Arts, entertainment, and more.
Nov. 1 2001 5:17 PM

How Can I Help?

A role for writers and artists in the new war.

 

Illustration by Robert Neubecker 

For the first time in my life, I have succumbed to the American vice: The television is always turned on. Passing by on the way to the bathroom or the fridge, I turn up the volume for a minute to see if there’s anything new and immediately fall into some report on the peculiar construction of underground bunkers in Afghanistan, only to realize, with a groan, that I’ve seen it before. I have now entered my own sort of cave. But, like many others, I keep watching. We are driven not only by hunger for news but by desire to understand what is frequently incomprehensible.

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Some of the most frustrating and hurtful elements in the news reports: the boiling detestation of the United States; the jeering faces of the young men with their handsome black beards and immaculate white tunics; the men gesticulating, screaming (try doing that for an hour: You have to be really angry to do it) as they pour through the streets of Peshawar and Jakarta in an ecstasy of loathing; and, even worse, beautiful Pakistani children, barely 8 years old, solemnly committing themselves to jihad.

We are passing through an intensely patriotic moment, and many of us who write or teach or perform for a living would like to put our shoulders to the wheel, if only we could find a wheel. Last week, I remembered that I did do something once. It wasn’t in the least dangerous, it was very likely unimportant, but it was something—a patriotic duty, nonmilitary style—and I began to wonder if people like me shouldn’t be performing the equivalent service now. In the dear, safe, touchingly straightforward days of the Cold War, I made two excursions overseas as a propagandist for the Free World. I was young and eager to travel, and the United States Information Agency (known overseas as the United States Information Service) was sending out all kinds of people to make the American case—poets, professors, dancers, musicians, basket-weavers, storytellers, theater people, even young and obscure cultural journalists like myself.

Our new conflict is fueled by people who hate the United States even more and know it even less than did comparable adversaries at the height of the Soviet-American rivalry. Oh, Osama Bin Laden and people like him know us well enough: To know us is to revile us, as far as the fundamentalists are concerned. But what of the others—the moderates, or the people just swept along, trapped by the ruling ideological construction of America as imperialist, cruel, hypocritical, and all the rest of that? Do all the screaming young men with handsome black beards really believe all that? Or do they just go along with public hate because it’s an inexpressible relief from the misery of lives going nowhere, a joyously angry rush of excitement, an escape into the happiness of rage? Anger, as everyone knows, fuels itself, justifies its own excess, absolves itself of miscalculation. It is a state of holiness even for the nonreligious.

To say, as senators on television always do, that “the message is not getting out” is a pathetic understatement of an extraordinary failure; the “message” is completely in the hands of fanatics. Preposterous lies about us are generated by the Taliban or screamed by power-mad clerics and broadcast throughout the Arab world on Al Jazeera, with nothing but tight-lipped or bland remarks offered in rebuttal from American officials, who act as if articulateness or eloquence were some weakness to be avoided. It's the corporate and military style of curtness, and it's inadequate (look at Tony Blair's free-flowing warmth for the obvious contrast). Of course there are limits on what a government official can say. But the government could find other people to say what needs to be said.

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The first of my trips was innocuous. In 1974, near the end of the Vietnam War, I trolled around the edges of the conflict, lugging 16 mm prints of old American films to Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Burma (as it was then known). Another film critic who couldn't make it recommended me to the USIA and, since I was broke and stranded in New York, I leaped at the opportunity. My routine was very pleasant: first, dinner at the homes of American Embassy personnel—information and cultural officers and also, I assume, assorted spies, all of them famished for news of the United States; then a screening at the embassy or at the USIS headquarters before invited guests, most of whom spoke English. The films were good entertainments selected to illustrate some American institution or aspect of American life—12 Angry Men and Anatomy of a Murder served well enough as examples of the adversarial legal system and trial by jury, Stagecoach introduced the subject of the frontier, and so on. After the movie, I would give a little talk, and there would be discussion, an exchange of pleasantries, punctuated, perhaps, by a few brief flurries of criticism of America from the audience. I remember being disconcerted when a demure old gentleman in Rangoon brought up Sacco and Vanzetti. Had they received a fair trial? Well, no, they had not. But such questions were rare. Even though the United States had been tearing up Vietnam for years, almost everyone one met in Asia in those days was very polite to Americans. Or so it seemed. They said that it was the Japanese they hated.

