January 23, 2011

No Loss For Words

Intrigued by the readings and an a current news story, below I will discuss three topics. First, I will discuss Black’s article entitled “Semantics and Ethics of Propaganda”. Then, I will discuss American cultural diplomacy briefly. And, finally, I start to discover more about sister city relationships.

Jay Black offers a history of the definitions of the word propaganda. While definitions of propaganda seem to have a rather illicit negative connotation, more contemporary definitions such as the one offered by Jowett and O’Donnell are becoming broader. They defined propaganda in 1999 as “The deliberate and systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist” (Black, 127). Definitions like this one have a rather haunting similarity to definitions of public diplomacy offered by Nicholas Cull and Peter van Ham. With a close look, it is evident that the line between propaganda and public diplomacy is fuzzy and greatly dependent on one’s perspective. Black begs his audience to make informed judgments of particular aspects of communication and articulates that propaganda becomes “part of that open marketplace of ideas” (Black, 135).

Contributing to the marketplace of ideas, specifically cultural ones, I heard this piece on World News Tonight with Katie Kouric about American school children learning Chinese in California.

As I watched, I started thinking about public diplomacy, specifically cultural and exchange diplomacy, in the United States. Some anthropologists hold that language is a significant component of culture. Nicolas Cull defines cultural diplomacy as “an actor’s attempt to manage the international environment through making its cultural resources and achievements known overseas and/or facilitating cultural transmission abroad” (Cull, 19). He then admits that cultural and exchange diplomacy often overlaps. Cull argues that historically cultural diplomacy has taken its form in facilitating the export of example components of one’s culture. Similarly, he defines exchange diplomacy as “an actor’s attempt to manage the international environment by sending its citizens overseas and reciprocally accepting citizens from overseas for a period of study and/or acculturation” (Cull, 20).

With the definitions of cultural and exchange diplomacy in mind, ponder this. Reportedly, only nine percent of Americans speak a foreign language compared to 44 percent of Europeans. Reporter Terry McCarthy notes, “Americans generally assume everyone speaks English. Often, they exceed our expectations. Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin surprised Mike Wallace in 2000 by reciting the Gettysburg Address in English.” The clip of the Chinese President is juxtaposed to a clip where President Obama painfully admits, "I don't speak a foreign language - it's embarrassing." The Obama administration is working to promote learning other languages beginning in kindergarten. Learning languages, in turn, allows young children the opportunity to learn more than another culture too. It allows them to grow and become intellectually curious about the countries or societies who speak the language they are learning. While this is great, the language divide is significant in that only 50,000 Americans are learning Chinese. In China, by contrast, there are 200 million students learning English. While the numbers are increasing in America, I fear that clips like this one hurt the American cultural image both internally and externally (either through diasporas communicating America’s inability to speak more than one language or through exchange diplomacy programs where students are trying to learn to speak another language). Clearly, America has some work to do.

In class, sister cities were briefly mentioned. Curious, I looked up Washington D.C.’s sister cities and found that the District has ten. They are Bangkok, Thailand; Dakar, Senegal; Beijing, China; Brussels, Belgium; Athens, Greece; Paris, France; Pretoria, South Africa; Seoul, South Korea; Accra, Ghana; and, Sunderland, United Kingdom. Part of Sister Cities International’s mission statement is to “stimulate environments through which communities will creatively learn, work, and solve problems together through reciprocal cultural, educational, municipal, business, professional and technical exchanges and projects.” While DC is culturally diversified, it is hard to believe that DC has so many agreements. More needs to be done to make it apparent to the public that these relationships exist. Moreover, if there is such a desire to learn more languages, why can’t Americans start learning more from sister relationships that already exist?

While these three topics are loosely tied together here, it is clear that public diplomacy and/or propaganda (however you see it) has a plethora of fascinating components. Each one poses its own questions and concerns for individuals to discern.


  1. Wow, Fresco. This is practically a thesis. :) I'm going to focus on one of your comments, specifically that penultimate paragraph on sister cities. We discussed the concept briefly in class, but I've never been fully convinced that the sister city is a great PD initiative unto itself. I see it more as a foundation on which PD can be built. I mean, when you think about DC, how often do you think about Accra? What does the relationship mean?

  2. Yes, it might not mean much to the people in D.C., but I'm sure it does - a lot - to the people in Accra. I'm not quite sure about the specifics of DC's particular connections, but from what I know about some other sister-city partnerships, the general public (and ESPECIALLY civil society members) are very much involved: cultural/educational short-term exchanges, Au-Pair-type programs, sports games, conferences, parks/buildings/districts named after the sister city... Yet, in that sense you're right - it creates the FOUNDATION on which public/cultural diplomacy can then be built.
    Love the post, by the way!