Thanks to several exchange programs, every year I have the opportunity to speak with dozens of journalists and professors from around the world who tour the
This week it was two Indonesian professors. Before them, it was a Japanese professor, a group of Middle Eastern journalists, a delegation from
My job in these meetings is to answer their questions about
Every person with whom I have talked in these exchanges — and I mean literally every single one, whether from Europe, Africa, Latin America, Asia, or
–how far to the right the political spectrum is skewed, and; –how depoliticized the entire society is.
Most of these visitors follow
A number of them have told me that there are especially surprised to see how right-leaning the mass media and universities are. When I tell them that there is a widely accepted assertion here — repeated constantly by people on the right — that journalism and the academy are hotbeds of liberalism and even radicalism, they laugh. At first they assume I am joking; in many cases, I am the first leftist they have met on the tour. Then they look puzzled. In a country with such well-established legal guarantees of freedom of expression and political participation, they ask, how can left-wing political positions — which they consider to be important even if they don’t hold them — be so absent from the mainstream public debate?
Given those freedoms, they also want to know why there is so little political engagement in everyday life. People don’t seem to talk politics very much, they report. Local television news is more concerned with accidents and human-interest stories than public policy. The professional journalists and academics they meet seem curiously detached from political life.
I tell these visitors that the conditions they observe are not accidental. Conservative political forces have used coercion and public relations to achieve these results. The 20th century in the
The most interesting reaction to all this comes from people who live in societies that have recently thrown off authoritarian regimes or still live without much political freedom. “Americans seem very cavalier about politics,” one Middle Eastern journalist told me. “Perhaps if they lived without free speech for a few years they would use it more often.”
Especially since 9/11, the Bush administration has tried to use public relations to get the world to view us as the good guys. But we could profit more by paying attention to how others see us. The international visitors I speak with are not suggesting that the systems in their countries are perfect. They offer their observations with respect and, often, admiration for some aspects of
Americans typically are eager to pay attention to the compliments; we would be wise also to take heed of their critique.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the