Friday, September 30, 2005

This blog does not represent the official policy of the United States

Yesterday's Slate features an article by Fred Kaplan on public diplomacy. He writes about the ongoing Mideast trip of Karen Hughes, the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, and questions how effective she can be. Among a lot of interesting points, he raises this question:

It's hard to say what kinds of programs—which cultural messengers or emblems of freedom—might effectively counter the hatred and suspicions of today's foes.

It's an interesting thought. I've spent much of my young career representing the United States to people from different cultures, and I have to say that even in the absence of "hatred and suspicion," it's hard to know what will reach your audience and influence their perspective on Americans. How could I teach "America" to teenagers from Albania or refugees from El Salvador? And when I was working with those people, I had the added benefit of being in the United States. They had some personal experience of America and Americans outside of their ESL classes. For many students in my classes that begin in the coming weeks, and for many Serbians at large, I'm it. This is a daunting prospect, to be sure. I speak very little Serbian, and all I know of the country's culture and history, I've learned in two months of reading and one week of living here. Nevertheless, I feel that my current attempt at cultural diplomacy promises to have an extremely positive effect, if on a small scale. Let's take this afternoon's American Corner meeting for example. Meaghan and I showed up around 5:00 to discuss October programming with the librarians. The four of us decided to implement a number of programs for children and adults, and next week Meaghan is planning to visit all the local elementary schools to do publicity. So, to answer Mr. Kaplan's question, here's how we are representing ourselves as "cultural messengers":
  • Open to free discussion of ourselves and our culture - in discussion groups; also answering questions from the librarians, e.g. "Do regular Americans dress in Prada and Gucci?" (One of them watches Sex and the City.)
  • Understanding the importance of reaching the younger generation - in story times
  • Knowledgeable in some of the fun, traditional, less-globalized aspects of American culture - in our presentations on postseason baseball and Halloween
  • Young, creative, and eager to work collaboratively with our Serbian hosts - my Serbian counterpart at the university continues to make fun of me for the extraordinarily optimistic and upbeat tone of my pre-departure emails

I agree with Mr. Kaplan that Karen Hughes's trip is a bit ridiculous. What can she be to Turks and Saudis but another official voice whose words may or may not translate into actions? I would argue, however, that the U.S. has important cultural diplomacy to do - and that you don't have to be Vladimir Posner, Mr. Kaplan's impossible paragon of bicultural fluency, to do it.

In addition, as Bill Maher put it, "They hate us because we don't know why they hate us." When one of the American Corner librarians asked Meaghan about the general American view of Serbs, she had to admit that most of us have forgotten about the Balkans since the wars of the 1990s. She went on to say, however, that one part of our job as Americans abroad is to bring home a more educated perspective on our host country. Cultural diplomacy, after all, works two ways; since America is the loudest voice in the room, it's all the more important for us to learn to listen.

1 comment:

Kaarin said...

great post and aren't you and we glad you're the one representing america right now!