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Friday, October 03, 2003  

Spin won't work, they say, but spin they will.  In only four months, a Bush administration advisory panel (the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World) has issued its findings on the public image of America among Muslims abroad—and, well, the image isn't a good one. We knew this already, of course, but the panel now gets to tell an oblivious US administration just how bad things have become.

In their report, Changing Minds, Winning Peace(.pdf), the panel comes to the conclusion that US public diplomacy policies have failed to bring Americans into the context of Arab-Muslim debates about the influence of the West on their counties and culture. As a result, we have been unable to stop a flood in the broken dyke of bad press and images of our own cultural garbage. The panel calls for the creation of a new White House director of public policy, and for building libraries and information centers, translating more Western-content books into Arabic, increasing Arab and Muslim access to higher education in the US through scholarships and fellowships, and improving the quality of America's presence on the Internet.

Now this is surely a noble proposal, but the panel ends up by glossing over the larger cultural issues. They think we have to help our Arab and Islamic neighbors place America's image in the right context. After all, while we wade through cultural sewage every day, we know that it's sewage and so that makes it okay.

'Matters were far different during the Cold War. Soviet and Eastern European citizens were then shut off from the West by their governments. Today, by contrast, Arabs and Muslims have a surfeit of opinion and information about the United States, much of it distorted by journalists and propagandists hostile to America. Arabs and Muslims are also bombarded with American sitcoms, violent films, and other entertainment, much of which distorts the perceptions of viewers who lack the contextual background to understand, for example, that the lifestyles in programs like "Friends," "Dallas," and "Seinfeld" are not the norm.' [p. 21]

A Syrian teacher of English asked them whether the sitcom "Friends" actually depicted a typical American family! In this context, the panel says that Americans can place the show in an accurate context, while "Arabs and Muslims have a harder time doing so." [p. 21] I have a concern about this. I mean, I myself have a hard time placing "Friends" in any meaningful, experiential context of American life and daily struggle to keep my 16-year-old daughter away from the show, often unsuccessfully. While the issue of how many men Rachel has slept with may be a purely statistical or trivia topic, this is going to be trumped by the forthcoming TV show "Coupling," where even public places become the playground of sexual ethics and humans sniff each others' behinds like interested mammals. It may even go beyond the confusing mores in soaps, reality shows, and the proliferation of gay and lesbian stereotypes. I suppose that one could say similar things about "Seinfeld" or "Dallas" or any Hollywood TV series, for that matter, suggesting the real depth and breadth of America's cultural landfill. While we may acknowledge that such lifestyles are not the norm in America (or in the West), over time the aggregate of what is presented to us extends tendrils of influence to every corner of our country which is touched by the media controlling the message. Fashions, hair styles, types of jokes told around the watercooler, what is taboo and what is not, what we value, how conflicts are resolved—American behavior and thought are changed by these cultural dispensations. And we should remember, too, that TV is not cinema vérité, for what we see at the movies, hear on the stereo, and read in print are in fact critically prepared for us.

How do we disperse the clouds of disapproval, especially in countries where the word "American" means "decadent," when we ourselves are smothered in the smog of a declining civilization? Should it surprise us, then, that in the spring of 2003 only 1% of Jordanians took a favorable view of the US (down from 25% the summer before). With a population of 5,460,265, that means 55 thousand Jordanians hold us in a favorable light and 5.4 million of them don't. And Jordan is one of our few friends in the Middle East. A year ago 61% of Indonesians viewed us favorably; now only 15% do. And then there's Spain, an important coalition partner in Iraq. Only 3% of them have a very favorable view of the US; 39% have a very unfavorable view. That means, in a population of 40 million, 39 million Spaniards don't like us.  Says the panel (p. 13): "Public diplomacy helped win the Cold War, and it has the potential to help win the war on terror."  No, not when the very causes of discontent remain in place in the homes of the terrorists. So everything else will be spin.

As Christians, we still have an opportunity to redefine America for the rest of the world, forever keeping in mind Paul's admonition: "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" [Eph 6:12].

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 1:58 PM |

Wednesday, October 01, 2003  

Quite apart from the current controversy over Al Franken and his new book, Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them - A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, is the book's inclusion of a bitterly funny cartoon on The Gospel of Supply Side Jesus.  It deadpans the apostate church's ideal of Jesus as a messenger of economic salvation—sadly, it's also right on target.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 11:56 PM |

Sunday, September 28, 2003  

A retold tale. There was once a young man, Stephen, who left his home to follow Jesus, taking with him only a worn Bible and the clothes on his back. He traveled on foot, lived simply, and relied on odd jobs and the good will of Christians and other God-fearing people for his food and shelter. As he traveled, he would read from his Bible and preach the Gospel.

One day, stopping at a river to bathe, he returned to the river bank to find that his Bible was gone. So he dressed and went into the town to buy a new Bible. The bookseller said that he would never lack for a Bible if he preached in a mainline church. Stephen thought this over and went to the nearest mainline congregation to preach, but he was told that he could not preach there because he lacked the proper credentials. So Stephen went to a prestigious college and earned a degree in preaching, but the elders there would not send him out again to preach the Gospel until he bought a suit and new shiny shoes. So he bought a suit and new shiny shoes and the elders laid their hands on him and sent him out with a new Bible to preach the Gospel at his own mainline church.

At his new congregation, he was given an annual salary and lived in the Pastor's house, as was the custom, and traveled from home to home ministering to his flock. Soon his congregation came to him and said that he could not walk from house to house any more: he had to have a nice late-model car to drive around in. So he bought a nice late-model car to drive around in and lived in the Pastor's house, as was the custom. He preached the Gospel on Sundays and during the week drove in his nice late-model car to minister to his flock.

Stephen's congregation grew, and he was advised to marry, for a wife would help him be a more effective minister. So he married, and his wife helped him become a more effective minister. But she also required a nice late-model car, for they were now blessed with children and a pastor's wife too must travel in the community, if only to drive their children to and from school and sporting events. Stephen bought another nice late-model car for his wife to drive around in the community.

Stephen continued to wear suits and new shiny shoes, as was required by his elders, and he lived well with his family in the Pastor's house, as was the custom. One day a stranger stopped into the town and recognized Stephen from many years before, when he traveled on foot, lived simply, and relied on odd jobs and the good will of Christians and other God-fearing people for his food and shelter. The stranger asked Stephen about the nice Pastor's house, the two late-model cars, the suits and shiny shoes, and his credentials from a prestigious college. "I have to have all of this in order to keep my Bible!" said Stephen.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 6:29 PM |
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