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December 7, 2002

U.S. Writers Do Cultural Battle Around the Globe

By MICHAEL Z. WISE

The Bush administration has recruited prominent American writers to contribute to a State Department anthology and give readings around the globe in a campaign started after 9/11 to use culture to further American diplomatic interests.

The participants include four Pulitzer Prize winners, Michael Chabon, Robert Olen Butler, David Herbert Donald and Richard Ford; the American poet laureate, Billy Collins; two Arab-Americans, Naomi Shihab Nye and Elmaz Abinader; and Robert Pinsky, Charles Johnson, Bharati Mukherjee and Sven Birkerts. They were all asked to write about what it means to be an American writer.

Although the State Department plans to distribute the 60-page booklet of 15 essays free at American embassies worldwide in the next few weeks, one country has already banned the anthology: the United States. 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.

"There were Congressional fears of the government propagandizing the American people," said George Clack, the State Department editor who produced the anthology. The essays can, however, be read on a government Web site intended for foreigners (usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/writers). "We do not provide that address to U.S. citizens," Mr. Clack said, adding, "Technology has made a law obsolete, but the law lives on."

Despite the domestic blackout, the participants are focused on the potential abroad. "There is the perception abroad that Americans feel culturally superior and are intellectually indifferent," said Mr. Ford, who won the Pulitzer in 1996 for his novel "Independence Day." "Those stereotypes need to be burst." He added that he was eager to go to Islamic nations to help "humanize America" and present a more diverse picture of public opinion than is conveyed by the Bush administration. "With a government like the one we have, when not even 50 percent of Americans voted for the president, the diversity of opinion is not represented," he said.

Stuart Holliday, a former White House aide to President Bush who is overseeing the anthology publication as coordinator of the State Department's Office of International Information Programs, said: "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."

Before the cold war ended, the United States often sent orchestras, dance troupes and other artists abroad to infiltrate Communist societies culturally. Writers like John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Albee and E. L. Doctorow gave government-sponsored readings in Eastern Europe that used literature on behalf of American interests.

"People lined up for blocks," recalled William H. Luers, a former American ambassador to Czechoslovakia and later president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, speaking of Mr. Updike's appearance at the embassy in Prague in the mid-1980's.

But the United States Information Agency, which ran that campaign, was folded into the State Department in 1999, and over the last 10 years such programs have been severely reduced.

Since 9/11, though, the State Department has increased its efforts to communicate American values to overseas audiences. Mr. Holliday described the anthology, for example, as complementing efforts by Charlotte Beers, a former Madison Avenue advertising executive who is now under secretary of state for public diplomacy, to sell the United States to often hostile Muslim populations.

Her campaign includes "Next Chapter," a television show broadcast by the Voice of America in Iran, a worldwide traveling exhibition of photographs of the ravaged World Trade Center site by Joel Meyerowitz, the distribution of videos spotlighting tolerance for American Muslims and a pamphlet showing Muslims as part of mainstream American life.

Christopher Ross, the State Department's special coordinator for public diplomacy, has advocated reviving official cultural programs abroad as a "cost-effective investment to ensure U.S. national security" and a way to combat "the skewed, negative and unrepresentative" image of America that he says most people of the world absorb through mass culture and communications. Yet even some of the authors expressed mixed feelings about just how effective such cultural exposure would ultimately prove.

In an interview, Billy Collins quoted Auden's famous line that "poetry makes nothing happen," but Mr. Collins tempered that comment by adding: "I think there are some cases where it can. 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." And while Mr. Collins said he has agreed to join a tour abroad, he added, "It's not a particularly good time for unarmed American poets to be wandering around Jordan and Syria."

Ms. Abinader was more optimistic about the potential for the literary initiative to change foreign perceptions. "I don't think I'm going to grab a terrorist by the lapels and say, `There's a better way of doing things,' " she said. "But what you can do is inspire a different kind of power. That's the power of the word."

Some of the anthology's authors, paid $2,499 by the government, praise the freedoms they enjoy in the United States, but the collection by no means presents an uncritical picture of the United States. Julia Alvarez, a novelist and poet who moved from the Dominican Republic when she was young, writes that America is not "free of problems or inequalities or even hypocrisies." Robert Olen Butler says that the United States, though `built on the preservation of the rights of minorities, has sometimes been slow to apply those rights fully." Michael Chabon tells of crime and racial unrest in his hometown, Columbia, Md.

The poet Robert Creeley said that although the Sept. 11 attacks led to an outpouring of poetry to express sorrow, this "passed quickly as the country regained its equilibrium, turned to the conduct of an aggressive war and, one has to recognize, went back to making money."

Ms. Abinader, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants to Pennsylvania, recalls being subjected to racist remarks by her classmates because of her dark complexion. Later in her academic career, she says, "feelings toward Arabs became more negative and sometimes bordered on distrust, even from my own colleagues."

The other Arab-American in the volume, Naomi Shihab Nye, was asked to contribute after the State Department took note of an open letter she wrote "to any would-be terrorists" the week after Sept. 11. "I beg you, as your distant Arab cousin, as your American neighbor, listen to me," she wrote in the letter distributed on the Internet and printed in several Arabic-language newspapers. "Our hearts are broken, as yours may also feel broken in some ways we can't understand unless you tell us in words. Killing people won't tell us. We can't read that message. Find another way to live. Don't expect others to be like you."

Some 31,000 English-language copies of the new anthology will be available abroad. Editions in Arabic, French, Spanish and Russian are also being prepared. Additional translations into two dozen other languages are expected, with a total of about 100,000 copies likely to be distributed in the next few years. Mr. Holliday said he hoped that the essays would also be reprinted in foreign newspapers and that students abroad would use the texts as course material and to learn English.

All but one of the articles appear for the first time in the volume; the essay by Mr. Chabon is a reprint.

Mr. Luers applauded the anthology but urged a more coordinated and intensive program of cultural diplomacy. "We have to find ways to convey not just propaganda but the richness of this country's culture," he said. "It's pathetic that we don't make an effort. Very educated people abroad don't realize the depths of our culture behind McDonald's and the violent movies."


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