WASHINGTON -- It was a magical evening in Washington, with a spectacular pianist playing Chopin and Paderewski in the exquisite halls of the Library of Congress. It was also an evening filled with memories -- of the Kennedy White House, the first to bring great artists to the "nation's home," and of triumphant American artistic tours overseas. One felt for a moment transported back to another, nobler time.
But strangely, that evening on the last Wednesday of September, it seemed as if the graying men and women there were curators of a great, but lost, past.
In the city today, our politicians-in-power seem to think that "public diplomacy," which is at heart only various levels of people-to-people communication, consists of debating whether torture is moral, of forcing democracy down people's throats with armored cars, and of lecturing women in the Middle East on the inferiority of their societies.
But the Americans at "The Power of Great Music in the Revival of Public Diplomacy: Lifting Spirits While Making Friends," contrarily, were celebrating the Artistic Ambassadors Program of the 1980s. Run by the now defunct U.S. Information Agency, the program sent budding American musicians and artists overseas to perform classical music. Sixty-three other nations participated.
It was so successful that, of course, it was destroyed in the '90s, when U.S.I.A., started after World War II by President Eisenhower to tell America's story to the world, was also dismantled. (The amusing idea was that, with the Cold War over, we no longer had any enemies in the world.) It was a sad and wasteful time: The popular U.S. libraries closed, the lecture programs disappeared, the music faded and finally stopped.
But now -- and this was the reason for the evening -- a group has come together to renew the program under the revived attention being given to the vacuous state of public diplomacy. It is made up of sterling Americans such as Minnesota Republican Sen. Norman Coleman and the great pianist who performed that evening and who had started the original program, John Robilette.
"The arts express the better angels within us," Sen. Coleman said in his introduction. Retired Gen. Edward Rowny recalled President Kennedy saying to him: "It is no accident that men of genius and music like Paderewski and Chopin should also have been great patriots. You have to be a free man to be a great artist."
And Philip Hosford, one of the pianists from the original program, reminisced from the stage: "I played the happiest concert in my life one night in East Ibo in Nigeria. There were 1,000 Nigerians there and the lights all went out at one point, but nobody cared. They viewed these concerts as a gift directly from the American people. I would give master's classes, and we would all be huddled around the piano, the absence of a common language making the serene moment even more serene. Music bypasses differences and taps into our common human sensibility. It's just harder to hate."
And, of course, many remember the triumphal tours of Louis Armstrong to Moscow, with his rollicking music cutting through all the hatred of the Cold War as nothing else could.
Now, fast-forward to what we have in terms of "public diplomacy" today.
After the last five years of utter emptiness in communicating America's positive role in the world (there was plenty negative: from the Iraq war to the administration's casual attitudes about torture to the demeaning of any need to work with other countries), there is, at least, a new emphasis on sharing America's gentler side. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a concert pianist herself, stresses this constantly.
On her first foray into public diplomacy, the president's new "voice to the world" and herself a capable woman, Karen Hughes, traveled to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Her apparent single intention was to tell Arab/Muslim women that they lived in abhorrent societies and should be just like us. "I feel the pain that you are feeling," she said at one point -- but in fact the pain they were feeling was not hers.
In country after country, the women told her that they were happy with their lives, that this whole project was "insulting," that change had to come from inside, and that they could not engage in such a discussion with American women so long as America was fighting the war in Iraq. When Karen Hughes told them that Iraqi women now had greater rights than under Saddam, they must have shaken their heads. The one thing that Saddam did right, as everybody in the Middle East knows, was to assure women's independence and right to education and professions.
Hey, some common sense here, please! Nobody is going to respond to public diplomacy that demeans them, their history and their people; and nobody is going to respond to this kind of "outreach" the way they did to the respectful U.S.I.A. libraries, lectures and musicales, programs that didn't exhort or command but communicated.
The question, of course, is whether any of that real diplomacy can be brought back, even if the administration were to change its mind. The American embassies around the world today are virtual fortresses, bunkered against terrorism and thus against the societies in which they minimally communicate. How would you even start such programs in a world of such tremulous danger?
Still, it was a joyful evening, and, at least for the moment, it kept the dreams alive.
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