Friday, April 28, 2006

Not the Best Day to Rally


This morning on the NPR station here in Iowa City, I heard that the meatpacking division of Cargill and its meatpackers’ union negotiated to give Iowa workers a Tuesday-Saturday schedule next week, letting them take Monday off to attend rallies against an immigration bill under consideration in Congress.

On its face, this sounds like enlightened cooperation between management and labor to fight their common foe of immigration-law reform—particularly since Cargill has experienced unprofitable work slowdowns on the days of previous rallies.

But the announcer on KUNI-FM also noted that the immigration rallies are timed to coincide with May 1—May Day—which might present an opening for the labor movement’s opponents.

May Day had its origins in labor’s struggle for an eight-hour workday in the late 19th century but later was co-opted as a day of celebration by highly militarized Communist regimes (remember all those parades in Moscow’s Red Square?), anti-U.S. reformers of all stripes abroad and, after the Cold War’s end, a variety of leftist or anarchist causes in the U.S.

Does the newly invigorated labor movement really want to align itself with anarchists, the roughly three remaining Marxists, and anti-U.S. sentiment to this extent? Or is May Day a sufficiently tame memory that U.S. conservatives can no longer make hay out of the old Communist association?

It might better for U.S. labor to wait a couple of weeks for May Day to pass, but then, organizers may have calculated that it’s better to capitalize on the enormous energy shown in demonstrations this year than to worry about the past associations of May 1.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A “Marshall Plan for the Mind”


Last Sunday the Times ran an obituary for George C. Minden, who for years helped smuggle Western books and magazines into the USSR. Minden ran the International Literary Center, a CIA-backed group that

tried to win influential friends by giving them reading material unavailable in their own countries. The material ranged from dictionaries, medical texts and novels by Joyce and Nabokov to art museum catalogs and Parisian fashion magazines.

The people who received the reading matter were generally Communists or professionals and intellectuals working for Communist regimes. They thought the books were being donated by Western publishers and cultural organizations.

The CIA’s purpose was to offer an alternative, culturally engaging reality that had the implicit effect of promoting Western culture. Mr. Minden did not see a need to bluntly refute Marxist dogma, on the theory that people could use common sense and their own observations to reject Communist arguments.

Minden’s obit makes me nostalgic for the Cold War, particularly since so many attendees at a recent international polling conference lamented a) the proliferation of media worldwide, which makes it difficult to gauge what works and what doesn’t in public diplomacy, and b) the fact that any utterance of the president, the Secretary of State, a White House spokesman, etc. immediately resonates around the world.

The idea of providing other countries’ elites with only our highbrow literature—regardless of Nabokov or Joyce’s readability, they still symbolized Western experimentation and literary adventurousness—while going light on the Paris Hilton coverage hasn’t been possible for more than a decade.

Similarly, the president’s words in Peoria will also play in Pretoria, and everywhere else. While a former White House official at this conference claimed that domestic concerns drove how the president and other government officials discussed policy issues at home, this has to be taken with a grain of salt. You don’t rewrite a speech in Poughkeepsie for people in Paris, this official said—but if even one Parisian is actually listening and his blog entry about it gets picked up by Agence France-Presse. ...

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Ambassador of Brahms


Two weeks ago I attended a USC-sponsored conference on international polling in Washington. One of its purposes was to determine how such polls might further different nations’ efforts in public diplomacy; with better pulse-taking, the thinking went, you might get better policy-making, or at least presentations of that policy that resonate better with target audiences.

One participant noted that there were many large anti-Iraq war protests in Germany because the German media—made up of that country’s elites—covered the war differently. I took this to mean that German TV focused on American missteps and Iraqi suffering, generating anger and dismay in that country and generating mass antiwar sentiment on a scale seen only sporadically in the U.S.

Switch scenes now to America’s first diplomat, the Secretary of State, who was the subject of a flattering piece in the April 9 New York Times while I was at that conference.

The article, in the Sunday Arts & Leisure section, focused on Secretary Rice’s chamber-music group. Rice, a pianist so accomplished that Yo-Yo Ma once asked her to accompany him, frequently plays Brahms, Shostakovich and other composers with four other high-powered Washington types who need a creative outlet for their copious spare time.

Deep down in the article is this graf:

Ms. Rice has only just begun to see the potential of music as a diplomatic tool, notably last February, when she delivered a speech in Paris about American rapprochement with Europe in the face of vehement disagreements over the invasion of Iraq. During the trip, she visited the Hector Berlioz Conservatory in Paris, where she attended a children’s music class and watched young ensembles perform. As cameras caught her listening, she seemed deeply affected by the fledgling musicians.

At the time, there were “whole questions about U.S.-French relations and so forth,” she said, “and I think it was just nice to connect with the French kids.” Asked to play something, she declined, but promised to come back sometime with her chamber group.

