Monday, August 27, 2007

Postwar, by Tony Judt


While I’ve been unable to make it through Moby-Dick this summer (just 480 pages left to go before the autumnal equinox), I have been making surprising time through Tony Judt’s epic Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Judt combines a superhumanly broad grasp of European politics and culture with a writing style that can only be called “breezy,” in light of what could be wretchedly dry subject matter.

He doesn’t just discuss Europe, but also the Soviet Union and the U.S. and their efforts to promote or denigrate Communism. Apparently, the U.S. brought a lot of public-diplomacy dollars to the task:

By 1950 the US Information Agency had taken overall charge of American cultural exchange and information programs in Europe. Together with the Informational Services Branch of the US Occupation authorities in western Germany and Austria (which had full control of all media and cultural outlets in the US Zone in these countries), the USIA was now in a position to exert huge influence in Western European cultural life. By 1953, at the height of the Cold War, US foreign cultural programs (excluding covert subsidies and private foundations) employed 13,000 people and cost $129 million [annually], much of it spent on the battle for the hearts and minds of the intellectual elite of Western Europe.

That’s about $890 million in 2003 dollars, if you’re keeping track. A lot of that money went to establishing “America Houses,’

with libraries and newspaper-reading rooms, and [to] host lectures, meetings and English-language classes. By 1955 there were sixty-nine such America Houses in Europe. ...

Which is not to say USIA and its governmental brethren did everything right:

Like American-supported radio networks, ... the America House programs were sometimes undermined by the crude propaganda imperatives emanating from Washington. At the peak of the McCarthy years the directors of America Houses spent much of their time removing books from their shelves. Among dozens of authors whose works were deemed inappropriate were not only the obvious suspects—John Dos Passos, Arthur Miller, Dashiel Hammett and Upton Sinclair—but also Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Alberto Moravia, Tom Paine and Henry Thoreau. In Austria, at least, it seemed to many observers that the US was sometimes its own most effective foe.

Who might appear on today’s multimedia list? The obvious suspects would be Christopher Hitchens, the Dixie Chicks, Al Gore and Seymour Hersh. Non-obvious candidates for book removal might include Bill Gates (critical of U.S. engineering talent), Bono (U.S. and EU policy toward Sudan) and Studs Terkel (Dos Passos’s nonfiction successor, I’d say).

Got others?

Monday, August 20, 2007

While You Were Out


While I was vacationing, my inbox filled with PD-related bites. Andy Valvur of Igor International forwarded to me this video of Condoleezza Rice at the WHCA dinner, getting roasted by Cedric the Entertainer. It's good to see the Secretary of State relaxed and laughing--and it's also good to see actual humor at a WHCA dinner rather than thinly disguised bile.

Tyler Davidson at Meetings Media sent word that Cal Ripken is now working for State as a "special sports envoy." (Video here, text here.) The legendary Orioles iron man can be expected to connect nicely with audiences in East Asia and Latin America, where baseball and its heroes carry a lot of weight. His work ethic and self-deprecating view of himself are exactly what the U.S. should hope to project abroad, so good call by Undersecretary Hughes.

Speaking of baseball, East Asia and iron men, Nolan Ryan is now pitching for the U.S. Meat Export Federation to revive sales of U.S. beef in a mad-cow-wary Japan. Ryan, who does a little ranching himself, "has his picture in the meat aisles at major [Japanese] grocery stores under the slogan 'Beef makes you strong!'" according to Thursday's Wall Street Journal. The Hall of Fame pitcher is well-known in Japan and as good a fit for pitching U.S. beef as Ripken is for pitching U.S. values.

Finally, one of my favorite bands, Los Angeles's Ozomatli, has been touring on State's behalf and performed in Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt in July. This is a much gutsier call by State and presumably by Karen Hughes; although Ozomatli exemplifies L.A.'s multicultural melting pot and plays in well-known Latin, African and American musical styles, some of their lyrics talk about American racism and fears of a coming race war.

But if you want to give people an honest idea of what America is about, along with a positive message of peace and a great vibe, I can't think of a better group to send abroad. See this video of their mellow "After Party" here.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

On Vacation

Taking vacation from today through August 19. Rural. Low-tech. Distant. Before I head to the hinterlands, a few quick shots:

Some U.S. brands' popularity may be declining because their newness has worn off or because people don't like America. Where does that leave China, with its latest product-safety disaster that the Wall Street Journal captioned "Poison Me Elmo"?

If you haven't read Mark Bowden's Guests of the Ayatollah, do. I'm only fifty pages in and it's been tough to put down since page one. Bowden interviewed participants on all sides of the Iranian hostage crisis and his reporting makes those events fresh nearly 30 years later.

Finally, the "Karen Hughes is too prominent/Karen Hughes is nowhere to be found" debate rages on as the undersecretary for PD quietly pops up on the West Bank, says a few words in support of U.S. policy, then leaves. I suspect Hughes simply can't find a happy medium that will satisfy the press between now and 2009, but wish her luck anyway.

Off to vacation.
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