The second trip was not so innocuous: In the winter of 1978, the cultural affairs people at the American Embassy in London organized a little tour of the capitals of Communist Europe—Prague, Warsaw and Krakow, Bucharest, and Budapest. I convinced the embassy to let me show, as an act of enlightened propaganda for a free society, All the President’s Men, a film about two journalists bringing down a president of the United States. It turned out that knowledge of Woodward and Bernstein in Eastern Europe was no better than fragmentary. The Soviet line, after all, was pro-Nixon (Brezhnev liked him), and the cartoon picture of the impeachment process in Eastern Europe went something like this: Three or four powerful capitalists got together in a room and decided Nixon had to go. From the Communists’ point of view, he was a victim of his policy of détente. Many people, of course, knew more; they knew it from the BBC and Radio Free Europe, from their own underground press, from travelers who had been abroad. But they didn’t know it in detail; they didn’t know what the press could actually do—that an orderly process of removing a leader who had violated the Constitution might begin with a couple of reporters asking questions. At the screenings, especially when students were present, there was an atmosphere of seething excitement.

I remember a heady evening at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Before the screening, I was afraid that the event would be a flop. John Dean? John Ehrlichman? Mardian, Mitchell, Magruder? The students, I thought, would be baffled by the thicket of names. They would be restless and miss the point of the movie. To prepare them, I gave a little talk explaining the essentials of the Watergate scandal. The movie began, and a nervous young Polish translator, with a copy of the screenplay before him and the soundtrack playing through headphones, did voice-over translation of the dialogue. He stumbled now and then (“Deep Throat” was always a bit of a problem), skipped key moments, then caught up and said things in a rush. Yet the students were silent, rapt almost; they made an enormous effort to take the movie in. Afterward, I talked in an informal way of the role of the press in American society, and they jumped all over me with questions.

In Bucharest, at the state documentary center, I sat around chatting with a group of filmmakers. As we talked, one man, stubby, rough-looking, a cigar in his hand (I remember thinking he looked like Bertolt Brecht), remained absolutely silent. We then ran some of the state-made films: Noble tractors reclaimed the Romanian soil, accompanied by Mendelssohn scurrying on the soundtrack. Afterward, I offered some mild criticism, and the filmmakers frowned at me or glumly looked away. Then they asked again, with greater insistence: What did you think? And at that point a little light bulb went on in my head. An American’s role at that moment was to help these men and women in whatever struggles they were waging against the cultural bureaucrats in Bucharest—against the silent man at the table, who was obviously some sort of party apparatchik. This time, I spoke more vigorously: I told them their films were unimaginative and boring, and I mentioned cinéma-vérité, the documentaries of Frederick Wiseman, and so on. Suddenly everyone but the silent fellow with the cigar smiled at me. As it happened, the directors knew quite a lot about cinéma-vérité and Fred Wiseman. I had told them nothing new, but, still, I had fulfilled my function as an American by pointing out the inadequacies of their state-sponsored cinema in front of the state sponsor.

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Who knows whether this sort of thing made any difference in the Cold War. If we did have some success, it was perhaps because most of the time we did not engage in overt selling of America. That wasn’t our job. To be effective, we had openly and plainly to exercise our craft and tobe Americans. Of course the very details of my memories tend to mock my hope that it might make a difference in the New War. Film societies, dinner parties … even at the pits of the Cold War, the cultural gap between life behind the Iron Curtain and the life I proselytized for was small compared with the gap between life in America and the life of those frantic young men with black beards. But maybe the gap is not entirely unbridgeable.

