by Austin Bay
November 20, 2002Afghan war when I had the chance to meet a "field-grade special operations
officer" recently returned from the combat zone.
Recent events hung heavy in his eyes. He'd been in the
Himalayas -- and no, I couldn't ask and didn't ask for longitude and
Our conversation, however, did have one laugh-line. "These
tribesmen, sir," the officer told me, "they all listen to the BBC." He was
pleased, but also a little astonished. He shook his head, and the grin broke
out. "They don't believe anything put out by the Taliban (government).
They're talking to us about what they hear on BBC. The tribes know what's
I replied, kidding him, "Are we surprised?"
I really wasn't that blase. I was impressed, once again, by the
power of "the Beeb."
The United Kingdom provides fighter-bombers and ground troops to
fight Al Qaeda and Saddam, but in many ways the BBC is Britain's most potent
contribution to not only the current war effort but the world as a whole,
which is why we should collectively complain when myopic Brit budgeteers
propose cutting World Service operations. That's a pence rich, pound poor
bad idea if there ever was one.
Call BBC World Service Western civilization's WMI -- Weapon of
Mass Instruction -- but the reason it works is credibility, not megawatts or
World Service broadcasts in 43 languages. Even Earth's hard
corners have portable radios galore. Address people in their own language
and provide a program that examines local and regional issues, and for a
while you'll draw an audience -- but it takes credibility to keep it.
Credence and credibility, however, are earned, not invented.
Earning those spurs means telling the truth as best a human organization
can, when truth hurts as well as when it helps. It means addressing with
dedicated accuracy local issues, from the Congo basin to Kabul, and doing so
hour by hour, update by update.
Tell the Big Lie, Hitler's propagandist Josef Goebbels advised,
and tell it often. But the good news is, on a planet where individual,
choice-producing communication technology proliferates, the small, steady
truth-with-a-little-t ultimately overwhelms the big spin-jobs, conspiracy
theories and prevarications. Eventually, the man with crops withering from
drought no longer listens to the government who assures him it's raining.
In the long haul, truth penetrates. It happened in Eastern
Europe during the Cold War, where the BBC and Radio Free Europe -- aided by
rock and roll -- proved more powerful than communist state agitprop. In
Afghanistan's isolated valleys, villages and mountains hiding herdsmen and
guerrilla armies, the bone-tired officer said tribesmen he'd just met "know
what's going on."
That's information penetration as a positive, both for tribes
seeking to control their own destiny and American commandos making contact.
Information, cultural and technological-penetration issues, however, also
lie at the roots of Osama bin Laden's terror. Islamists abhor the cultural
and political effects of the BBC, rock music and Hollywood. Autocrats
everywhere hate criticism.
Are Hollywood "values" anathema to traditional societies? Sure,
lasciviousness and pulp are anathema to American society. However, many
people -- in the Middle East, in Africa -- will tell you in a whisper they
prefer Hollywood to government-written soap operas. Choice has political
For people living in an oppressed or corrupt society, the truth
can whet demand for change. When demands go unrealized, people tantalized
feel denied. Local autocrats play on that frustration, and attempt to shift
blame for lack of local change from themselves to the United States and the
West. Sometimes they succeed, though BBC World Service covers that political
judo trick, as well.
Himalayan trust in the BBC's factual reporting, however, is bad
news for anti-Western multiculturalists, particularly the Marx-drenched
dolts in American academia who argue that "cultures erect their own unique
truth" and that the BBC is "colonizing the minds" of "other peoples." What
garbage. People know what's what. Drought-wracked farmers know it ain't
raining. Unfortunately, too many people on this planet still live in
hellholes where speaking freely gets them killed.
Truth alone does not make a people free, but even in
Afghanistan, it's a big leg up when building a better nation.