Saturday, August 09, 2003

Hi, Bye
"It's good to get them in a dialogue while their opinions are not fully formed on matters large and small."

With these words from Christopher Ross, the special coordinator for public diplomacy at the State Department (and a former ambassador to Syria), the Bush administration has declared its intention to subvert Arab minors--at least political minors. Ross was speaking about the new State Department (taxpayer) funded Arabic-language magazine Hi that is distributed in over a dozen Arab countries, according to the Washington Post.

The Post reports: "The premiere issue of the glossy, full-color 72-page monthly appeared in July with a cover story on the experiences of Arab students in American colleges and shorter articles on yoga, sandboarding, singer Norah Jones, Arab American actor Tony Shalhoub and marriage counseling -- the latter story illustrated with a photo of Dr. Phil McGraw, the Oprah-spawned TV tough-love guru.

"It doesn't contain a word about the American invasion of Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Afghanistan or al Qaeda. Nor will future issues. The magazine's editors and its State Department funders plan a resolutely apolitical magazine."

That's very interesting. A lifestyle magazine geared towards a young Arab audience is supposed to be a subtle way of getting Western values across. However, I wonder whether those who imagined a publication that will cost U.S. taxpayers $4 million per year have actually reflected on how culture is used in the Arab world.

Their shaky assumption is that Arab youths will absorb Western values by reading about Lenny Kravitz and Norah Jones. In fact, whether we're talking about the Arab world or elsewhere (but particularly the Arab world), there is always a gap between embracing a Western cultural image or icon, and internalizing the values it represents to cover most other aspects of ones life. Culture in this day and age offers a menu, so that you can have Madonna as an entree and Bin Laden for dessert (as several 9/11 hijackers proved). The interaction between the modern and the traditional is constant in the Middle East, and, so, the impact of a lifestyle magazine might be very limited indeed.

A second objection I have is whether it is worth paying that much money when Arabs already have access to Western shows, films and music through satellite channels and other media. Plus, Hi's readers in most Arab countries (who can pay about $2 a copy) will also be that those who have access to and can afford a plethora of Western magazines already being distributed. (Even in the most closed Arab countries, many Western publications can be found, though sometimes delayed; their distribution is limited, however, and they’re often priced out of the local market.)

Moreover, Hi’s potential readers are the educated elite of the Arab countries, and most already know the U.S. anyway. The State Department may be preaching to the converted--or conversely to an elite that will robustly reject conversion.

Far more useful than Hi from a U.S. "public policy" perspective is to simply allow more Arab students into the U.S. and let them be educated in American universities. Instead, what we see now is the opposite. Some might complain this will cause another 9/11, but (a) the vast majority of Arabs in the U.S. are and have always been perfectly decent folk, and (b) there are ways to ensure that a minority of them won't threaten U.S. security, while protecting the majority's civil rights.

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