Once Insular Americans Now Studying Up on The World
October 22, 2001 12:21 PM   Subscribe

Once Insular Americans Now Studying Up on The World
According to this LA Times article, Americans are suddenly getting interested in the world outside its borders, with a special emphasis on Islam and the Middle East. How about you? Run into any websites or books that help make sense of it all?
link via AllAboutGeorge via mefi text ad
posted by cell divide (33 comments total)
This weekend I bought Bernard Lewis' "The Middle East" (general overview history by the preeminent historian of that part of the world) and Benjamin Barber's "Jihad vs. McWorld" (more specific to what has led up to 9/11.) Haven't delved into either yet, but looking forward to them both.
posted by gen at 12:44 PM on October 22, 2001

The smartest thing I read regularly is The Economist. By far my most expensive subscription, but by far the most worth it. Not that the Economist's value is news to anyone, but it's been more insightful and informative these past weeks than any book could be, or almost any website. And it's also invaluable to read something (of such high quality) that isn't written in the States and is timely but not driven by up-to-the-second, breaking news.
posted by mattpfeff at 12:45 PM on October 22, 2001

Benjamin Barber Atlantic Monthly "Jihad vs. McWorld" and Bernard Lewis also in The Atlantic ('90) on the "Roots of Muslim Rage."
posted by gen at 12:48 PM on October 22, 2001

From Beirut to Jerusalem is a really great book by Thomas L. Friedman [nytimes]. It helped me start to understand it all. His columns also offer a bit of a running commentary.
posted by MattS at 12:52 PM on October 22, 2001

I've noticed this too. I think it's very good to see, although how much people will learn and how long it will last is yet to be seen. My sister goes to a Rudolph Steiner high school, and due to the somewhat open structure of such schools, the parents help out a lot. My mother is planning to start an education program there on the similarities and conflicts between Jewish, Christian, and Muslim beliefs, focusing on the Middle East -- just introducing it in various ways in things they're already doing. I think it's a great idea and we could all use a little more education in such matters.
posted by caveday at 12:53 PM on October 22, 2001

Good map site: Rand MacNally
posted by computerface at 12:55 PM on October 22, 2001

As an expat friend of mine said, the rush to learn is quite an insight into the American character: "atlas and maps sell out, the Amazon top ten fills with potted histories of the region. I'm not defending the ignorance, but I do find it interesting how large a proportion of the population launches into fixing their ignorance like crazed autodidacts."

And that can only be a good thing. As I've said before, my girlfriend had her eyes opened to the notion of "world news" by BBC America on her cable box; I'd second mattpfeff's recommendation of the Economist, and add the World Service as a great source of perspective on the day's events. And the free articles on Le Monde Diplo's site give a good taste of why it's well worth subscribing: for instance, this detailed map of global money-laundering networks.

(Just don't look to "make sense" of it. The world doesn't make sense.)
posted by holgate at 1:06 PM on October 22, 2001

I take offence at the notion that Americans were "once-insular." Our scope of knowledge is generally limited to what mainstream "big media" chooses to tell us. The only way for Americans to learn about the outside world is for corporate media to begin telling us about it.
posted by fleener at 1:15 PM on October 22, 2001

"I haven't read that much about [Afghanistan] before," he said. "Until they blew up the World Trade Center, it wasn't on my radar."

Bingo. This is an indictment of Big Media and how they have insulated the American public from the outside world.
posted by fleener at 1:21 PM on October 22, 2001

I take offence at the notion that Americans were "once-insular." Our scope of knowledge is generally limited to what mainstream "big media" chooses to tell us. The only way for Americans to learn about the outside world is for corporate media to begin telling us about it.