They hate us for many reasons: because we support Israel and because we are allied with Saudi Arabia, and because we act in our own interests while moralizing to others, just like every other great power in history. But if we are also hated because some people are willing to believe lies or half-truths about us, we can alter that situation just by showing up without swagger. The elites in Saudi Arabia may send their children here to be educated, but many people in the Islamic world know only the most trivial things—Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Internet porn (where it’s allowed), and the most spectacular and empty of our movies. To many, the country looks like a nightclub that never closes, a fleshly inferno that must attract and repel them in equal measure (hence the extremity of their rage: They must violently reject what attracts them). Am I being no more than plaintive if I ask, How much do they know of constitutionalism, of the need for free debate, of the separation of church and state, of tolerance (once a great virtue of Islam), of the free market and such attendant necessities as flexible capital markets and transparent accounting? What do they know of our ability to criticize and reform ourselves, perhaps the greatest gift of a liberal education? They do not know these things; or, if they do, they may not see the point of them.

Reaching the fundamentalists is out of the question. We can hardly explain the value of pluralism to people electrified by the notion that life has only a single purpose, or celebrate narrative art and painting among people who loathe representation of any sort. But we can try to reach the moderates, who are isolated at the moment and need a signal comparable to the signal that some of us sent to people who had doubts in the Communist countries. We can suggest by implication that a man like Osama Bin Laden, as Tom Friedman has said, offers nothing for the future, nothing for Islamic children but rejection of the modern world and death, and that our wealth has something to do with secular education, the unfettered exchange of information, and the emancipation of women. We can do it not by boasting or exhorting, but by describing, illustrating, embodying—that is, by showing up. A friendly, decently informed American, thinking on his feet, listening to the members of his audience, taking them seriously, answering questions—not defending every government policy but defending by his performance a certain idea of the free individual—that is what might work.

It would mean, among other things, confronting the reasons they find us distasteful. We have lost, they would say, the spiritual element of life; we are possessed with getting and spending; we are materialists. This, of course, is true, but so far none of our public officials has found the words to explain that it’s only a part of the truth. It is probably useless to tell them how many people go to churches, synagogues, and mosques. They might be impressed, but it doesn't alter their critique. We have to say something else. We have to say that an exuberant civil society is itself an amazing spiritual achievement; that daily life in a democracy, at its best, offers pleasures and satisfactions different from the satisfactions of belief but not inferior to them. We cannot lecture these people about the greatness of American civilization, insulting the already insulted. But we can at least describe our secular scrolls, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and say what is meant by the separation of powers, the separation of church and state, habeas corpus, and the promise of universal respect for human rights. We can describe the advantage of self-knowledge and self-criticism, citing our other documents—writings of Sophocles, Plato, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Hegel, Emerson, even Jane Austen, whose most effervescent heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, realizing that she has misjudged her haughty suitor, says to herself, “Vanity, not love, has been my folly. … Till this moment, I never knew myself.” Elizabeth’s self-reproach in Pride and Prejudice seems like nothing more than an episode in a love story, but at the same time it’s a seminal event in Western consciousness. It would be a curious and very difficult enterprise to explain why.

Ten million angry beards soothed by Jane Austen? Hard to imagine, perhaps, but what’s the harm in trying? To give up altogether could be just laziness and cynicism masked as realism. Why not try to explain what Emerson meant by self-reliance, or tell them about mighty Oedipus, who solved the riddle of the Sphinx but whose exercise of power cut himself off from self-knowledge? As an equivalent to All the President's Men, you could show them The Insider, which is about a man of honor finding the guts to tell the truth about the malfeasances of the company that was making him rich.

And yes, there’s a selfish motive at work here too: a desire to be of use, even to be in a bit of useful danger, as opposed to the pointless danger we all feel going about our normal lives. If American intellectuals feel abashed by the deeds of firemen, policemen, and soldiers, wouldn’t it be better to get out and do something—even something comparatively small—rather than sit around and wait for the next attack? In this latest version of the defense of liberal society against its enemies, there’s good work to be done and an adventure to be had that goes beyond the routine tremors of the stage, the lecture hall, the editorial office. Emerging from the cave, making an end to triviality and self-disgust—that alone would be a reward.