Great scheduling by Rice’s staff, and the bit about her seeming deeply affected by the kids has the virtue of being true; Rice entered the University of Denver as a music major and has played throughout her life.

The French and especially French elites seem given to snobbery and to thinking that the Bush administration is dominated by several species of suit-wearing Texas barbarian. Secretary Rice, on her promised return trip, has an opportunity to make a small but significant change in elite opinion at the Berlioz Conservatory, and it shouldn’t be passed up.

Any dent that can be made in the negative opinions of French elites toward the Bush administration could lead to further rapprochement, in the French media and elsewhere. Classical music is not an unlikely common ground at a time when the Bush administration is under siege by Americans and the French elites feel under siege by North Africans.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Beacon Still in Transit

I'll be out another week while parsing a combination of client work and a 2,000-mile move.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Tom and Jerry in Iran

I'll be out between today and about April 17.

Meantime, chew on this bit from the Asia Times on how an Iranian is abusing my favorite transnational cat-and-mouse team, Tom and Jerry:

A Jewish conspiracy lurks behind the cat-and-mouse cartoon Tom and Jerry, according to an adviser to Iran's culture minister.

"If you study European history," Professor Hasan Bolkhari told an Iranian television audience in February, "you will see who was the main power to hoard money and wealth, in the 19th century. In most cases, it is the Jews. Perhaps that was one of the reasons which caused Hitler to begin the anti-Semitic trend, and then the extensive propaganda about the crematoria began ... The Jews were degraded and termed 'dirty mice'. Tom and Jerry was made in order to change the Europeans' perception of mice. One of terms used was 'dirty mice'.

"The mouse is very clever and smart," Bolkhari went on. "Everything he does is so cute. He kicks the poor cat's ass. Yet this cruelty does not make you despise the mouse. He looks so nice, and he is so clever ... This is exactly why some say it was meant to erase this image of mice from the minds of European children, and to show that the mouse is not dirty and has these traits."

I have a sort of running gag on Beacon about how easily Tom and Jerry, with their expressive faces and easily understood slapstick, transcend cultures and languages. This idea has run into a brick wall in the case of Professor Bolkhari, who may be too old to take an animated cat and mouse at face value.

Or perhaps he is confusing Tom and Jerry with Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Virtual Baghdad


You could call it SimSurgency.

In “Purdue students map out ‘Virtual Iraq,’” AP’s Caryn Rousseau describes the efforts of Simulex, a West Lafayette, Ind.-based defense contractor, to create a computer model of Baghdad’s neighborhoods. Far beyond a mere map, this simulation will contain an almost absurd amount of detail and may even give the DoD a limited ability to predict future outcomes:

Hypothetical: Department of Defense higher-ups want to infiltrate a certain area of Baghdad with hopes of breaking up a growing insurgent stronghold. But before they do, they’re wondering how the local neighborhood will react. Do they have sympathizers at a nearby bakery? Has the man living in the apartment upstairs been accused of making bombs?

Answers will soon be at their fingertips thanks to a Purdue University assistant professor and her students. They’re researching real day-to-day life details about Baghdad and its residents and inputting those facts into databases to create a kind of war game the military can use to foresee outcomes of possible actions and plan more strategically.

“If you plug in something like – this insurgency group takes over this bank – what are the options for coalition forces?” says Stacy Holden, an assistant professor of history.

The goal is to create the most realistic picture of Baghdad possible using uncompromised sources, she says. And just knowing that a particular city street is working-class Shiite isn’t enough.

“We want to be able to get into the head of the regular Iraqi person in Baghdad,” Holden says. “We don’t want to just stick with looking at what this or that political leader says.”

And are they doing this by going to Baghdad? Actually, they mostly seem to be using the Web thus far. Purdue assistant professor of history Stacy Holden says the program is designed to broaden coalition forces’ options outward from military force:

“The purpose of this simulation is to create a range of choices for coalition forces,” she says. “Things like, we can do more public diplomacy. We can increase food subsidies.”

Holden says she wants her students’ work to help the military understand the nature of urban insurgency – and they want to know everything – down to who’s reading what newspapers and where they live.

“As I go through information about different quarters or neighborhoods, any time I find a description of any resident I mark it down,” she says. “We want to get down even further and say we know, for example, there are three veterans of the Iran-Iraq war who are receiving government pension and one of them lost a leg in that war. Or a lot of people work in mechanic shops there. Whenever we can find an individual who is in a specific place, we want to mark him down.”

And find out what’s important to Baghdad residents, Holden says. “Because maybe ideology isn’t important to him,” she says. “Maybe food supply is important to him. Maybe a new public school in this or that neighborhood is important to him.”

This is focus-grouping and simulating on a grand scale, but it will have to go beyond college students surfing the Web in Indiana. I hope DoD and other federal agencies are feeding useful information to Holden’s group from their eyes and ears on the ground, because a tool like this has a lot of promise—even if I doubt it would have the predictive power advocates might claim.
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