Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The War of Ideas: America's Capitulation

Although I was critical here of Arirang, South Korea’s overseas television service, it also happens to provide cultural programming that is second to none. Japan’s NHK, meanwhile, offers superb science and technology programming. Unfortunately, America’s overseas broadcast service lacks any redeeming virtue.

The White House would like to give Americans the impression that it views terrorist propaganda as a serious threat -- hence the treason indictment (discussed here and here). But surely a far better way of countering hostile propaganda is to advance ideals that are intrinsically more appealing and attainable than the slippery promises of jihadist fanatics.

This should not be difficult for the United States. As a child of the European Enlightenment, the ideal of open society is something America has long represented to the world. Throughout the cold war, effective means of promoting such a vision were the overseas broadcast services of Voice of America. Today, former dissidents from across Eastern Europe talk of having been heartened by VOA broadcasts during that dark epoch. And in the end, it wasn't the US military, but the people of Eastern Europe who brought down the Soviet Empire. Ideals proved more powerful than guns.

Naturally, one would assume that in the worldwide struggle against murderous Islamicists, the VOA would again play an indispensable role, providing a coherent and constructive antidote to terrorist propaganda and religious extremism. Last night, I happened to tune into VOA television. I'll tell you what I saw.

First of all, VOA has the production values of your local community TV station. It looks produced on a shoestring budget. But that’s the very least of its problems. When I happened to tune-in, the program being aired was “Think Tank.” The show is hosted by someone from the American Enterprise Institute -– one of various right-wing groups (think tanks) based in Washington DC that churn out studies, WSJ op-eds, and propoganda for the Republican Party. The format of the show is to have a guest from one think tank or another discuss a topic dear to the right wing agenda. The show I caught featured a discussion about “Intelligent Design” -- a pseudo-scientific alternative to evolution dished up by fundamentalist Christians.

I am reminded of when on a trip to the Middle East, I asked some residents of Amman Jordan if they knew that humans are descended from primates. “What? You must be joking! No, we never heard that before,” came the reply. Evidently, evolution was not a theory they had been taught in school. So it seems to me that one of the more obvious ways VOA could counter religious extremism would be to promote science and the scientific way of thinking. But when VOA treats religious pseudoscience as a topic worthy of serious consideration, what has it accomplished?

Of course, Think Tank is but one show...

But when the VOA programming schedule was flashed on the screen – music, sports, ESL, McLaughlin Group -- it became clear to me that Think Tank was about the most intellectually substantive program that VOA offered. So much for winning the war of ideas.

But wait -- there is more to VOA. The other day I posted on how Business Week magazine had recently deteriorated into a shadow of its former self – vapid articles on business lifestyle, how to spend your fortune, and the like. Can you guess the program that follows Think Tank on VOA? A show called Business Week. True to the magazine's crapy new format, the feature story concerned "how to dress for success." (In my travels I have observed that beyond the borders of the United States, people generally know how to dress. I honestly don’t think the world needs America’s advice in that department.)

So VOA appears to be something of joke. But mostly, I find it rather sad. You see, I’m thinking about my visit to Myanmar, and I’m recalling my conversations (here and here) with Khin: Khin who desperately wanted to visit the local library, but lacked “the right papers” to get through the door; Khin whose prized possession was a book given him by a Western traveler -- a copy of an Aung San Suu Kyi biography; Khin, who excitedly accepted several chapters from a book on Athenian democracy I had photocopied for him. Around the world, there are thousands of Khins: people who live under dreadful regimes where they are deprived of access to information that is neither commercialized pulp, political propaganda, or religious dogma; minds hungry for big ideas; human beings desperate to learn more about the foundations of democracy, liberty, and justice.

Too bad all America has on offer these days is “Intelligent Design” and “dress for success.”

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