by Austin Bay
November 20, 2002
Late autumn, 2001. U.S. forces were at a delicate point in theAfghan war when I had the chance to meet a "field-grade special operationsofficer" recently returned from the combat zone.
Recent events hung heavy in his eyes. He'd been in theHimalayas -- and no, I couldn't ask and didn't ask for longitude andlatitude.
Our conversation, however, did have one laugh-line. "Thesetribesmen, sir," the officer told me, "they all listen to the BBC." He waspleased, but also a little astonished. He shook his head, and the grin brokeout. "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'sgoing on."
I replied, kidding him, "Are we surprised?"
I really wasn't that blase. I was impressed, once again, by thepower of "the Beeb."
The United Kingdom provides fighter-bombers and ground troops tofight Al Qaeda and Saddam, but in many ways the BBC is Britain's most potentcontribution to not only the current war effort but the world as a whole,which is why we should collectively complain when myopic Brit budgeteerspropose cutting World Service operations. That's a pence rich, pound poorbad idea if there ever was one.
Call BBC World Service Western civilization's WMI -- Weapon ofMass Instruction -- but the reason it works is credibility, not megawatts ormegabucks.
World Service broadcasts in 43 languages. Even Earth's hardcorners have portable radios galore. Address people in their own languageand provide a program that examines local and regional issues, and for awhile 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 organizationcan, when truth hurts as well as when it helps. It means addressing withdedicated accuracy local issues, from the Congo basin to Kabul, and doing sohour 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, steadytruth-with-a-little-t ultimately overwhelms the big spin-jobs, conspiracytheories and prevarications. Eventually, the man with crops withering fromdrought no longer listens to the government who assures him it's raining.
In the long haul, truth penetrates. It happened in EasternEurope during the Cold War, where the BBC and Radio Free Europe -- aided byrock and roll -- proved more powerful than communist state agitprop. InAfghanistan's isolated valleys, villages and mountains hiding herdsmen andguerrilla armies, the bone-tired officer said tribesmen he'd just met "knowwhat's going on."
That's information penetration as a positive, both for tribesseeking to control their own destiny and American commandos making contact.Information, cultural and technological-penetration issues, however, alsolie at the roots of Osama bin Laden's terror. Islamists abhor the culturaland political effects of the BBC, rock music and Hollywood. Autocratseverywhere hate criticism.
Are Hollywood "values" anathema to traditional societies? Sure,lasciviousness and pulp are anathema to American society. However, manypeople -- in the Middle East, in Africa -- will tell you in a whisper theyprefer Hollywood to government-written soap operas. Choice has politicalappeal.
For people living in an oppressed or corrupt society, the truthcan whet demand for change. When demands go unrealized, people tantalizedfeel denied. Local autocrats play on that frustration, and attempt to shiftblame for lack of local change from themselves to the United States and theWest. Sometimes they succeed, though BBC World Service covers that politicaljudo trick, as well.
Himalayan trust in the BBC's factual reporting, however, is badnews for anti-Western multiculturalists, particularly the Marx-drencheddolts in American academia who argue that "cultures erect their own uniquetruth" and that the BBC is "colonizing the minds" of "other peoples." Whatgarbage. People know what's what. Drought-wracked farmers know it ain'training. Unfortunately, too many people on this planet still live inhellholes where speaking freely gets them killed.
Truth alone does not make a people free, but even inAfghanistan, it's a big leg up when building a better nation.