full of comic strips or bible quotations or chocolate chip cookie recipes, the difference would be even smaller.

Don't bother trying to accuse me of being a stooge for the government

Okay. Since I wasn't going to do that anyway, your request won't inconvenience me.

if it's paid for by the US government, which is KILLING PEOPLE IN OTHER COUNTRIES, you hate it and want it destroyed and forgotten

If it's being used as propoganda then I want it stopped. I'd prefer, though, that such things were not forgotten.

MetaFilter is a place for discussion. Saving the world is out the door and to the left.

Some of our discussions are about saving the world.
posted by Clay201 at 11:49 AM on February 12, 2007


Alas, this one is not.
posted by breezeway at 12:10 PM on February 12, 2007


Picasso's Guernica was commissioned as, yes, propoganda by the Spanish Republican government in 1937. You're certainly not in favor of drivel like that, right? And you'd certainly be surprised if anyone here on MetaFilter would be willing to "come right out in the open and speak in favor" of something like Guernica, which clearly has "a line of bullshit to sell" due to how it was funded? And that's just the first of many examples of worthwhile "propoganda" that comes to mind.

What's "insulting" and "egotism" isn't that governments seek to influence perspectives -- as do NGOs, lobbyists, corporations, or even private individuals, whether politicians, writers, opinionated vagrants on the streets, or even MetaFilter posters. As an American, I implicitly assume that I can and should evaluate the relative merits of words for myself. How insulting and parochial it must seem to a non-American to have their ability to do the same with these essays ignored and even shouted down on their behalf, just because the aforementioned essays were funded by The Evil American Government and not because of what the essays actually say.
posted by DaShiv at 3:25 PM on February 12, 2007


How insulting and parochial it must seem to a non-American to have their ability to do the same with these essays ignored and even shouted down on their behalf

I've already addressed this argument twice.

Picasso's Guernica was commissioned as, yes, propoganda by the Spanish Republican government in 1937

Propoganda is propaganda. If the Spaniards had something truthful to tell people about what was going on in their country at that time and had other means of communication available to them, then they shouldn't have done it this way. If they didn't have other means available and you could present evidence of this, then you might be able to justify the propoganda. I've not read much on the subject but out of what I have read, nothing is leaping to mind that would support such an argument. I know they had their oil cut off by Texaco, but it seems that there were still communication channels open to them. If you know of any evidence to the contrary, I'll be glad to listen.
posted by Clay201 at 7:30 PM on February 12, 2007


Something about that last phrase rings false.
posted by breezeway at 8:08 PM on February 12, 2007


breezeway:

One way to find out.
posted by Clay201 at 8:28 PM on February 12, 2007


You've said the exact same thing eight times in this thread, in response to quite a variety of nuanced observation about propaganda and the essays in question. And you've spelled propaganda correctly only once.

Spelling aside, you mislabel this thread a discussion and you insult the other participants when you jam your thumbs in your ears and demand that everyone address your points when they're addressing your points. Nobody cares whether or not you agree with them, but when folks respond to your comment and you shout, "shut up and respond to my comment," you quickly lose your audience.

So when you say, "One way to find out," at this point in the thread, I say forget it. I've read all you have to say. Eight times.

Can you really blame me?
posted by breezeway at 9:23 PM on February 12, 2007


breezeway;

If you have anything to say concerning the issues at hand - propaganda (did I get it right that time?), US foreign policy, Spanish politics from the first half of the century, etc. - I'm listening.
posted by Clay201 at 2:36 AM on February 13, 2007


I'm another product of Columbia, although substantially later than Chabon and breezeway - I lived there from 1985-1998. And yet the experience was not substantially different, because Columbia still likes to think it is a utopia even though it hasn't been for years. It's got crime, social strata, suburban sprawl...but it's always pushing the idea of being such a fabulous New Town like it was in the 1960s.

