HARRISONBURG, VA. — How many Americans are aware that the most sophisticated tools of modern communication are being used on a daily basis in a vast program of disinformation about this country and its people that is beamed into almost every country on Earth?
Every time I travel abroad I see this at work and witness its results.
"I am so grateful for this opportunity to get to know you and your family," a Muslim Indian woman told me in 2000. "We thought that Americans have no values, that they are materialistic, and care only about themselves. We thought there is no commitment to children and families, that everyone lives in immorality. It is so wonderful to see that these things are not true!"
Where does this image of America come from? If someone had set out to create a powerful propaganda strategy to completely discredit America, they could not have come up with anything more effective than the Hollywood product shown daily to billions of people.
American soap operas and reality shows are beamed daily into the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, Nairobi, Bangkok, and even the far reaches of Siberia. A friend has described to me her amazement at observing indigenous people in northern Siberia rushing home at midday to watch a favored California soap opera, a rebroadcast of the same show they'd already seen the night before! Foreign distribution of these shows is a huge source of profit for Hollywood.
While US soldiers sacrifice their lives to go after people who consider Americans evil, Hollywood blithely peddles filth that confirms the worst fears of our global neighbors. Given that US security is at risk, every American should be concerned.
Americans themselves are cheapened by such viewing. But at least most know that neither they nor their neighbors live in glistening mansions filled with sexy people looking for the next liaison. Unfortunately, people abroad don't know this about Americans. Do others really think that what they see on their TVs is in fact real life in America?
Africans and Asians repeatedly tell me that they didn't realize there are "ordinary," "decent" people in the US, that they'd thought "everyone was ..."
Hollywood's profiteering means that, to the world, America is Sin City. People in other places believe Americans create and peddle cheap and immoral sensations designed purely to arouse unseemly hungers; that Americans are unprincipled and indulge themselves in their lusts without thought.
This false picture means that whenever Americans point to high standards or claim to seek the welfare of others, they're eyed with suspicion. People have pictures before their very eyes that, they believe, show who Americans are and how they live. Why should they trust nice words? The American inclination to lecture others on right and wrong looks especially hypocritical.
Can we blame Muslims, for whom modesty and sexual purity are extremely important values, for finding it easy to consider Americans servants of Satan? Fortunately, the vast majority of Muslims oppose violence against America and know the Koran teaches against attacks on innocent civilians. But given Hollywood's picture of the US, it's amazing there isn't more hatred of Americans.
Most Americans seem stunned with the Iraqi response to occupation. Why don't they have a little patience, Americans wonder. As with most of the world, Iraqis have long been skeptical of US intentions. Iraqis wanted to be rid of Saddam Hussein, and they did hope for the best when the US invaded - but trust was so low to begin with, it took only a few months of American errors to convince Iraqis their doubts were justified.
In an age of portable and powerful weapons, no military can create security for Americans as long as the majority of people in the world believe they're morally corrupt and selfish.
The sad truth is that moral corruption and selfishness do exist in this country. But at the very least, Americans should curb the entertainment industry from peddling wicked exaggeration to the world. Because America isn't trusted, the grim truth is that any US military move not clearly supported by the majority of the world works against the US. Not only does America look immoral, it looks ruthless and unaccountable.
Eventually, Americans may recognize that defense can never rest in futile efforts to destroy with violence every threat that dwells abroad. We can't, as military personnel say, "chop off the head of the snake." When the majority distrust us, every strike, even "successful" ones, multiplies our foes.
Sustainable security will come when the people of the world see that we take seriously their daily well-being; when they believe that we truly care about the ability of their children to get a good education, basic healthcare, and jobs. When they believe this, extremists of the world will gain no followers. They'll murmur and rail against us from the margins of their communities, but the world will neutralize the hatemongers far more effectively than American bombs and marauding special forces.
• Ron Kraybill teaches in the Conflict Transformation Program at Eastern Mennonite University and serves as adviser and trainer in peace processes. He's lived in South Africa and India.