As America’s standing with the Arab public continues to drop, many Americans ask just what the world’s greatest democracy must do to improve its image. The latest US venture in public diplomacy, a glossy monthly called Hi, is an exercise in American earnestness designed to answer precisely that question.
In an introductory note to the inaugural issue, the magazine’s editors, who are employed by the Washington-based Magazine Group but answer to a review board at the US State Department, explained that the magazine’s title was an invitation to genuine intercultural exchange. Pop culture may present Michael Jordan and Madonna as the face of America, but, the editors said, they intended to present “the other Americans who live normal, simple lives far from fame and the lights of Hollywood.” They hoped these quotidian stories would engage Arab readers in “positive, constructive dialogue.” The editors appealed to readers: “Don’t be stingy with your thoughts!”
When it was unveiled in Washington, Hi drew fire from reporters on the State Department beat for its conspicuous failure to cover pressing concerns of US-Arab relations like the Iraq war and al-Qaeda. The criticism, while sensible, was unfair. Neither the editors nor their overseers in Foggy Bottom made any bones about the apolitical content of their lifestyle magazine. Hi is intended solely to be high on life. Snappy profiles of renowned chefs, each shown playfully preparing his signature vegetable, compete for readers’ attentions with full-color spreads of rock climbers and a down-home Denver wedding. You can eat red meat and still stay slim if you avoid carbohydrates, an article advises. Another offers helpful hints to Muslims looking for online matchmaking services. A third gives a passable account of the steady entry of Arab musicians into the US market.
Hi’s journalism does not pretend to be path-breaking, though some articles could have educational value. A feature on Latinos, who now make up the largest non-white ethnic group in the US, does not shy away from identifying the structural barriers to their social advancement, even quoting a bigoted woman who can’t abide hearing recorded messages in Spanish. Asks a text box at the end of the article: “Are there diverse races in your country? What problems do they face?”
Similar questions, all bereft of irony, solicit reader feedback on Hi investigations of yoga and Internet search engines. The editors promise to post the correspondence on the magazine’s website. The closest Hi comes to Arab social engineering is in resolving the great debate on whether New York’s smoking ban was justified (the magazine concluded the state did it to protect public health, not infringe on individual rights).
The magazine’s willfully ingenuous tone and mostly fluffy content make it tempting to dismiss. Do the editors really imagine the average Egyptian will spend five pounds to read about sand-boarding when he could buy good American cigarettes instead? But the magazine is not simply mindless happy talk. The subtext beneath the smiling surface is why, should the magazine find an Arab readership at all, Arabs are unlikely to subscribe.
No one has explained the periodical’s subtext better than Christopher Ross, the State Department’s special adviser on public diplomacy, who presumably helped Hi off the drawing board and onto Arab newsstands. Ross, a former ambassador to Algeria and Syria, famously appeared on Al Jazeera recently to defend US Middle East policy, speaking in Arabic. He told the Washington Post that the magazine “is a long-term way to build a relationship with people who will be the future leaders of the Arab world. It’s good to get them in a dialogue while their opinions are not fully formed on matters large and small.” The editors of Hi are speaking to an audience that, in their minds, is not yet mature.
Ross has unscrambled the inner voice of Hi: It is that of an adult setting the ground rules for an adolescent. By all means, let’s explore Arab feelings about yoga. We really want your feedback on the status of racial minorities in your country, even if you’re a Palestinian born in Israel, like our featured oud player Simon Shaheen. But why have a dialogue on such issues as US Middle East policy, which, after all, is not up for discussion? We’ve had plenty of dialogue with Arabs about that subject, anyway. Learn to accept what you cannot change…and while you’re at it, quit smoking.
Perhaps only the State Department, its sensitivities warped by years of defending an indefensible set of policies in the Middle East and elsewhere, could have conceived of a magazine so purportedly apolitical, and yet whose message is so essentially political.