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.
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
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.
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
The second trip was not so innocuous: In the winter of 1978, the cultural affairs people at the American Embassy in
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.
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
They hate us for many reasons: because we support
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.”
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.