Batteries and Baywatch.
During her tenure as ambassador to Morocco, Margaret Tutwiler1 discovered that the average day for a Moroccan man went like this: work hard all day, come home in the evening, unplug the car battery, haul it into the house and connect it to the TV so that the family can catchBaywatch, the most widely watched TV show in the country. 2 But what alarmed Tutwiler is that most Moroccans assume Baywatch is a Discovery Channel-type show documenting life in America. As a result, it shapes how Arabs, especially youth, imagine American life — and that is not good. Why? Because the U.S. conducts its foreign policy from the West Wing, while Arab attitudes are assembled with what originates from the East Wing.
We hate you — but send us Baywatch!
In 2003, a report on Arab youth attitudes found an overwhelming majority of Arab teens had negative feelings about Americans.3 Arab youth imagine Americans as violent, prone to criminal activity, materialistic and sexually immoral. “You can’t turn on your television set on any night or go to a movie without seeing unmarried people cavorting in bed,” wrote Margaret and Melvin DeFleur, “or you can see folks with no clothes on, and so on, particularly women.”4 Their study revealed that the arts, particularly the powerful influence of American movies and television programs that are seen by millions of foreign teenagers, are primary sources that shape Arab hostility toward the U.S. — not foreign policy. When the Screenwriters Guild reviewed the DeFleur’s report, they suggested the title be changed to “We Hate You, But Please Send Us Baywatch!”
Facts and values.
Tutwiler’s anxiety stems from how the media undermines American foreign policy. But the real culprit is the Great Divide: the West Wing of the White House, where foreign policy is crafted, deals primarily with facts. Artists, on the other hand, are typically invited to the East Wing (to events hosted by the First Lady). They deal in the realm of our imagination. And our imagination is where we find meaning.
This Great Divide between facts and meaning can be found elsewhere, even in the church. In May of 2006, The DaVinci Code is scheduled for release in movie theaters nationwide. More than any other recent book, The DaVinci Code undermines the Catholic Church and the historical record of Christianity. Rightly so, people of faith will respond to the film. But it’s a good bet that they will employ a West Wing approach, focusing on the factual errors and presuming this is how people make sense of their world. Really? The Washington Post prints its factual errors and corrections everyday, but nobody pays attention. We need to bridge the Great Divide with an East Wing Strategy that engages the imagination. How do we do that?
Meaning and metaphor.
The first step is imagining one hundred acres of pristine land. Does this property generally mean the same thing to a developer and environmentalist? No, they envision two different uses (which is why, regardless of the facts, developers and environmentalists rarely see eye-to-eye). We need to bear in mind that facts are inert objects. They lie there and don’t necessarily mean anything. For example, the scientifically studied odds are nine to one — that’s nine to one against you — that if a well-informed, trusted authority figure gave you the facts and said you had to make difficult and enduring changes or you would die, only one in ten would change.5 Facts alone don’t change people’s minds.
It is our imagination — or assumptions — that make facts meaningful. People make sense of their world through their imagination (i.e., metaphors); not facts. “We may not always know it,” writes George Lakoff, “but we think in metaphor,”6 which is why Albert Einstein said imagination is more important than knowledge — something Margaret Tutwiler and the DeFleurs discovered firsthand. As The DaVinci Code hits the movie theaters, we suggest an East Wing Strategy that includes a short- and long-term plan. In the short run, we need to reframe what is meant by “the arts,” appreciate where Dan Brown gets it broadly right, and look to writers like C.S. Lewis as a model for reframing. In the long run, the church needs to advance a long-term renewal of the arts. Over the next several weeks, we’ll unpack these four ideas. Stay tuned — and enjoy The DaVinci Code!
1 Tutwiler, a senior official in both the Reagan and Bush administrations, was confirmed as US Ambassador to the Kingdom of Morocco on July 11, 2001.
2 Remarks from Bill Ivey’s “The Corrosive Incoherence of the U.S. Arts System,” given at the “Fate of The Arts” conference hosted by The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, April 2, 2004. Bill Ivey is currently Director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt. He is also a four-time Grammy Award nominee (Best Album Notes category), and holds honorary doctorates from the University of Michigan, Michigan Technological University, Wayne State University, and Indiana University.
3 The Next Generation’s Images of Americans,” by Margaret and Melvin DeFleur. The DeFleurs are professors at Boston University’s College of Communications and surveyed 1,400 teens in 12 countries around the world about their attitudes towards Americans and American culture.
4 “The Next Generation’s Images of Americans,” by Margaret and Melvin DeFleur.
5 Alan Deutschman, “Change or Die,” Fast Company: Issue 94, May 2005.
6 George Lakoff is a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley and author of Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust.