This week WikiLeaks published thousands more US diplomatic cables as part of its Cablegate operation. Among many other items, Cablegate has confirmed or revealed the following:
Referring to the United States’ secret air strikes in Yemen, Yemen’s president promised US general David Petraeus that “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.” (Original Cable, Salon, BBC.)
Though Canada publicly claimed opposition to the Iraq war “for domestic political reasons and out of a deep-seated Canadian commitment to multilateralism,” it secretly told the United States it was “prepared to be as helpful as possible in the military margins,” using Canadian naval and air forces “discreetly” on behalf of the US. (Original Cable, CBC News.)
The United States ordered American diplomats to secretly and illegally collect top United Nations officials and others’ credit card numbers, biometric data (fingerprints, iris scans, DNA), passwords, and more. (Original Cable, NYT, Guardian.)
In 2009 U.S. Senator John McCain promised Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi some American military hardware. (Original Cable, Politico.)
I restricted my work to this most recent batch of cables. Here are the search results, and the total number of hits when I first searched, for: literature (665); literary (334); … wow! This is going to take more than one post.
Reading the below, one should bear in mind EvgenyMorozov‘s astute critique of Internet-centrism, a lazy perspective that ignores the importance of local cultures when interpreting material and instead focuses faith on technology. I’m not at all an expert on foreign countries, etc. I can only fish out cables with some literary significance in the hope others might benefit from them.
In April 2006, a few months after gun-firing Chinese police in Dongzhou subdued villagers protesting land confiscations (WaPo), the American consulate in Guangzhou invoked a metaphor of Lu Xun‘s (“China’s most prominent modern author”): the Chinese sense, in the area, of rapid economic growth is that it “eats people.” From the cable (my link):
in his “Diary of a Madman” short story […] the supposedly mentally deranged narrator has looked at the whole of Chinese history and found its grandeur and power to be founded on the eating of people
The cable claims
there is a conscious attempt led in part by Guangzhou’s most progressive and highly influential magazine, the “Nanfengchuang” (the “South Wind Window”), to revive the spirit of the New Culture Movement of the 1920s of which Lu was a key figure
The cable goes on to advocate for increased injections of humanities programs to teach core American democratic values. These, the cable argues, will make rapid economic growth in the area more humane. After all, the cable says,
there is a very large audience for American literature and thought. American literature specialist Ernesto Suarez, our Fulbright Scholar at Guangzhou’s Zhongshan University, is in demand not only at Zhongshan but also at other institutions every weekend throughout China. Recently, the Shantou University English Language Department approached the Consulate about strengthening the American literature component of its program in line with the desire of students to learn not merely the language but also the values of the American people speaking that language.
The Cold War-style argument that humanities talks and courses (apparently) alone can sufficiently soften the steamroll of global economics makes one worry (especially in light of other cables).
A 2007 cable from the Beijing Embassy summarizes a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference that included China’s suggestion that the US State Department study up on its Confucius.
Spokesperson Qin Gang said at the March 8 regular press briefing that the Human Rights Record of the United States in 2006 issued today by China’s State Council Information Office serves as “a mirror for United States to view its own human rights condition” and “understand why it has no right to use double standards in criticizing other countries.” Qin continued, saying the MFA would give the State Department copies of the “Four Books and Five Classics” of Chinese literature as a guide to good governance. Asked if the report constituted a double standard on China’s part by interfering in the domestic affairs of the United States, Qin referred the reporter to his previous statement.
A 2008 cable from Taiwan noted growth in the market for simplified-character Chinese books as government restrictions on the products loosened and more translations of foreign books into Chinese were imported from mainland China.
A survey done by local book dealers in 2006 showed that 50 percent of simplified-character Chinese books sold in Taiwan are on literature, history, and philosophy; 10 percent on social science, law, politics, and the military; 10 percent on Chinese medicine and art; 10 percent on education, finance and engineering; with the remainder on tourism and other topics. As for the consumers, Chu Fu-ming, head of the Eslite flagship bookstore’s simplified-character Chinese book section, told AIT, “those who buy simplified-character Chinese books are mostly intellectuals and academics. Only 20 percent of the buyers are in their twenties, while 40 percent are in their thirties and forties, and the remaining 40 percent are over 50 years old. Older people are especially noticeable because they come in the mornings and spend a long time poring carefully over selections,” Wu observed, with “history books being the most popular.”
The cable worries about simplified-character textbooks supplanting US textbooks more and more, since Chinese college professors were finding the former less expensive and easier to assign.
In the Chinese city of Zhenjiang, readers of Nobel Prize-winning American novelist Pearl Buck (Mike Wallace interview; Nobel write-up), who spent much of her time in China, worried, according to a 2008 cable, that Buck wasn’t getting enough attention in the United States.
