Hollywood and the American Information programs.

Some years ago I attended a gathering of  gurus involved in one way or another examining America’s information program or lack thereof. Our government information ( some would say propaganda) programs have always had little appeal in the  Arab world. On the other hand our movies and TV programs have tremendous appeal.  Our movies are pirated everywhere. This is especially true since Cairo,  the center of Arab movie making,  has declined in popularity over the years. Part of this is the lower quality but another more important factor has been the influence of the “Islamic revival.’  Many themes and comedic effects are now subject to  public censorship, as well as government controls.

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At this meeting the Hollywood  representatives on the panels  were slapping themselves on the back and excoriating  U.S. Government information programs. Their criticism was well founded on the latter,  but not on the former.  In fact the immense popularity of Hollywood  films is one of the main problems in producing a favorable image of America. The  gratuitous sex and violence which attracts many Arabs, especially young men, presents malodorous image of this country. It is very difficult to name a single  program or movie of recent times, at least those released by the  big name corporations, that picture an intact traditional family.  An Egyptian officer who came to speak at my class one day,  said that until he resided in the US for a few months he did not think Americans  had family life. If all you know of this country is what you see in the movies, that is a perfectly understandable attitude. Arabs coming to this country often express their surprise at the religious life in this country.  A  young Yemeni woman told my class that her mother pleaded with her not to come to the US because she would be murdered.  Again understandable.

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Of course Hollywood in the past has often been guilty of portraying Arabs and Muslims as simplistic caricatures,  wearing long robes and riding camels. This was true in the past but with the coming of Hollywood’s new “social conscience”  that is no longer politically correct. In fact now the only safe villains today are Nazis, capitalists, and white evangelicals.  But this new “moral” attitude has not diminished the mayhem and explicit sex that sells mediocre movies.

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When I mentioned the impact of the seedy portrait of American society at the conference, I was dismissed as some religious freak who had wandered into the wrong conference. The elitists who run the entertainment business are unlikely to be persuaded to forego their immense profits in selling trash to the hoi poloi.

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The criticism of the U.S. official information efforts are well taken, however. We try to influence the foreign populations with amateurish happy face films and pictures, I always thought that instead of featuring films about about happy Muslims enjoying life in the America we could influence far more Arabs by showing our military might, economic power,  and life of the ordinary Americans of the Middle states, the “deplorables” in modern political discourse. Arabs are a very cynical people, made that way by decades of lies and cartoonish propaganda put out by their governments. They tend to view everything from the government with disdain.  Happy face presentations are a waste of time and money.oInfluencing  of one person at a time is always the nest method[/caption]

When the old United  States Information Agency ( USIA) was in existence it had very little favorable effect on the Arab populations. The one exception  were the American libraries run by the consulates. But in this age of every American edifice being a target  for bomb throwers, they would need a battalion of guards,  and every Arab entering them would be seen as a “Zionist” spy,  The USIA people in the field were good folks and often did some  good work, but usually it was in obtaining a picture of the local scene and current trends.  One good aspect of the USIA officials was the fact that they spent a lot of time with the local journalists and were much better informed on the local issues than the isolated  foreign service officials inside their heavily guarded  fortress -like Embassies.

One of the things about the old USIA that always dismayed me was the attitude of many of the  Washington staff that ostensibly was trying to frame American  foreign policies in a favorable light. I would take my  Ft Bragg officer classes to the Washington DC  USIA center and my students would be subjected to harangues by the staff  on the evils of our attitude toward the Palestinian problem. Many of the staffers were Egyptian or Palestinian Americans  and I often wondered  how they could cast America in a favorable light given their deep antipathy to  our “Middle East” policies. Like so many academics and journalists they convoluted the Palestinian issue with the entire Middle East, a basic fallacy  chiseled   into stone by ‘experts” and politicians every day for decades.

As I have often said and written, the Palestinian issue is near sacred among the Arab politicians and elite  but the Palestinians, as people are rarely welcome anywhere among their Arab brothers.   A recent  best foreign film contender at the 2018 Oscars called “the Insult,” depicts the disdain most Lebanese have for  the Palestinians, a feeling prevalent throughout the Arab world. The idea that a “solution” to the Palestinian problem, or a reversal of our “pro-Israeli” posture,  would solve American’s distorted  image in the Arab/Muslim world is a chimera. Even in the 9/11 report the “experts” made the same claim, i.e., the Islamist terror was a result of our policies toward the Palestinian issue. It is basically a simplistic approach with the  added attraction of satisfying the anti Jewish attitude of many intellectuals. As historian Paul Johnson wrote, anti-Semitism is  catnip for intellectuals.

In any event the demise of the  U.S.I. A, . was no great loss, but putting the remnants of it under the State Department was hardly the answer either. In short at this point we really do not have much in the way of an information/propaganda program oriented toward the Middle East. Perhaps the most important issue we can continue to underline in our programs  beamed toward the Middle East is the tyranny and dismal state of their political culture,  and  promote democratic ideals without assuming that our current politically correct attitudes popular among the elite are necessarily democratic or even  good for the intended audience. Denigrating Islam as intrinsically  violent, or endlessly blabbering about the “religion of peace,” does not assist the many educated Muslims who are trying to curb the violent aspects of a Salafist version of Islam. The people of the region need to come to the right balance between religion  and civil society, and without preaching we need to assist  in that endeavor.

As a final  note,  having watched a bit of the 2018 Oscar presentations I saw the program as a graphic illustration of the  Hollywood problem in representing American ideals . They deal in  vacuous self-congratulory sloganeering  devoid of  intellectual or spiritual values.

About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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