Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cultural diplomacy

When its all said and done, when the bills are paid, the flights flown, the audiences come and gone, the classes held and the thank you's written, what is it that three weeks in the Middle East, or anywhere for that matter, means?


This past January I wrote a draft of an Op Ed which I decided to table until we'd been on out on the road in both the tour just finished and the one which begins in a few days. It was about the need for a culture offensive -- a renaissance of America not in its military or even in its industrial presence, but in its culture, out in the world.

How often have we heard "we like Americans regardless of whether we like your government or your policies." That was echoed, and then reinforced in remarkable ways, in Ramallah, a city which, if you were looking for a place you would anticipate anger at Americans to surface, would be high on the list. That anger was nowhere to be found. There was, instead, a grace, an appreciation, a kindness and and openness to what a group of American artists had to offer, to say, to teach and to share that we should be so lucky as to find here within our own borders.

We are not known around the world. Let me say that again: we are not known around the world. Yes, of course American television is known everywhere. Is that America? Yes, of course our soldiers and our tanks and our guns and our incredible power are known everywhere. That power has the ability to do remarkable good, but is also inevitably, overwhelmingly controversial. And while, yes, that is America, is that the only America? Is that the only presence we want to have on the ground?

We are not known around the world. Images on television are not America. They are two dimensional. They are 1s and 0s and they are utterly controlled by the people who put them there. Nothing, nothing replaces a handshake, an embrace, an afternoon together in a classroom where smiles are shared, lessons are learned and Americans, in their warmth, grace and talent, are present and involved.

What America do we seek? Who do we want to be and how do we want to be known? You do actually change lives on the road. You change them one at a time, and in the end, person to person, that's the way the world changes.

At a time of profound debate about how and where to spend our money, of obsession about American visibility, American stability and American security, the investment in the exchange of Americans and people from other lands is both inexpensive and yields breathtaking results.

Culture is not a hand out. It's not a bag that says "a gift of the United States (as important as those gifts are)." Its an exchange -- and that's the key term. We learn with each other, from each other. It empowers the people you meet as much as it empowers you. It teaches the teacher as much as the student. It inspires the performer as much as the people for whom performances are held. We learn. Together.

I am constantly reminded of the phrase "he who saves a single life saves the whole world." It can be adapted so subtly: "he who changes a single life changes the whole world." I have watched, in these past weeks, that power up close. Young people who were unclear of how to say what they felt, express what they had bottled up, dream in non-verbal ways of the people they want to be, inspired to move and empowered by it.

In Abu Dhabi I had a teacher come up to me and say this: "I'm just a PE teacher here (as it that needed an apology), but I want you to know that I think this performance you just did, this 45 minutes, is worth more than two full months in a classroom."

In Ramallah I was asked to help create the infrastructure, the curriculum, the core, of dance in the West Bank for the future. Its a mission for my own life now -- an honor and an extraordinary idea.

In Amman we watched young people en masse leap to their feet to join in learning a dance with three CityDance monkeys in Jungle Books. Boys. Girls. Everyone.

The United States needs to decide how it wants to be known to the world.

Throughout the region I met a small group of people, Cultural and Public Affairs Officers with the US Department of State, who spend each and every day trying to make possible what we just did. They do it well. They do it with passion. They do it with commitment and determination and they do it often feeling like they are banging their heads against the wall with their own government. But they do it. And they don't give up. And they make a difference and, a person at a time, they change the world and the way America is seen. What more can you ask than to have a chance to work with people like that?

We are visible in the world. That's our choice and our blessing and our curse.

How we choose to embrace that visibility is everything. But that's what art does. And it does it in ways away from home we fail to understand here at home. Leave our shores and find out that people know nothing of America, but that they very much WANT to know about America -- from Americans, and that art is a way they love to take us in.

The Federal budget for cultural exchange should be 30 time larger than it is. Artists should be everywhere. Everywhere. Teaching. Speaking. Dancing. Singing. Acting. Painting.


Its how we can make a difference.

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