Comment: Zhenjiang’s fervor for its long-ago American “daughter” points to possibilities for the upcoming celebrations of the 30th anniversary of U.S.-China relations.
A 2003 cable cited “the latest Human Development Report on the Arab states” as noting
The economic, political, artistic, and literary creativity of the Arab states are being stifled by the exclusion of women, among other factors. As an example, the report notes that Turkey alone published more works of creative literature over the past year than the entire Arab world combined.
A 2003 cable said although “European public opinion may be skeptical about the politics of GOT joining the European Union, […] civil society has shown that sharing space with Turkey in the
cultural realm is as natural as can be.” The cable cited the European popularity of Istanbul-born novelist Orhan Pamuk as evidence of Turkey’s “de facto integration into European cultural life.”
His recent novel “My Name is Red” won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2003; this award was the latest in a series of European honors dating back to his 1991 Prix de la Decouverte Europeenne for the French translation of his second novel, “Sessiz_Ev” (“The Quiet House”).
With a 2005 cable, the American embassy in Tel Aviv took note of an editorial referencing Egyptian playwright Ali Salem:
“We have already seen that both Israel and Egypt generally obey when there is an American scolding…. Why not initiate, for example, the award of an honorary doctorate by an American university to Ali Salem for his contribution to peace between the peoples?”
According to a 2006 cable, staff from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Director-General’s office “held misperceptions” about the World Digital Library, “a project to put rare and remote items on the web.” The staff worried over Google’s involvement, saying it troubled European nations, and that the countries might be more receptive to a UNESCO label.
Thus far I’ve come away with the impression that the United States strongly believes spreading American culture is an effective way to spread its core democratic values, but other countries often see this as hypocritical given the States’ frequent disregard of those values. If you’re interested in reading more about that, I recommend Evgeny Morozov’s book The Net Delusion. Another observation: writers and their work do make more of an impact in international politics than you might suspect.
After Monday’s suicide of Russell Armstrong (a Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star’s estranged husband), Matt Zoller Seitz of Salon.com called reality TV “A blood sport that must change.” Seitz said:
The type of so-called reality show represented by the “Real Housewives” franchise is the soft-bellied, 21st century American TV version of a gladiatorial contest. It has no agenda except giving viewers the basest sort of entertainment: the spectacle of people doing violence to each other and suffering violence themselves. Instead of going at each other like gladiators with swords and clubs, or like boxers hurling punches, participants in this kind of unscripted show attack each other psychologically. The show’s appeal is the spectacle of emotional violence. The participants — or “cast members,” as they are revealingly labeled — suffer and bleed emotionally while we watch and guffaw. […]
Unscripted shows encourage, and sometimes cause, emotional damage. That’s the whole point of their existence — the reason they get on the air, the reason we watch and discuss them. They record intense, bizarre, sometimes ginned-up conflicts during production. They transform the participants into caricatures of themselves […]
Yesterday I asked a story editor on a long-running dating series who did not want her name used in this story if, during her years of working on these shows, she had ever heard a producer express authentic concern for a participant’s well-being as a person rather than an abstracted “character.” She laughed and said, “No. That just doesn’t happen. If anybody working on this kind of show thought that way, it would make the shows less entertaining, and that person would lose their job.”
Tonight I went to the corner grocery store to buy Wifely some Skinny Cow dessert and me some Mexican Coke. The cashier, a young woman, wore a nametag that, under her name, said:
I LOVE U :)
I thought to myself: that’s an exuberant nametag. Although people who aren’t actually in my skull insist otherwise, I do automatically, non-voluntarily think such words as “exuberant.” If that annoys you, you probably shouldn’t be reading my blog, but rather watching Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
No one was in the lane behind me, nor was anyone nearing the lane. For a moment I considered saying something or other to the cashier about her nametag. After all, I’ve checked out through her lane enough times for us to share mutual recognition, though just barely. I prefer to interact with a person when checking out, instead of using the self check-out lanes, because something worthwhile, interesting and unique and unpredictable, might happen during my encounter with another human being.
Then for another moment I considered not saying something about her nametag. Because by now the time for exchanging a greeting had nearly ended, she was starting to scan my Mexican Coke, she was about to ask if I’d brought my rewards card (I always lie and say I forgot; cashiers then scan theirs on my behalf, and not only do I not have to deal with signing up for one, but also I singlehandedly defeat the company’s entire research division). But the only word coming to mind during this expiring hourglass time was exuberant.
I decided not to chicken out, to go for it.
“That’s an exuberant nametag,” I said.
Her smile wriggled as happily and confusedly as she did until she stopped to ask what “exuberant” meant. Ah-ha, I thought, a person who doesn’t become angry like so many do when someone else uses a word they don’t know, but instead has the laudable reaction of curiosity. Now it was my turn to wriggle my hand happily and confusedly, trying to pantomime the meaning of exude while telling her, “It means, like, … happiness … like …” I managed to stop stumbling and say “It means something like, ‘Shining out happiness.'”
