Let's put this in the context of the photos from Abu Ghraib and the Danish cartoons, shall we?
The United States lags dangerously behind al Qaeda and other enemies in getting out information in the digital media age and must update its old-fashioned methods, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Friday.I'm guessing, between this from last week and the news today, that the Administration has given up entirely on Karen Hughes mission.
Modernization is crucial to winning the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide who are bombarded with negative images of the West, Rumsfeld told the Council on Foreign Relations.
The Pentagon chief said today's weapons of war included e-mail, Blackberries, instant messaging, digital cameras and Web logs, or blogs.
"Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today's media age, but ... our country has not adapted," Rumsfeld said.
A Muslim scholar, identified as one who had advised President Bush after 9/11 (but his advice clearly was not taken to heart), was on Anderson Cooper this past week (though I can't seem to find the transcript), pointing out the power of imagery in much of the Middle East, where, in countries like Pakistan (where violence continues), the majority of the population is illiterate.
The problem with illiteracy is not the problem we are accustomed to thinking of. Widespread literacy, as recent American history can attest, does not lead to wiser and less violent actions than widespread illiteracy does. If Pakistanis, for example, need a reason to be angry with the U.S., they need only reflect on the casual indifference to life we recently showed by bombing a house with an unmanned drone, in hopes of killing a "terrorist," but obviously unconcerned with killing innocent people. People who happened to be Pakistani.
Illiteracy was rampant in Europe in the medieval period. It is one more reason we tend to call that time the "Dark Ages." But as a review of church art and architecture will reveal, or a careful appreciation of the great works of literature of the period, such as Dante's Divine Comedy or Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, these were people literate in images, if not in words. Scholars today can show us how to "read" the stained glass windows of the European cathedrals, windows the most illiterate peasant of the "middle ages" could have read as easily as we scan a newspaper. We privilege, in other words, the written word over images (except when we don't. There are more explicit sex scenes readily available in the most popular "women's books" on the shelves of any bookstore than are allowed in even an "R" rated movie. "Crash," a wonderful film, earned an "R" rating, as far as I could tell, because Jennifer Esposito was shown naked from the waist up; or perhaps it was because she was in bed, at the time, with a black man.) But in some cultures in the world, especially the "hot spots" of the world, images carry the weight that words do for us. More weight, in fact, because they "read" images as we might the text of a Presidential speech or the pronouncements of the Fed Chairman.
There is, in other words, a "cultural clash," but it has nothing to do with technology. It has everything to do with what you privilege, and what you prize, with what you have to work with, and how you work with it.
But that answer doesn't justify the Defense budget, or put more money in the pockets of defense contractors; so small wonder it gets no consideration. Small wonder, too, we, and the people in the portions of the world we are most involved in, continue to talk past each other.
We aren't, of course, the only people doing that; or using violence as a means to achieve an end. Once again, a symbol destroyed, serves as much purpose as any constitution written on paper. Sometimes it's like we're speaking a different language.
But sometimes it isn't; which is even worse.