Shortly after I returned from a three week trip to Greece and Turkey a couple of days ago, I learned that the U.S. government had closed its next to last Amerika Haus in Germany – the flagship Amerika Haus Berlin. The fate and location of a smaller one in the west that still remains is, I'm told, up in the air.
I guess this is par for the course: I mean why should this administration want to support such a relic from the past? Why should it keep a dinosaur open in which free discussion, exchanges of ideas, performances, concerts, student advising, a library of books and periodicals about the U.S. formed the institution’s core values and primary services accessible by everyone throughout the Cold War and beyond? After all, U.S. security concerns, police and an iron fence had kept most people out of the building at least since 9/11 – just as the Berlin Wall had kept East Germans from tasting the freedom and opulence of the capitalist West until a decade earlier. Who needs foreign cultural centers and libraries anyway particularly if they are turned into user unfriendly white elephants.
Keeping the lid on the free exchange of ideas
It then occurred to me that the last thing the Bush administration wants is an honest exchange of ideas whether between Germans and Americans or among Americans themselves. It’s far safer to keep the lid on political debate – to anesthetize Americans through the steady diet of cheerful pronouncements about the future of democracy in Iraq and cheap partisan scare tactics about the wrath of Al Qaeda all brought to us courtesy of Fox, CNN and other U.S. media outlets that foremost regurgitate the “war on terror” party-line in order to retain access to the White House’s daily spin.
What far too many Americans don’t understand is the degree to which the administration has been able to insulate us from the rest of the world. Conversely, they also don’t realize the degree to which the American media machine plays little - if any role in shaping international opinion. You might not see this as important, but without seeing the world through the eyes of W's daily spin that reverberates through Fox and CNN echo chambers, the rest of the world perceives a very different America and U.S. foreign policies. Foreign journalists from a variety of political stripes look at international events differently from what we are subjected to 24/7 in the good old US of A.
Uncle Sam's voice gone missing?
I was on vacation in Greece and Turkey for the past three weeks – and yes, I did take lots of photos – I will post a few as appropriate in the future. But what else did I come away with? First, cell phones and satellite television are ubiquitous in both countries. Although I was out of television reach for good parts of the trip, I discovered that the strong television signals along Turkey’s south coast came from Russia, France, Iran, Israel and the Arab world - especially Al Jazeera - as well as a new fast-paced English language channel from Beijing.
Near the southern Turkish port city of Antalya, Uncle Sam’s signal was not just weak, it had gone missing, although perhaps a couple more satellite dishes aimed in other directions might have brought it in loud and clear. At our hotel in Istanbul in the Sultanamet district close to Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque, CNN International was far more - well international - than its weak sister here in the U.S. BBC Europe, however, didn’t appear to differ substantially from the BBC news we get in Albuquerque through our local PBS affiliate.
I’m not at all sure, however, that even if the US media or the W administration had chosen to broadcast via television to the peoples of either of these two countries in which anti-American sentiment worsened last year, Greek and Turkish public attitudes towards the US would have turned more positive. Why? Because 1) US policies and their execution do not reflect Greek or Turkish national interests or their views of their near neighbors in the Middle East; and 2) television broadcasts – particularly in Turkey, but it wouldn't hurt in Greece either - should be carried in the national language to reach the largest number of people and go beyond the well educated, multilingual elite. The administration tried to cancel VOA radio broadcasts in Greek and Turkish this summer, but Congress came to their rescue. But from what I saw, even southern Turkey's poor have satellite television dishes in their yards, on their roofs or protruding from balcony railings - a phenomenon that suggests to me that radio is no longer enough.
What I learned – or actually had substantiated once again – was that anti-Americanism abroad directly relates to dislike for our president and his controversial policies particularly those tied to Iraq and Israel. Even Karen Hughes would be unlikely to dispute this observation – although she would add sex and violence in American movies and television and, of course, refrain from placing the blame on W - where it squarely belongs - for implimenting some of America's stupidist foreign policies ever.