Fulbright teaching stint in Indonesia persuades a historian that America's cultural diplomacy is in tatters





Richard Pells, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, says that based on his experience last summer as a Fulbright senior specialist in Indonesia, the United States has not been successful in making its policies and values better understood among Muslims in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

QUOTE: My dialogue with Indonesians often became surreal. "Is there grass in Texas?" I was regularly asked of my home state. Obviously Indonesians — having seen far too many old Westerns — supposed that Texas, with some of the most heavily populated urban areas in America, was a veritable wasteland of sagebrush and dust. Indonesians also seemed obsessed with the prevalence of what they called "free sex" in America. Someone finally explained to me that they meant the tendency of Americans to engage in sex before marriage or after divorce — whereas in Indonesia such activity is forbidden, in theory if not in practice. And since many Indonesians in my audiences had seen Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, they were convinced that students in American high schools were heavily armed, just waiting for the opportunity to open fire.

But it was their questions about Moore himself that left me truly befuddled. I was asked continually if the Bush administration had subsidized Moore's movies, including Fahrenheit 9/11. Eventually I realized that such a question revealed an entirely different set of ideas about the relationship between government and culture. Since Indonesians believed that movies, plays, and novels could scarcely exist without the political and financial support of the state, it was hard for them to imagine the existence of a "private" sector in the arts, or the absence of an American ministry of culture.



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