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We Need People, Not Propaganda, to Sell America to the World

October 29, 2001|STEVE LOPEZ

Twice now while following the news of the war, I've had to pinch myself.

The first time was when the Bush administration, perhaps inspired by the HBO series "Band of Brothers," decided we needed a working title for the bombardment of Afghanistan.

They came up with Operation Infinite Justice, but that was dumped in favor of Operation Enduring Freedom. If a few more bombs land in residential neighborhoods and on top of Red Cross buildings, maybe they should consider a change to Operation Collateral Damage.

The second out-of-body experience for me was when the White House, seeking to improve America's image overseas, hired the advertising wiz who made her name marketing Uncle Ben's rice.

On that one, I didn't pinch myself. I fell off the couch.

Charlotte Beers, our new undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, is a former queen of Madison Avenue. She met with the Ad Council last week to discuss a battle plan in the image war.

Who knows? Maybe they're onto something. Just the other day I took a sip of Coke and began singing, "I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony." How could anyone hate a nation of peace-loving simpletons for whom the best part of waking up is Folger's in your cup?

But Nancy Snow, a Los Angeles political analyst and former United States Information Agency official, isn't so sure this is the right approach.

"Can you sell Uncle Sam the way you sell Uncle Ben?" asks the author of a book called "Propaganda, Inc. Selling America's Culture to the World."

It might be fun trying to come up with a jingle, but Snow points out that America is not a product. Besides, advertising isn't truth-telling, it's propaganda. And our image already stems in part from the perception that our foreign policy is a form of propaganda constructed by and for American corporations; that the McWorld we have constructed benefits wealthy Westerners at the expense of the world's poor.

Snow, a former Fulbright scholar who will teach a class on propaganda this spring at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, says it's no surprise that we're seen as a nation of cultural imperialists.

The American propaganda machine doesn't represent us individually. It depicts the most heterogeneous country in the world as a single-minded monolith, and hasn't begun to tell the story of who and what we are.

"Look at this," Snow said over coffee at the Farmers Market. "I love coming here because I hear this cacophony of voices from all over the world. This is America to me. All of this diversity and the freedom of choice. The spirit of volunteerism and the humanism of my country, my neighbors, almost brings me to tears. There's an honesty and a simplicity in the American people that's lost in our packaging of ourselves to the world."

So how do you correct the problem, aside from revamping foreign policy?

Not by going the Uncle Ben's route. And probably not by enlisting Hollywood, another peddler of market-based generalities and simplifications.

But as The Times reported last week, the White House has begun chatting with the entertainment industry's major players, and might have some interest in using a short film called "Hollywood Celebrates the Spirit of America" to help support the war effort.

Do we really want a team of Hollywood moguls and career politicians explaining us to ourselves or the rest of the world?

Has it occurred to anyone that the foreign marketing of mindless dreck that has made cultural icons out of the likes of Steven Seagal, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone is part of what makes us a source of such contempt?

All of a sudden Hollywood players, who get it wrong about eight times out of 10, are gathering for sober hand-wringing sessions on the role of television and movies in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Here's a revolutionary thought. If you'd like to make a worthwhile contribution to the world, make something original and intelligent. Take aim at a higher ideal rather than a lowest common denominator.

Snow doesn't entirely dismiss the role of official propaganda, whether it comes from Capitol Hill, Madison Avenue or a movie studio. But given foreign distrust of such voices, she says Washington ought to explore ways to promote a nongovernmental army of citizen diplomats in a long-term cultural exchange campaign.

Teachers, students and cultural mediators could tell stories about our strengths, admit to our weaknesses and broaden our understanding of other histories. Snow gladly volunteers the Fulbright alumni association to get the ball rolling.

"The American people, from faith-based communities and rescue crews to neighborhood watch groups, are the best ad campaign going for us," Snow says, as is the fact that unlike in Afghanistan and much of the rest of the world, our freedoms include the right of dissent.

She quotes from Sen. J. William Fulbright's "The Arrogance of Power":

"My question is whether America can close the gap between her capacity and her performance. My hope and my belief are that she can, that she has the human resources to conduct her affairs with a maturity which few if any great nations have ever achieved: to be confident but also tolerant, to be rich but also generous, to be willing to teach but also to learn, to be powerful but also wise."

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Steve Lopez can be reached at steve.lopez@latimes.com

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