It’s a Small World, After All

December 14, 2004
Category: Uncategorized

Hola, Margo!

Well, it looks like the big kahunas of contemporary literature have found a new cause. Responding to the America-first Zeitgeist that has spilled into our political discourse, they’re hitting back with New York’s first international writers’ festival, PEN World Voices, to be held April 16-22 in the Big Apple. Luminaries such as Ha Jin, Vaclav Havel, and Wole Soyinka have already signed on, all in apparent support of the sponsor’s underlying concern: the increasing political and cultural isolation of the United States.

“We ourselves have experienced the fallout of the world’s growing suspicion and antipathy to U.S. policies,” says Larry Siems of the New York-based PEN American Center, which is hosting the event. In the post-9/11 world, Siems says, writers here are dealing with negative reaction to America’s literary exports, while writers abroad are finding it tougher to obtain visas to come to this country.

Take that, you Bushies! Or, to put it another way, Margo: The literary elite is alert to the dangers of American cultural hegemony. The rest of the world used to regard us as merely provincial. Now we’re accused of being too full of ourselves, claiming what one-worlders see as a false moral and cultural superiority. Or, as journalist K.A. Dilday put it so neatly in an essay posted on, “Politically, America has become infamous as the beast that feeds only its own appetite.”

C’mon, let’s be fair. Granted, the conservative agenda has created plenty of ammo for the argument that we Americans are so ethnocentric we don’t even realize it. (Hey, that’s a symptom of the disease!) But the problem goes much deeper than who’s got the power in Washington, D.C. Yes, it’s a pity that foreign writers are so little known in this country, and that translations comprise a mere three percent of the literature we publish (an estimate from the National Endowment for the Arts). And yes, it’s even more pathetic that the surge of interest in understanding other cultures following 9/11 has evaporated into — what? Complacency? Smugness? The mere busyness of our everyday lives?

But let’s not put all the blame on the politicians.
Taking the long view, the real culprits are good old capitalism, the pervasiveness of the English language, and media that indulge America’s tendency toward self-referential thinking. 

By sponsoring an international writers festival, PEN is doing the right thing. But we ought to be clear on the right reason: We need to cultivate an abiding interest in foreign cultures, a familiarity with foreign writers, and an appetite for more translations. So how can we as journalists help reverse our cultural narcissism?

Bonjour, Ellen,

The U.S. government — no matter who occupies the White House — has traditionally conducted an America-first foreign policy. But the Bush administration seems intent on an America-ONLY attitude in world affairs. So I wouldn’t let them off the hook so easily when it comes to our pitiful lack of knowledge about foreign cultures. 

In their zeal to deprive Cuba, Sudan, North Korea, and Iran — considered “hostile” countries — of any economic benefits, they are cutting off opportunities for us, here at home, to learn something about those countries from the dissident writers who are fighting those regimes from within.

Here’s the deal: The 1917 “Trading With the Enemy Act” and the 1977 International Emergency Economic Powers Act gave the president the power to prohibit doing business with nations during times of war. In 1988, Congress decided that information materials — you know, like books — should be exempt from these embargoes, and in 1994, by passing the “Free Trade in Ideas,” Congress reinforced that exception to the rule. The restrictions weren’t abolished, but they ceased to be applied when the incoming product was information, not sensitive technology.

Last year, however, Bush’s Treasury Department reversed this policy, upholding the limitations on a free flow of information from “hostile” countries. In a twist worthy of Kafka, the new ruling allows publishers to reissue works from Sudan, Iran, North Korea, and Cuba (as long as they don’t change a word). But they can’t bring in any new works from those countries without permission from the U.S. government. This means that some books actually supporting the regimes in power could be made available, but writers protesting what’s happening in their countries have to get U.S. approval first. In addition to forcing a publisher to obtain a license to publish those works, the new restrictions mean that publishers cannot change a word or consult with the authors in these countries in any way. And even if a publisher agrees to ask the U.S. government’s permission to publish the book (a precedent-setting move that few would be willing to take on), that publisher would not be allowed to publicize the book. Can you say “Catch 22”?
One writer affected by this stricter interpretation of the trade laws is Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. Now, isn’t that ironic? The Muslim lawyer, who has been fighting Iran’s anti-democratic ayatollahs for decades, wants to write her pro-democracy memoirs and publish them in the U.S, but she’s up against a U.S. ban on any material from Iran. Even material that supports the U.S. position!

This fall, Ebadi did what every red-blooded American has the right to do: She sued the U.S. Treasury Department. Joined by several concerned groups, including Arcade Publishing, the Association of American Publishers Professional and Scholarly Publishing division, the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) and PEN American Center, she is seeking an overturn of the trade restrictions. As it stands now, publishers who do not comply with the government’s draconian policy can be fined up to $1 million. 

How can journalists reverse this cultural prejudice? They should echo the position of the Rocky Mountain News and its Nov. 22 editorial, which began: “The United States has a long history of imposing economic sanctions on enemy states. But trade embargoes are self-defeating when they target the marketplace of ideas.”

Bravo, Margo,

Ebadi is, indeed, the poster child for the absurdity of overly zealous regulators. It’s part of a reaction to 9/11 but not one that makes much sense, and I’ll be surprised if the Treasury Department, which has yet respond to the suit, will go to the mat on this one. (The “clarification” it announced this week, after this column was written, is sure evidence of that!)
Sure, political encroachments on personal expression are no small matter, and this country — and others — are struggling to find the balance between personal freedom and personal safety in response to terrorism. So there’s a political element, but one that starts and ends in the marketplace, like so many things American. To put it in trade-policy terms, America is dumping its literary products all over the world, when what would be better for all of us is a more equitable exchange. Because Americans don’t get exposed to more foreign writers, we have less of a sense than we should about the way of living and way of thinking in the rest of the world. But what we don’t know doesn’t bother us, in part because the media support this narcissistic way of knowing.

There’s already a template for change: In the 1960s, a surge of translations of Latin American authors (including “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez) sparked a boom of interest in writers AND the countries south of the border. But this had nothing to do with the government, which at the time was focused on Southeast Asia. It was the literati and the media — publishers and journalists — who took the most initiative.

The ’90s yielded a prosperous and more sophisticated America. But oddly enough, not a more curious one. “I think there’s a general shying away from material that makes people uncomfortable,” says PEN’s Larry Siems, noting that the pressure to conform to its own particular group-think comes from BOTH left and right. “Best intentions were connected to that, but … it’s more urgent than ever that Americans hear from a wide range of voices.”

Earlier this week, I happened to watch “The Fog of War,” the documentary featuring Robert McNamara, the beknighted Secretary of Defense remembered well by those of us who remember Vietnam. In that film, McNamara’s first “lesson” is one that fits perfectly here: Empathize with your enemy. By recognizing what the Soviets needed to pull its missiles out of Cuba in 1962, he claims, America avoided nuclear war. It was a supreme example of political finesse, of course. But its success was predicated on understanding the nature of Soviet and politburo culture.