She said, “I really like that,” and I sensed she meant it. A few moments of silent, shared satisfaction passed as she scanned my items.
Photo ofPhilip K. Dick by Anne Dick “I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities” — PKD
One of the commonplace remarks about reality TV is that it “isn’t real,” that it’s merely “so-called” reality TV. This supposed phoniness is alleged to cover up the “natural” way of being, the “real” way, which is usually not identified by the shows’ deriders.
As I paid for the grocery items, I nervously — as if invisible judges were watching — began to, as they say, “walk it back”: retract and qualify what I said. Anxiously I told the increasingly disappointed cashier the following nonfiction anecdote from a few days back:
I walked down an aisle at this same corner grocery store to pick up some ice cream. A middle-aged female customer was squatting down with a freezer door opened, scrutinizing the vanilla flavors. Without my saying anything, she suddenly started talking haphazardly about the proliferation of vanillas. French vanilla, old-fashioned vanilla, vanilla bean and more. “She told me to get vanilla; I wonder which she meant? There are too many!” In a bad mood, I didn’t want to talk at first; like a person wearing sunglasses indoors, I didn’t want to interact with anyone, didn’t want to engage with people. I resented her a little for introducing conversation. Then I regretted my self-absorption and told her I suspected old-fashioned vanilla would do the trick. The woman half-nodded sorta-assent, and said, as I walked away, “‘Tis a quandary.”
Walking away still, I looked back at her, and she was still squatting, not looking at me. I felt irritated that she hadn’t continued the conversation, that she’d used the word ‘quandary.’ How would she have known I knew what it meant, anyway? Now I was feeling like those who call big vocabulary pretentious. But I guess something small helped her recognize that I’m the sort of odd person who knows odd words. I still feel bad for not engaging with her, for choosing instead to cultivate my sour mood.
I explained all this to the I LOVE U :) cashier who, like I said above, appeared disappointed with me for walking-back the happy shared moment of exuberant. I was disappointed with me, too. But at least when I was driving home I thought up this blog post; I realized there was a big connection between these interactions and the reality TV issue.
At their peak the destructive emotions flaring during these reality TV shows are definitely real. (Perhaps those who decry the shows and miss this point don’t actually see much of them.) Real doesn’t imply good, doesn’t imply that the shows shouldn’t be changed. (I like Seitz’s suggestion of psychologists and better screenings; you can’t eliminate a phenomenon like reality TV; and, to pretend an underbelly doesn’t exist doesn’t help anything.)
Here’s the point. I think that in our postmodern world, people are so hungry for authentic moments of human experience that, even it means havoc or worse for the participants’ lives, they’ll take what these shows offer, if that’s all they know how to find. Because sincerely engaging with other people during the day, even through a good work of art, and sincerely emoting, is a scary risk.
A few weeks back Wifely and I stayed at a (h/m)otel because our home AC motor blew up. All our creatures — Gibson the Dog, Betty the Cat, and Henry the Cat — stayed with us. I loved the clarity of the clean rooms — there wasn’t Stuff all over the place. Just us, just what we needed to MY TEETH LOOKED EXTREMELY WHITE SO THAT WAS LIKE AN AWESOME THING (Sorry! Her TV interrupted my blog!) I was saying, It was just us, it was just a little home with only what Kate and I needed to be together. DARK AS THE FRICKIN’, LIKE, CHALKBOARD (Sorry again; trying to ignore it!)
Wifely was watching one of her most cherished shows, Jersey Shore.
One of my earliest memories of TV is watching, from across the room, a friend and his brother watch it. I remember their hands descending into the popcorn dish, lifting the popcorn to their mouths, their mouths chewing, gazes never leaving the screen, not even when it changed from one show to another, because it didn’t matter to them what they were perceiving. Unlike readers, who actively collaborate with texts to create stories in their minds, these two were passive receptacles of whatever was decided by whomever to be stuffed down their eyeballs.
I’m not opposed to entertainment; I’m opposed to mindless entertainment. He better not hope I don’t find out his name, bro. (What?)
A 2010 BLS survey says on average almost everyone 15 and up in the States watched nearly three hours of TV per day every day and I assume they will do so for the rest of their lives. There’s enough time to be mindless when you’re dead. I’m from THE SHORE BITCH!!! (Okay?)
Give me a piece of my preferred mindless entertainment and you will receive a lengthy confabulation justifying its importance. One man’s treasure, yadda. Actually I think it’s the BIG LOUD BASHING NOISE of TV that bothers me, the whole disorderly, sensate chaos of the thing. How the hell is that relaxing? I must be the wrong Myers-Briggs. Somebody pull out the McLuhan and say something wiser, because right now I have to put on some headphones and go write a scholarly article on the hobbies of the Puritans.