I take offense at the notion that Americans need a media-driven big brother to teach them about the ways of the world. The information is out there--it should be the individual's choice to find it and read it and learn it, not MSNBCNN Time Warner's. It's a despicable state of affairs when a nation is almost solely dependent on TV news as its sole source of history. It's no wonder we never learn from history, we depend on others to know it for us.
posted by dogmatic at 1:27 PM on October 22, 2001

I am finishing up Dilip Hiro's overview of the history of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict [called Sharing the Promised Land] and its quite even handed and very informative. It was praised both by the Jerusalem Post and Al Quds and has shed some light on a lot of aspects of Israeli and Palestinian life that has given me greater insight on the facts of the conflict.
posted by buddha9090 at 1:31 PM on October 22, 2001

Sometimes I think war is God's way of teaching us geography. --Paul Rodriguez
posted by Steven Den Beste at 1:40 PM on October 22, 2001

International Herald Tribune. It ought to be required reading. Also anything from Jane's.
posted by Wulfgar! at 1:50 PM on October 22, 2001

I take offence at the notion that Americans were "once-insular." Our scope of knowledge is generally limited to what mainstream "big media" chooses to tell us. The only way for Americans to learn about the outside world is for corporate media to begin telling us about it.

fleener -- you're just illustrating one of the causes of that "insularity" with your desire to be spoon-fed information. How about taking responsibility for your own education ... as others who have contributed to this thread seem to be doing without the assistance of the media. There were some excellent suggestions for books, sites and papers in the previous posts ... start with those!
posted by poorhouse at 2:26 PM on October 22, 2001

I take offense at the notion that Americans need a media-driven big brother to teach them (...)

Along those lines - American media reports what Americans want to hear. It is true that this is not entirely a one-way street, but it's pretty clear that news about Britney Spears generates higher ratings than news about India, for instance. So, Britney it is.
posted by edlundart at 2:30 PM on October 22, 2001

I read the International Herlad Tribune daily (I live in Paris). It's the New York Times and Washington Post in fewer pages, fewer full page spreads of women's foundation wear (although the full size, full color Prada ads are a site to see), and it is slanted toward world news instead of local issues (although each region's printing has some local news). (Man, that's a lot of parenthesis! Or is that parenthesi?)

Don't blame the media for anyone being less informed about the world. You can chose to be interested: if you dream of the world -- seek knowledge of it. If you dream about the neighbor's crop yield, so be it.
posted by Dick Paris at 3:06 PM on October 22, 2001

How about Afganistan's Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban by Larry P Goodson? I found it insightful.
posted by Alwin at 3:12 PM on October 22, 2001

American media reports what Americans want to hear

This is partially true, but I think quality is as big a problem as type of content. That is, this discussion invariably makes me think of <personal anecdote> one time when, at around 11 PM, I was tired and bored and looking for something entertaining to watch on TV. Kenneth Branagh's Henry V was on, and I flipped to it by accident -- I had seen it in the TV guide and been like, I'm too tired, there's no way I could sit through that now. Well, I ended up watching the whole thing -- it even kept me up longer than I wanted to stay up. </personal anecdote>

Most of us don't really think, "Wow, international news, I just love that stuff." Not even close. But if it were well done, and made timely and relevant, people would watch and listen and learn. The problem isn't that mainstream media focuses so much attention on mainstream America. It's that it does so to the exclusion of the rest of the world of news, and doesn't spend any of its talent on larger issues. We need media outlets that believe in what they do and that do it well -- and that are responsible to the better interests of the people they serve.
posted by mattpfeff at 3:46 PM on October 22, 2001

Damn, Steven got the quote in first. When I saw this thread it's the first thing I thought of! But he had a correct attribution and wording, and I didn't, so double kudos.

