Rhod Sharp: Well, the refrain of many in the United States after the 911 attacks on the twin towers was something like “Why do they hate us so much?” From being the protective older brother and global policeman, the international image of the United States has become tarnished according to popular opinion surveys around the world, which is why our next guest, Seth Green from the law school at Yale University, has founded a group called Americans for Informed Democracy, seeking to improve relations between the America and the rest of the world and he has his inaugural meeting a little bit later on tonight. Hello Seth.
Seth Green: Hi Rhod.
Sharp: Tell me, you’re meeting in New York – what kind of people do you expect to show up.
Green: Well, the first town hall that we’re doing is on American Culture in the World and the goal is really to look at the diverse ways that American culture affects its image abroad both positively with people singing to Britney Spears and also negatively with people feeling very imposed by the ubiquity of Coca-Cola and so for this series, we’re having a really wide range of celebrities, musicians, and artists from around the world, as well as scholars and journalists and trying to bring it together in a way where we can try to categorize what parts are a benevolent force and what parts are more so to speak an evil empire (slight laughter) and how we can promote one more so than the other so that we can both promote our common humanity and also patriotically promote America’s image in the world.
Sharp: It’s a hot topic—you’ve got what people like Phillip Bobbit who have called it “soft imperialism” on the Coca-Cola side of things and then of course on the other side you have the new face of people who say “do something to someone before they do it to us.” And this isn’t just a bunch of, what can I say, Village Voice readers getting together to voice an opposition to the war, is it? We’ve done that.
Green: No. We’ve done that. Our groups is really about bringing both sides together—in the U.S., conservatives and liberals, but also Americans and the international community. We’ve involved in our projects everyone from former CIA director James Woolsey, who is quite neoconservative, to Joe Wilson and Janet Reno. So we are trying to strike a chord by bringing these people together and talking about “okay, where’s the common ground here?” One of things our group has noticed because we have people both in America and the rest world is that there’s been a very polarizing leadership, no help by the way from our President Bush who’s talking “with us or against us” and that’s not the way to find common ground and it’s not helpful when Chirac or Shroeder respond in equally divisive tones. So we’re trying to bring people from around the community together—not just the Village Voice readers—but the rest of us to find where the common ground is across borders.
Sharp: I mean there’s a problem we all have these days in identifying a community of interest. And if you’re very well educated, as you are Seth, and you’re in the middle class, you may have one set of worldviews that have nothing in common with a guy who makes a living as a meatpacker, for example. On the other hand, you may. How do you try and cross that boundary between the chattering classes and the people that do the work out there.
Green: Well, what we’re doing this time is bringing in a lot of celebrities and musicians and artists who are not from the Yale Law School—they’re from real America. And they don’t talk in high-falutin language but they talk about their brother who is at war or their sister who has trouble because she lives in a community abroad, for example, where they hate Americans. One of the performers who spoke at a meeting we had tonight who has traveled across the world just talked about how upsetting it is when he goes abroad to have to be perceived by people as everything that they perceive of America—Bush foreign policy, etc. And I think that bringing in a diverse cast of speakers, not just having the State Department folks or the professors, but also having the cultural icons and the people who speak “real speak” is really helpful. I can tell you that right now we’re at universities but our ultimate goal is to be trying to get these things going at Shea Stadium because if you can’t reach out to those communities you’re not going to really impact things. One of the difficulties I think Rhod is that the Bush message is so simple and it penetrates so easily into common parlance. You know I personally am liberal, and there are people from both sides in our group, and it’s often difficult for center-left folks to come up with a similar parlance in which to speak about these issues and so there’s often a difficulty in these discussions but we’re trying to overcome it.
Sharp: You’ve got to overcome it. Because in a way you’ve got everything that has been symbolic of America from Norman Rockwell and Rosie the Riveter on which has been colored by this. You’ve got a very powerful national rhetoric, which is saying that if you’re American, you’re this.
Green: You’re absolutely right. One of the things that I noticed, I left for England to study for two years just after the September 11 attacks and it was a very traumatic time for me and I was heartened that when I came to London there was an American flag flying next to the British Union Jack flag. And I lived in highly a Pakistani community in London and people would stop me on the streets, Pakistani women, to say how grieve stricken they were for me. And when I came home I had kind of had this sense of September 11 as a shared experience and what was interesting is that people in America saw it as a uniquely American experience and they didn’t think people overseas understood our pain—they thought many of them wanted to see our pain because of media images. And so there was this nationalism that was so dominant that it was hard to break through to people. When I talked about Pakistani people that I met in London, they didn’t believe these stories—it was as if they were a liberal fiction even though I had lived it. So it’s absolutely true that these dominant narratives are thick, but I do think that we are coming to a breaking point in the country and I think that continued dialogue and education is one of the ways of breaking through.
Sharp: Very nice to talk to you Seth. And, if it was not completely obvious to people, how old are you now?
Green: I’m 24.
Sharp: And do you think you are typical of your generation?
Green: You know, one of the things the group is trying to do is to tap into in America especially what is a political interest that is not necessarily militant, but that’s very real and I think to that extent I’m typical, but I don’t think enough of my generation is involved in political change and I’m hopeful that with initiatives like ours we can engage more Americans in it. It’s been a pleasure talking with you about all this Rhod. Sharp: And you too. Thank you so much.