Like breezeway, I graduated from Wilde Lake HS - the only class (1997) to attend all three schools. The crunchy granola old building from 1971, the temporary building in Clarksville River Hill, and the new shiny one on the site of the old one. Honestly, the old Wilde Lake was a lot like the old Columbia - there were no walls for many years, and even when I got there in 1993 there were still no ceilings - you could hear everything everywhere. The library media center was literally in the center of the building. It was a place designed for interaction, learning from each other, and communication. The new Wilde Lake is more for compartementalized learning styles - you are in this class, learning this at this time. You can't see other classes, you can only learn from what's going on in your room. It's like you've got blinders on...like the rest of the world.

This sounds overly philosophical, even to me - but I think it's true. It's obvious to someone who's seen both buildings - they really speak to what's going on in the rest of the city.
posted by etoile at 6:58 PM on February 14, 2007


I visited the new school a few years ago, and it felt strange to be in a regular (though admittedly, pretty nice) school that called itself Wilde Lake.

Whe I was there, the open classroom ideal extended itself to an open scheduling setup, where students would, like in most colleges, choose which classes they'd take at the time of day and from the teacher they wanted, even choosing which quarter (yeah, no semesters) they'd take a course. So you could schedule light classes for a term if you knew you'd be in sports or band or whatever. The grading scale was weird, too: A, B, C, I, and U, where I meant incomplete. You'd have to meet with a teacher you got an I from at the beginning of the next quarter and write up a contract for the work you needed to make up to complete the term before for a maximum C grade. If you couldn't live up to the contract (usually a couple weeks or a month of all the homework or tests you'd missed), you'd get a U, which was a fail, and have to schedule the class again.

It was all pretty good preparation for college, but they started tightening up the system during my four years there, since there was nothing stopping a student from taking an I in a class and then cribbing all the makeup work from a student who had passed the class. Savvy teachers would alter the makeup homework, but once a lot of kids tricked the system this way, the workload for the teachers was just too much.

I gotta say, those open classrooms were a treat for a clown like me. Most of my teachers had to resort to seating me front and center to keep me from leaning back and goofing off with my friends in a class around the corner.

And the Media Center in the middle, that was great! The way the main hallway of the school was a ring a split level up, with railings and a six foot-wide chasm overlooking the downstairs ring, everybody used to hang out by the rail between classes. We'd jump it, too. I did, once, and it scared the shit out of me.

One Hallowe'en, Mr. Conlon, the Irish madman of a history teacher and debate coach, dressed as Sid Vicious, took the jump himself, and landed atop a bookshelf with a wild-eyed shout. Great stuff.

There was a lot of drug use going on there; High Lake Wilde School had a reputation in the county. Kids would all compete in fashioning crazy bongs out of whatever was at hand, science teachers would crack wise about missing florence flasks. Once I watched our football coach watch a star player dealing dope out of his locker. The coach just turned around and walked away.

Things got stricter over my four years there, kids were coming in whose families had been section-eighted from blighted areas of Baltimore (some from Prince George's County, too) into the subsidized housing around the school, and the culs-de-sac made ideal places for interloping gangs from the city to turn a relatively innocent drug culture into hard crime.

Sounds bad, but it wasn't. Dealing firsthand with encroaching trouble in a relatively idyllic setting really did give us a balanced upbringing, and a real feeling that we weren't so insulated from the changing times.

Plus, because Wilde Lake had such a big inner-city expat population we got Go-Go acts to come up from DC and play our big school dances. More cowbell, indeed!
posted by breezeway at 8:37 PM on February 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


I forgot about the I! We had that my freshman year, I think, but they did away with it by the time I graduated.

And you'll be pleased to know that Mr. Conlon continues to be as mad as ever. He was my teacher for American Government in 10th grade (1994-1995) and European History in 12th grade (1996-1997). Every time I hear the phrase Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! I think of Mr. Conlon. Unfortunately I don't see him on the listing of current teachers, so he must have left after I graduated.

Mr. Berkowitz remains a good friend of mine, if you remember him. He was an English teacher and was also my advisor for all four years I was there.
posted by etoile at 7:05 AM on February 15, 2007


« Older A Good Year for the Roses   |   Perverted Justice & Dateline... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post