My preferred half-hour news headline show (as opposed to any on cable or from the Big Three) is World News for Public Television with the lovely Daljit Dhalawal and her delightful London voice. *swoon* It's a British ITN production aimed directly at the American market. Sometimes it can even be too international, missing important domestic stories, but generally its viewpoint is set higher than any of its competitors. You won't just get news about someplace far away, you'll get it given to you by people from far away. CNN used to have really excellent international reporting but that disappeared in cost-cutting of the early nineties, and now except for a few stars like Christiane Amanpour they do their international reporting only slightly better than any of the networks. The classic distortion here is the reporters who go to the West Bank, but stay in an Israeli hotel in Jerusalem -- influencing a curious one-sidedness in reporting that ongoing story.
posted by dhartung at 4:56 PM on October 22, 2001

I bought the Al-Qur'an translation recommended here on MeFi. And, coincidentally, read Voltaire's Bastards, which is very relevant.
posted by rushmc at 5:16 PM on October 22, 2001

ITN's World News was my way of keeping in touch with the big world while I was in Atlanta, and without net access. (The main competitor at 6:30pm was Wheel of Fortune.) And there's another decent source of international news in most basic cable packages, but you need to know Spanish to appreciate it.

At least the soundings across sites such as Romanesko's MediaNews suggest that many veteran journalists feel vindicated by the recent thirst for well-done foreign reportage: they finally get to do their jobs again, and feel valued for doing them. Which is why I think it's a little unfair to criticise people for "depending" upon TV news: the cultural penetration of mainstream broadcast news sets an agenda, like it or not. It's a springboard for the kind of autodidacticism that seems to be taking place right now.
posted by holgate at 5:22 PM on October 22, 2001

Does anyone know anything about this site? (a guide to Islam)
posted by cell divide at 5:24 PM on October 22, 2001

Learn another language, then go use it.
posted by raaka at 5:51 PM on October 22, 2001

fleener: The "big media" you criticize has been writing about Afghanistan and the possibility of a "blowback" from American-funded mujaheddin since at least 1994, two years before the Taliban solidified power. The question is whether the American people were paying any attention to the world around them. In most cases, we weren't. One of the best books I've read lately (on any topic) is Taliban by Ahmed Rashid. Great detail and insight.
posted by thescoop at 6:28 PM on October 22, 2001

Wulfgar!: "International Herald Tribune. It ought to be required reading."

While I agree that IHT should be a required reading, but seeing that IHT is essentially NY Times plus the funnies (IHT is composed from NYT and WP reports and columns), I wonder how much more 'foreign local perspective' it can give to the casual American reader. On the other hand, it is an absolute necessity for anyone traveling in a foreign land trying to find in-depth American [sports] news.

I remember being in a foreign country, in the days before internet proliferation, and not being able to find any scores for NFL playoffs or the college football bowl games. God bless for the information services (USIS) reading rooms of the embassies, where they had two day old IHTs. This particular USIS 'rationed' off the various magazines and news paper sections to the 60-100 readers (mostly kids trying to read up on 'America' before they send off their college applications to the various American colleges). The readers traded and/or passed around the sections of the dailies to each other. The main news section (A) was most valued, while the sports section was least valued. As luck would have it, I somehow landed section A of IHT, and some other hapless dude had the sports. People in these reading rooms rarely spoke up or raised their voices. But, you know, sometimes we have to be impolite to get things done. So, I stood up, holding the news section in my hand said, 'I'll trade news for sports.' People looked up and gave me the 'shut up you idiot' stare. The person with the sports section came and traded his with mine. Judging from the crispness of the fold and the flatness of the paper, I figured none of the people who had previously held the section even bothered to open it up to read it.

I use MeFi as a springboard for curiosity. There are people here from all over the world with reading habits different from mine. A lot of times, I take their comments or posts as a starting point to read up on something. After reading Andrew Cooke's post about the Taliban, I decided to go to the local Amnesty International offices at 26th and 8th and grab a copy of their reports on Afghanistan. I posted my findings here. And this was before everything hit the fan. Also, it definitely helps to live within subway reach of three public libraries and where a student ID still gets you access to libraries of Columbia, CUNY and NYU. Then again, just living in NYC doesn't make everyone curious, open and tolerant.

