America in the Middle East

One of the interesting experiments in marketing in recent years was the assignment given Charlotte Beers. Ms. Beers was appointed by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in the aftermath of the terrorist attack of 9/11 to change the way people in the Middle East think about the US. To put this somewhat more grandly, but not inaccurately, Beers was charged with prosecuting the case for the values of Western civilization.

Naturally, everyone thought this was, all by itself, clear and present evidence of a great difficulty in Western civilization. That an advertising executive was charged with this task struck many observers as ludicrous. Surely, advertising was antithetical to Western civilization. Did we not have the great works of Barber, Ewen, Klein, etc. to tell us so? Was this not a little like going to one of the magnificent entablatures that surround great libraries, the ones that show the great “fathers” of Western civilization: Socrates, Dante, Shakespeare, and so on, and chipping in an image of Charlotte Beers?

This is the usual prejudice of the chattering classes, and it fails to see that advertising is merely another rhetorical form…and were it not a very potent form, it would not have called up the exertions of Barber, Ewen and Klein.

No, Beers was an interesting appointment and maybe not a bad one. Beers’ approach, it turned out, was not altogether surprising. She resolved to treat America as a “brand” and informed Businessweek, that “the whole idea of building a brand is to create a relationship between the product and its user.”

This meant advertising. Here too we shouldn’t be surprised. Beers had been the head of Ogilvy and Mather and latterly J. Walter Thompson, two of the world’s great agencies. It was hardly surprising that she addressed this task as she had other ones: with the conventional marketing tools she had used and administered over a long and distinguished career.

But I can’t help thinking that somehow this missed the real opportunity. The task here called for something more than the management of images. I have not seen any of the advertising created by Beers and her team but I can’t help feeling that it leaned heavily in the direction of making a case for “freedom.”

The Right has a way of using this term as if it were a liberty that exists in and for the market place. Freedom gives people the right to own property, to pursue their livelihood, to make a place for themselves in the world through risk and reward. Or it supposes that liberty is a matter of religious choice.

Both of these are important pieces of the “freedom” argument. But it seems to me there is a deeper, more promising proposition to make here. It is the freedom that is expressed and expanded by the pursuit of what Bell called expressive individualism. This is the freedom that emerges when individuals throw off the prevailing definitions that confine them, when women, young people, old people, the representatives of all the sexual orientations, and other groups refuse the “received definitions” of who they are, and insist on refashioning new definitions. (For a fuller treatment of these groups and their anti-hegemonic effect, see Plenitude, the book posted at this website.)

Surely, this is the better or at least an additional arrow in freedom’s quiver. The Middle East is largely controlled by aged male elites who are, as Thomas Friedman and others have told us, are entirely comfortable telling women, the young, the elderly, and every alternative group (defined by gender and lifestyle) who they are and how they must behave. Unleash these groups fuelled by this virus, and surely the elites must fall, perhaps not in the short term, but certainly in the long. And this is a long term proposition.

Let us take one example. What if the Commission in question were to encourage feminism in the Middle East. Naturally, we do not wish to export all forms of Western feminism. We need only encourage it’s first principle: that women need not defer to men in any matter for any purpose. I do not speak from any deep ethnographic knowledge but I think we can assume that the well springs of resentment in the Middle East are deep and high. The trick is to tap them. (Oil is not the only energy resource available in that part of the world.)

How would this work? This is the work of the Commission. To see where, how, and in what voice native feminism could be encouraged, enabled and allowed to flourish. This is a social engineering game, one that would have to be done with fine knowledge and great subtlety. But it could be done.

We can assume that the Middle East has 10 Ani DiFrancos waiting for enablement. It is unlikely that they would answer the Western call with an album called Puddle Dive. It is unlikely that they would answer the Western call at all. But given the right resources (clandestine and otherwise), there is, I think, no doubt that they would begin the work of expressive individualism, gradually integrating feminism with the local culture, working their way towards the light.

Naturally, there is a problem here. Republicans are, to put the matter mildly, deeply ambivalent about expressive individualism. They are unlikely to want to see the virus of individualism to prosecute the war against Islamic fundamentalism. But this is a pity. Because expressive individualism will surely be more effective than ads about freedom. It might even be more effective than a massive military intervention.

Ok, what if we were to commission a new commission for this task? I have some names: David Arnold, John Clippinger, Tyler Cowen, Kathy Davis, Ani DiFranco, Bob Dolan, Denise Fonseca, Herbert Gans, Nick Hahn, Charles Hale, Henry Jenkins, Leora Kornfeld, Kay Lemon, Margaret Mark, Deirdre McCloskey, Charlotte Oades, Virginia Postrel, Sir Martin Sorrell, Wodek Szemberg, Khalil Younes, Andrew Zolli, are just a few. (Naturally, this is a “dream team” list and does not signify knowledge, interest or committment from the parties named.) And I have a budget. Ms. Beers was given $500 million. I think we could do the job for about $26 million.

I am waiting for my call for the State Department.