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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 149, Volume 29 Number 3, January - February 2003.

Editorial
Christopher Ross of the American State Department coordinates 'public diplomacy'. He is keen to revive government sponsored cultural programmes abroad. Speaking the increasingly familiar language of cultural economics, he declares that such activities are a 'cost-effective investment to ensure US national security', a means of countering 'the skewed, negative and unrepresentative' image of America that, in his view, mass communications convey. Writers are suddenly in the front line when it comes to national security, not cannon fodder but the cannons themselves.

Under the title, 'US Writers Do Cultural Battle Around the Globe', the New York Times (7 December 2002) reported that the State Department was 'recruiting' prominent American writers in an attempt 'to use culture to further American diplomatic interests'. At a time when President Bush is pursuing the war on terrorism and (as I write) digesting the enormous Iraqi deposition on its weapons programmes, and at a time when some American writers have rediscovered the 1960s child in themselves and learned to dissent with clarity and vehemence once again, the timing could not be more divisive, in domestic cultural terms. The pamphlet is unlikely to alter an Afghan's, Libyan's or Nigerian's view of America. Its impact will be domestic and negative, even though it will circulate only abroad.

Over thirty thousand copies of the English version will be released; translations into Arabic, French, Spanish and Russian and ultimately into 'two dozen other languages' will follow. The State Department will distribute the free booklet of fifteen essays (64 pages, the essays not exceeding 2000 words) through US embassies around the world in coming weeks. But one country, says the Times, has banned the publication: the United States itself. 'The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, renewed when the United States Information Agency became part of the State Department three years ago, bars the domestic dissemination of official American information aimed at foreign audiences.'

George Clack of the State Department, who commissioned and edited the anthology, said: 'There were Congressional fears of the government propagandising the American people.' Americans can view the essays on the web, as can the foreign readers for whom they are intended, by accessing usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/writers. The address is not publicised in the United States, but it is not top secret; any American who wishes to sample material that is regarded by law as propaganda, to see how American writers are contributing to the national image shadow-struggle, can do so.

Four Pulitzer Prize winners have been enlisted: Michael Chabon, Robert Olen Butler, David Herbert Donald and Richard Ford. This year's American poet laureate, Billy Collins, is also part of the 'Bush Brigade'. He is joined by two writers of Arab extraction, Naomi Shahib Nye and Elmaz Abinader. Robert Pinsky, a previous laureate, Charles Johnson, Bharati Mukherjee and Sven Birkerts are also contributing. They were asked to write about 'what it means to be an American writer'. Each was paid a modest (in American terms) $2499 for contributing. This suggests that they gave willingly, even patriotically, to the project.

Stuart Holliday, once a White House aide to President Bush, could be called the publisher of the anthology: he coordinates the State Department's Office of International Information Programs. 'We're shining a spotlight on those aspects of our culture that tell the American story. The volume of material is there. The question is how can it be augmented to give a clearer picture of who we are.'

Helping to paint that 'clearer picture', Richard Ford sets out to 'burst' the 'stereotype' that Americans are culturally superior and intellectually indifferent. He does not say where that stereotype is held, or who holds it, or how, mixing his metaphor, his little essay will 'burst' it. The Sports Writer has entered the arena of shadow boxing. Mysteriously, he says he is keen 'to go to Islamic nations to help "humanise America"'. Does this imply that his visits to that ideological fiction, the monolithic 'Islamic nations' (which always include both secular and fundamentalist cultures from across the world, a diversity as great as that to be found in the 'Christian west') will convey Islamic humanism into the American conscience? Or is he confused?

The problem with propaganda, even by award-winning writers, is that it is categorical. From short essays by fifteen writers it is hoped the foes and friends of the United States will develop 'a clearer picture of who we are'. If such a picture emerged it would necessarily be a caricature. The target 'markets' are a specific caricature, the anthology is part of a wider cultural assault on what are perceived as the prejudices of Islam, a phrase which itself discloses a certain prejudice.

Is this project cultural in any useful sense? President Bush recruited Charlotte Beers, a Madison Avenue 'advertising executive', as an under-secretary of state whose mission is 'to sell the United States to often hostile Muslim populations'. Did Robert Pinsky or Billy Collins make a study of the target before composing their contributions to the marketing drive? The Beers campaign is clearly focused and includes 'the distribution of videos spotlighting tolerance for American Muslims and a pamphlet showing Muslims as part of mainstream American life'.

Billy Collins, whose poetry is emollient and benign, has decided that poetry can make things happen: 'I don't think a group of American writers is going to bring peace to the Middle East, but it puts something in the media that is a counterbalance to the growling and hostilities that fill the pages. It would have a positive and softening influence on things.' What things, he does not say, but clearly if sentiment mattered, he would be a substantial political force. He is sufficiently realistic to add that, 'It's not a particularly good time for unarmed American poets to be wandering around Jordan and Syria.' The image of armed American poets is alarming, and though unintended, eloquent, the kind of paradox we have almost ceased to respond to when we hear the phrase 'armed settlers'.

This is Elmaz Abinader's take on the situation: 'what you can do is inspire a different kind of power. That's the power of the word.' Judging from the quality of the comments the Times quotes, this is not a hopeful or inspiring dossier. On the contrary. Robert Creeley's comment shows he retains that quality of straight talk he got from Charles Olson: the effect of 11 September 'passed quickly as the country regained its equilibrium, turned to the conduct of an aggressive war and, one has to recognise, went back to making money'.

Let's not make too much of it, says one critic. After all, this kind of activity is not new. Writers including John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Albee and E.L. Doctorow used to read abroad, especially in eastern Europe, their performances subsidised by government funds. The world has changed, the target is not eastern Europe. All the same, let's not make too much of it. But let's make something. The State Department has no business here. Its action speaks much louder than the words of the writers it has recruited. It has done them, and the cause it intends to serve, no good.

This item is taken from PN Review 149, Volume 29 Number 3, January - February 2003.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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