Just to round up the comment, here are a few headlines from today's 'Global World':
  • Today was Joan Fontaine's birthday. She and her older sister, Olivia de Havilland, grew up to fame and fortune in California, after being born in Japan to a British family. Joan won the Best Actress Oscars in 1942, beating, among others, her older sister.
  • Gerald Mitchell is due to be killed by lethal injection today for a crime he committed when he was only 17. "Amnesty International knows of only 12 executions of juvenile offenders worldwide in the past four years: three in Iran, one in the Democratic Republic of Congo and eight in the United States."
  • German Steffi Graf and American (of Iranian ancestry) Andre Agassi were married today in Las Vegas.
Small world indeed.
posted by tamim at 7:07 PM on October 22, 2001

It'd be nice to think that enough Americans would learn enough about world politics, culture, and economics to make them demand of their leaders policies rooted in principles and strategies that look deeper and farther ahead...

*pinch* Oh, never mind.
posted by Zurishaddai at 1:42 AM on October 23, 2001

With love from somewhere outside America,

posted by blue at 4:32 AM on October 23, 2001

Now I wish I'd posted that snarky-as-hell comment I'd written in extension and support to Zurishaddai's blue-skying.

Yay. Go team. Kill. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:38 AM on October 23, 2001

holgate, I second the vote for Le Monde Diplomatique. I think of it as the only non-magazine journalism worth respecting but then again they only come out monthly so it's like a magazine anyway.

Zurishaddai, spot on.

You know the solution for the world is education and being able to make informed analyses and decisions. The teaching of history and the world as well as access to alternative viewpoints in the US is atrocious; btw, the boilerplate remarks about "you wouldn't be able to do this in (fill in the blank)", comparing US access to repressive societies is a dumb exercise, please don't bother. With the resources and infrastructure available in this country you'd figure things would improve and you'd have a tremendously educated population on your hands who would know where countries are located on a world map. All I can do is hope, hope, hope...
posted by mmarcos at 5:32 AM on October 23, 2001

The BBC aired a pretty depressing Panorama discussion between Americans and Pakistanis - the transcript is here. Among other things the American audience seemed to believe that Palestine was under Soviet occupation and that Pakistan had done nothing to help Afghan refugees.

The best analysis of the Afghan situation I have found is here.

The best background reading has to be V.S. Naipaul, Among the believers and then Beyond Belief.
posted by grahamwell at 9:00 AM on October 23, 2001

I just heard the feedback on that Panorama programme on Radio 4; reading the transcript is astonishing.

-- So I am really tired of hearing the ramblings out of Islamabad. If that's the thinking in Pakistan, so be it. No rational argument and certainly no change in American policy is going to convince people who believe the earth is flat.

-- Well I'm sorry that somebody as eminent as Mr Perle should be so impatient. I think we live in a world that is spherical. We have a right to the world, all of us, its resources.
posted by holgate at 10:15 AM on October 23, 2001

It's definitely worth reading Panorama's feedback page, too (although I can't help but agree that with one viewer who described this program's format as horribly manipulative).
posted by blue at 11:31 PM on October 23, 2001

It's been said before but John Simpsons articles, samples here, here and here are the most luminous on Afghanistan. He revealed that Khandahar is notorious as a centre for Homosexuality, which gives a nice twist to our current actions. It's confirmed by the mighty organ which also has some fascinating reportage on the country.

It occurred to me after the Panorama programme that the most likely long term outcome of this is not a hot war between cultures - I don't believe either side has the stomach for it. What seems imminent is rather a closing off and isolating of the Islamic world behind a new 'Iron Curtain' as the west moves to starve it of technology and access that could be used to hurt us, whilst waiting in hope for an Islamic Enlightenment that may take centuries to arrive.
posted by grahamwell at 7:29 AM on October 24, 2001

« Older Wishful Thinking Department (Economics Division)   |   Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments