William Pfaff Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The End of the Cold War in Europe: Conversation with William Pfaff, columnist, International Herald Tribune, May 7, 1990, by Harry Kreisler

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Thoughts on America

One of the critiques that runs through your book of the United States is our inability, our incapacity to understand the other -- to have a feel for people and their concerns in the places where our policy has had its effect. What do you think is the most important thing that the United States understand about today's Europe?

Oh dear, that's very difficult to say. I don't know what the answer would be, any one thing. We need to respect its difference and listen to what the Europeans say, rather than acting on our own preconceptions. I wish that we understood more. Slowly we come to understand, and yet it's very difficult.

American society is very preoccupied with itself. It's a rich society, it's intensely interesting, and the rest of the world has never been of that much of interest to Americans. We are an intellectually isolated society. I don't think there's much that's going to change that. Nonetheless, I must say, I think the press does a very bad job, and much worse than it did even twenty or thirty years ago, in telling people about the rest of the world. And then they say, "Well, nobody is interested!" But one reason nobody is interested is nobody makes an effort to interest them -- there's a vicious circle here. Certainly television has had a terrible influence by focusing exclusively on fires and riots, and the written press then tends to follow television and its coverage.

Correspondents, characteristically, are moved around so they won't "go native," which is a guarantee that they will never stay in a place [long enough] to find out something serious about the society. It's a guarantee of ignorance. And they're always being pressed by editors at home to give them the "American angle." If they go out and give them something that the editor hasn't heard of before, or that he's not had some indication about from Washington, then he says, "Well, that's counter-intuitive," or "We don't want that." You can imagine if a correspondent in the Middle East, when the Shah was riding high, had offered a series on Islamic integrism and revolutionary forces in Iran, why, no editor would have touched it. Then, afterwards everybody says, "Why is it we didn't know about what was going on?"

Individuals know. Sensitive journalists, individual diplomats are very aware. But to get it through the system is extremely difficult. One can try to open up both the governmental and the communications systems a little more to hearing about the rest of the world.

A funny thing happened in Paris last winter. The Bob Hope program came to Paris. The American community in Paris was all solicited -- it was made into a benefit. There is in Paris an American Cultural Center, which has nothing to do with the government, and so this was set up as a benefit. I was not particularly anxious to go, but one is supposed to do one's duty to "the community," so you cough up your money and you trudge out to this affair. And, I tell you, the mind reeled. Bob Hope was talking about a Paris which was a mixture of Montmartre in the nineteenth century -- artists and naked models, the French can-can, Hemingway and Joyce -- and Disneyland. And the American audience, we looked at one another: What were we doing listening to all of this?

These cliches that perpetuate themselves generation after generation after generation, which nobody makes the faintest effort to correct! I often have the feeling, when older people traveling in Europe that are friends of the family show up, I have the feeling that to them, it's Disneyland. It's a series of theme parks and shopping opportunities.

But then you get young people, and this is [even those who attend] universities. Often we've had young people ring up that are the college-age children, or just out of college children, of friends or relatives in the states, and they say, "Wow, is this really exciting, I didn't know anything about this." They go to a museum or something like that that they're talking about, or the architecture, but also the fact that things work -- that trains run on time, that there are extensive public services, that streets are clean, which typically, on the continent, is true.

You realize that for them, America is so totally the norm, and nothing in their education has ever made them test anything against an external reference. There is no external reference in their minds. There are merely satellites to America that exist, which may be worth exploring out of curiosity, or out of a scholarly interest, but the notion that there is an alternate reference, a way of making a civilization and of living your life, comes as a blinding revelation to them.

Mr. Pfaff, thank you very much. I regret to say our time is up, but thank you for giving us an insight into events and trends in Europe, as your book Barbarian Sentiments does, in a much more informed way than we generally are used to in our discourse. Thank you very much for joining us today for this Conversation on International Affairs.

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