U.S. Writers Do Cultural Battle Around the Globe
December 7, 2002 9:20 AM   Subscribe

U.S. Writers Do Cultural Battle Around the Globe (NYTimes, reg. req'd). So many questions spring to mind... Is it productive for the government to do this, or should it be the role of civil society? Should such efforts attempt to portray an appealing version of the U.S., or an accurate one? Where would you direct people who, in good faith, want to gain insight into the "American mind" through the written word, or others forms of art?
posted by stonerose (9 comments total)

Frankly, I think the United States could use some good PR right about now...
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 9:38 AM on December 7, 2002

Definitely, Steve. I just wonder if it's productive, from a purely self-interested standpoint, for the government itself to do this. Seems to me that this would smell sweeter to those abroad if other, private- or civil-sector folks would take the initiative.

Previous discussion on the "What We Think of America" issue of Granta.
posted by stonerose at 9:52 AM on December 7, 2002

Where would you direct people who want to gain insight into the "American mind"?

Tokyo English bookshops. Ninety five percent of everything is American.

Better question: how can I avoid American books?
posted by dydecker at 10:32 AM on December 7, 2002

back in the good old cold war days the CIA secretly funded a number of writers, artists, galleries, composers, journals, etc. Many of them had no idea that their source of money was the US government. These were selected on the basis that they were anti-communist but also because they represented the best creative talent going in America and elsewhere. The people who worked for these agencies were pretty bright, perceptive and serious and the results did good for America and helped to promote American intellectual and artistic life. This has all been documented in a book called "Who Payed the Piper". I can't recall the author but its a fascinating read. I also don't know that these agencies still attract that quality of people. So maybe the private sector is best.
posted by donfactor at 10:57 AM on December 7, 2002

*cough* donfactor, two seconds got me this:

The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, which appears to be a reprint of the other title Who Paid the Piper?; at the least it covers some of the same ground and has sample pages online. And here a decent short review.

I think there's a difference between a resource which is selective versus one that is deceptive. The hypothetical "person of good faith" stonerose posits is probably not the target demographic for a resource like this. Even highly educated persons can, apparently, believe that our highwaysides are all "a meter deep" in garbage (reference previous thread on the "transAtlantic" German conference which included one American). Someone with obtuse views like that has already been propagandized and may not be interested in forming an honest opinion. At the same time the discerning reader -- and perhaps the obtuse as well -- will simply reject something like this as mere propaganda. It's certainly true that many people form opinions of other countries based on their own experiences, perhaps used to an "official press" and suchlike, so they may be considered already tainted by some measure.

I asked in a recent thread on a lefty blog whether Palestinians had access to (for example) the works of Saul Alinsky in creating working community-involved political movements. By the looks of things, I'd say no -- and I wonder whether the help they are getting is necessarily healthy. We have values that go beyond the simplistic and in the truest Jeffersonian tradition we may feel we have a responsibility to export those values to the extent we can. It's not just about the view of America, it's about our intellectual patrimony.
posted by dhartung at 12:26 PM on December 7, 2002

Another data point worth a closer look: U.S.'s Powerful Weapon in Iran: TV -- as Voice of America broadcasts touch on views sympathetic to unheard moderates in that country, under intermittent press crackdowns by hardline theocrats.
posted by dhartung at 10:38 PM on December 7, 2002

It would also be great if Americans could get a more balanced view of other countries and cultures as well, instead of the mainstream media carrying programming in which American religious fundamentalists bash Islam. The more we can promote tolerance, of their culture and ours, the better.
posted by kat at 8:52 AM on December 8, 2002

I think John Steinbeck provided the best insight to the American mind and much of which is what would still hold true for American people today.
posted by Recockulous at 9:39 PM on December 8, 2002

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