Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Subversive Power of John Lennon

Five years ago in this space, I posted my own recollections of learning about the murder of John Lennon on December 8, 1980.

Today the New York Times printed the memories of readers, some of whom were much younger than I was and who remember much more about their parents' reaction to the news than their own.

Two of the readers' responses to the Times query jumped out at me as particularly pertinent.

"Andrea" remembers:

We learned about John’s death in then Communist Czechoslovakia by way of Radio Luxembourg. I was 9, and I remember my parents, especially my mom, being sad. Soon after, students started painting a particular wall in Prague’s old town with images of John Lennon and his message of peace. The authorities did not like it and painted the “Lennon wall,” as everyone knew it, over. It was always renewed within hours.
And this, from "busilak":
I was in a detention cell south Manila; my captors broke the news. The violence abated as everyone took in the loss of part of their life. Then the radio began churning out Beatles songs. I was 21 then, thinking that my future was over. … The songs permeated my dreams, gave consolation in my despair. Thirty years later, I am now part of the government I rebelled against, still struggling to find solutions to my people’s problems.
How are these mini-memoirs relevant today?

The Guardian reported yesterday that one of the things learned from the Wikileaks "Cablegate" revelations of U.S. diplomatic cables that portrayals of American popular culture seen on television in Saudi Arabia are an effective brake against jihadism and extremist elements in Saudi culture.

This should come as no surprise, since we know from Cold War experience (see "Andrea," above) that East Germans who watched West German TV and Estonians who captured Finnish TV and radio through their rooftop antennae had independent sources of news, information, and entertainment that served as a counterbalance to Soviet propaganda and gave them hope for a better day, which eventually came after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.  American books were passed around as samizdat, and -- as Vaclav Havel and Tom Stoppard have attested -- vinyl recordings of American rock-and-roll music were circulated as treasures in Russia and the Eastern European serf-states of Moscow.

What American diplomats in Jeddah learned is an important lesson. Here, in part, is what the Guardian says:
Satellite broadcasts of the US TV shows Desperate Housewives and Late Show With David Letterman are doing more to persuade Saudi youth to reject violent jihad than hundreds of millions of dollars of US government propaganda, informants have told the American embassy in Jeddah.

Broadcast uncensored and with Arabic subtitles alongside sitcoms such as Friends on Saudi Arabia's MBC 4 channel, the shows are being allowed as part of the kingdom's "war of ideas" against extremist elements. According to a secret cable titled "David Letterman: Agent of Influence", they have been proving more effective than Washington's main propaganda tool, the US-funded al-Hurra TV news channel....

Diplomats said they believed the allure of actors such as Eva Longoria, Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer meant commercial TV had a far greater impact than al-Hurra which, according to one report, has cost US taxpayers up to $500m (£316m).

"It's still all about the war of ideas here, and the American programming on MBC and Rotana [a channel part-owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation] is winning over ordinary Saudis in a way that al-Hurra and other US propaganda never could," two Saudi media executives told a US official in a meeting at a Jeddah branch of Starbucks. "Saudis are now very interested in the outside world and everybody wants to study in the US if they can. They are fascinated by US culture in a way they never were before," the May 2009 cable says.
We now know the principle. The practical question is, how do we deploy Harry Potter, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and Glee as potent weapons against terrorist jihad?

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The practical answer is: We don't deploy them. We let them deploy themselves.