War Stories

Jazz, Rock ’n’ Roll, and Diplomacy

Can American culture make Muslims love us?

Brian Cox as Max in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. Click image to expand.
Brian Cox as Max in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ’n’ Roll

Today’s question: What can America offer the world that might make us a bit more appealing?

My puzzle—which I will ask you, dear reader, to help solve at the end of this column—is inspired in part by Karen Hughes’ recent departure as the State Department’s “public diplomat” (a job that she recently realized is impossible), but still more by Tom Stoppard’s new play Rock ’n’ Roll.

The play, which I saw the other night, is a brisk, moving, sometimes-enthralling piece of theater about a lot of things—romance, revolution, power, protest, ideology, the clash of individuals and systems (in short, the usual heady Stoppard brew)—but it’s mainly about what the title suggests: rock ’n’ roll.

It centers on a rock-loving, record-collecting Czech intellectual in the years between 1968 and 1990, a span of historic tumult: ‘68 was the year of the Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet crackdown; ‘90 was the first full year of the Velvet Revolution—Vaclav Havel’s rise to the presidency, Mikhail Gorbachev’s withdrawal of troops, and the Rolling Stones’ first-ever concert in Prague.

The play ends with our hero and his friends cheering wildly at the Stones concert, as if it—and not the crash of communism—marked the real revolution, and Stoppard’s point is that, in a way, it did or that, anyway, the two were much the same thing.

Havel—celebrated playwright and essayist, leader of the Czech dissident movement in the ‘70s, one of the authors of the Charter 77 petition, jailed for many years as a result—was deeply affected by rock ’n’ roll. (One of his first acts as president was to appoint Frank Zappa as an adviser on trade and tourism.)

A turning point in the dissidents’ movement, and in Havel’s own thinking, was the arrest in 1976 of a grungy Czech rock band called the Plastic People of the Universe (named after a Zappa song). Havel embraced the Plastics as spiritual brethren and denounced their arrest as “an attack by the totalitarian system on life itself, on the very essence of human freedom and integrity.” Many of Havel’s colleagues were initially puzzled; the Plastics weren’t dissidents or even political—they were unruly, long-haired, and not very talented rockers.

There’s a scene in Rock ’n’ Roll where the protagonist, Jan (here personifying Havel’s views), tells a skeptical dissident friend that the Plastics will have a deeper impact than any dissident, including Havel himself. Jan explains:

The policeman isn’t frightened by dissidents. Why should he be? Policemen love dissidents, like the Inquisition loved heretics. Heretics give meaning to the defenders of the faith. Nobody cares more than a heretic. … It means they’re playing on the same board. So [Gustav] Husak [the Communist Czech president] can relax; he’s made the rules, it’s his game. The population plays the other way, by agreeing to be bribed by places at university or an easy ride at work. They care enough to keep their thoughts to themselves; their haircuts give nothing away. But the Plastics don’t care at all. They’re unbribable. They’re coming from somewhere else, from where the Muses come from. They’re not heretics. They’re pagans.

That was—and, at its best, still is—the appeal of rock ’n’ roll. It comes “from somewhere else.” It’s impervious to the power structure. It’s playing on another game board.

In the West, the point might seem obvious, even clichéd. But in the totalitarian societies behind the Iron Curtain, such notions—and the music they reflected—were truly radical. There was no individual space. The clearest proof of this was the arrest of the Plastic People of the Universe, who posed no explicit threat to the regime other than choosing to ignore it. And the most thrilling thing about the collapse of the regime wasn’t the exchange of one political system for another; it was the exuberance—the release from politics—that was allowed as a result of that change; it was, for example, the Rolling Stones playing a raucous concert on the Communists’ former parade ground in Prague.

What inspired many of the Eastern bloc dissidents during the Cold War—what they found so alluring about the West—was not so much our market capitalism or parliamentary democracy; still less was it our government’s policies. It was the insouciant freedom of our culture. It was our rock ’n’ roll.

In the Soviet Union, the West’s sonic appeal came more in the form of jazz—which was promoted by the U.S. government, especially in Willis Conover’s jazz broadcasts on Voice of America and in the officially sponsored tours of such jazz musicians as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, not just in Russia but also in the Middle East. When I was a Moscow correspondent in the early-to-mid-’90s, many Russians told me that their first endearing—and enduring—impressions of America came from Conover’s jazz programs. The music’s appeal lay in its boisterousness, its improvised virtuosity, which stood in such contrast to the party’s stale culture.

And let’s not forget the countries of Western Europe, whose postwar youth were attracted to America not just by the Marshall Plan but also by the liberating energy of our movies, especially the films noirs and gangster melodramas that our own critics at the time found so vulgar.

So, again, here’s the question: What does America have going for it now? What could we send out to the world that might have the same impact on, say, Arabs and Muslims today that rock, jazz, and B-movies had on Russians and Europeans during the Cold War?

It may be, as Hughes (and both women who preceded her in the job) concluded, that there are no answers. The roar of Abu Ghraib, water-boarding, and military occupation—or even the quieter but still teeth-gnashing encounters with rude officials at U.S. embassies and airports—drowns out, or infects, our most engaging art forms and most strenuous attempts at public diplomacy. Even in its heyday, the U.S. Information Agency could do little to counter the clear “message” transmitted by the war in Vietnam. In that sense, policies do trump culture.

But let’s say the next president begins to readjust American policy. It’s not clear that anything in our culture might help restore our image.

First, the case of Cold War Europe might hold few lessons on how to mold the hearts and minds of current-day Arabs and Muslims.

Many people under Communist rule hated their governments. Since the world was divided into two blocs (the American-led West and the Soviet-led East), those who hated the East were predisposed to like the West. But today, in a world of dispersed power, people have many models from which to choose; Saudis or Egyptians who despise their autocratic regimes are more likely to find solace in Islamic fundamentalism than in any Western beacon.

During the Cold War, information was also divided in two: the Communist organs on the one hand, the BBC World Service and Voice of America on the other. The choice was stark and clear. One appeal of jazz and rock, especially in times of intense crackdown, was their forbidden status. Now, with satellite dishes and the Internet, everything is accessible. The challenge of sending out a message isn’t that the foes are jamming the signal; it’s that the channels are cluttered with so many other messages.

Once more, then: What is to be done? What should—what can—the next president do to improve America’s image in the world?

There are some obvious measures. Train immigration and customs officials to lighten up; there are ways to stay on alert while making ordinary tourists feel welcome. Send speakers on foreign tours, even if they’re (within reason) critical of U.S. policies. Translate more classic American books and documents, and make them available at foreign libraries. (Another way of putting these last two ideas: Bring back the U.S. Information Agency—an independent bureau, separate from the State Department, that promotes American values and culture, not an administration’s policies.)

But what else? If you were president, or chairman of this revived USIA, how would you promote our values and culture? Quite apart from changing foreign and military policy (that’s the subject of another column), how would you make America more appealing or at least less hated?

Send your ideas to war_stories@hotmail.com. I’ll read them and report back on what you said.