Amerians are friendly -- but do they mean it? They exhibit extreme ignorance about the rest of the world, even Europe. They have little fear of voicing dissent on issues and they value individual freedom, but are they free?
Dissecting the American society and psyche is the assignment for about a dozen young foreign journalists selected each year from around the world to study in the World Press Institute (WPI) program based at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Six months into the 1980 program, the 12 WPI journalists spent five days in New York during their East Coast swing.
"We are here to observe the American people," said a Senegal journalist, Gervais Ahounou, summarizing the intent of the eight months of study, extensive travel and meetings with people ranging from the Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and American Indian Movement activist Russell Means to rodeo cowboys in Oklahoma and George Franklin on the influential Trilateral Commission.
Because of its ambitious travel program, the WPI occasionally stirs envy in the minds of foreign journalists in the more sedentary Nieman Fellowship program at Harvard University. During 20 years of existence WPI has been host to 247 journalists from 77 countries who come to analyze for themselves the virtues and shortcomings of the US.
Ahounou, who wore a heavy, brown cotton Nehru-style suit, is a tall, sober-spoken African who shares his brilliant smile so carefully it seems like a reward to the receiver. He was the photographer in this year's group since he recently started an African photo agency.
"I sent an article back to my magazine two days ago in which I wrote that this country is not really a nation but a permanent struggle between interest groups to get the best out of the same administration," Ahounou said.
"I don't thing I would have been able to say that before WPI, but you come naturally to a point where you say, oh, the US is not simple. Someone might say it's a mess. This is a very great country in terms of what itizens can do for themselves, how convenient they want their lives to be. But because I'm another place I have different view of the world."
Even when Americans live abroad they remain closed off, Ahounou asserted. He cited the 50,000 Americans living in Iran "who were pushed out in six months. None of them can say 'I have a very good friend in Iran, why don't we talk to him to try and solve this problem?' It shows me how fragile were their links with the people."
Nine of this year's WPI "fellows" are from the Third World -- Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Sudan and Senegal. Only two are from Western Europe -- The Netherlands and Norway -- while the twelfth from Hungry.
Poin-of-view could be considered the password of WPI in 1980. On only issue is there agreement among the dozen journalists: that Americans are woefully ignorant of people outside US borders. Vaiju Mahindroo, a fragile Indian woman from Bombay, lifted her delicate arm in despair and let it float down."I thought before I came to the US that 99 percent literacy would mean education," she said. "But I am appalled at the ignorance of Americans and their not wanting to know." [Government figures indicate aproximately 20 percent fo the population of the United States is considered functionally illiterate.]
Helge Eriksen, who admitted he was a "pro-American" Norwegian, said, "I'm amazed how little they teach of world geography in primary and high school."
Mohamed Mustafa, the frist WPI journalist from Sudan, gave his tidy, small smile from beneath an inch-long mustache. "I had one woman ask me in a party. 'Do you use snowmobiles?' I said, 'Yes, we use them in the Sahara Desert.' I think she still believes we are using them."
Nevertheless, Mustafa found Americans "in many ways close to the Sudanese way of behavior, the generosity, the friendliness." But he added that they were oblivious to how the US government affects him at home.
American friendliness is a topic that triggers hot debate among the fellows. The Hungarian journalist Peter Racz, who works for the government-monopolized Hungarian News agency, contends that Americans are so polite he cannot measure their opinions of the fact that he comes from "a, how do they call it?, a communist country." (He calls Hun-gary a socialist country.)
"I dare say Americans are friendlier than the Hungarian people, but I don't know if their curiosity is for the sake of the curiosity or because they have to play their role.The Japanese people for example, are extremely polite, but I swear they are the most dangerous people in the world -- just remember the kamikaze tradition.
"I haven't had any mistreatment from Americans," Racz hastened to add. "We've met people for two or three hours; we have talked to them and that's all."
"It's hit and run," said Peter Van Deutekom of The Netherlands. "You feel like a sponge absorbing impressions. Americans are too polite, I think."
Ahounou, not smiling his rare smile, disagreed strongly. "I don't feel them polite. Something changed in my perception of Americans in that now I think most of them are very scared of themselves and of people around them, not because we are strangers.I think it has something to do with how often they move from place to place, from plane to plane, from hotel to hotel.People say very polite things to keep you away from their life, from their deep feelings. It puts me in a position of not knowing what to do because I don't want to shock them. For me it sounds like an artificial game."
Ahounou said the only Western country where he did not have a "feeling" about his being black was in the French speaking part of Canada, and that, he said, may be because Africans began to arrive in Canada only five years ago.
"I was in the US in 1971 when it was not that easy to be black in the country , okay? Today I don't think it's that changed. My blackness is a factor here and I'm not supposed to be concerned about it. It has something to do with your feeling, but it also has something to do with your work."
Among literally hundreds of Americans whom the WPI journalists regularly meet is the Ku Klux Klan's David Duke. Indian journalist Mahindroo described the encounter:
"Helge [the Norwegian] and I got into this confrontation with him in the middle of the meeting. Helge said to Duke, 'But don't you think that the only way out for the problems of the world is to integrate, not to separate?' Duke said, 'You might want everybody in the world to look like everybody else, but I don't.' Finally as everybody was leaving, Duke shook Helge's hand very specially and said, 'You are my white brother.'"
"You know -- the Nordic," Helge Eriksen said. "The man's a fascist; he defended Goebbels and Hitler."
"And he hates everybody -- blacks, Chicanos, Jews," added Munstafa, the Sudanese.
While in New York the journalists met with the Executive of the National association for Advancement of colored People, Benjamin Hooks, and asked him his strategy for blacks in the 1980s. Hooks, said black issues were now inextricably twined with American issues such as unemployment, but the added that because blacks felt they were "shafted" by the "snowy white" New Hampshire presidential primaries, NAACP was contemplating an attack on the multi-primary electoral system.
WPI journalist also met with United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim for the seventh straight year, this time on the day when the US commission to Iran returned from tehran empty- handed. Waldheim stressed that the decolonization of the Third World was the major achievement of the UN since the 1950s completely changing the content of the world body.
At two places in New york, the viewpoints held by most of the WPI journalists were in stark contrast to their to their hosts.' One was with George Franklin, the head of the influential Trilateral Commission, which boasts such people in its ranks as Henry Kissinger, and such members as President Carter, John Anderson, George Bush, and powerful corporate and labor leaders.
One WPI journalist noted that George Franklin had personally donated $41,000 to the commission which is composed of people from only the US, Japan, and Western Europe. Franklin stated that at the first commission meeting years ago in Japan, members specifically hoped that the commission would not be viewed as "a rich man's clus." But it was impossible for most of the WPI journalists to consider it anything else.
Had the Trilateral Commission conducted a study on the "new economic order" put forward by Third World countries? one journalist asked. "No" Franklin said. "But I understand that viewpoint."
"If Enrico Berlinguer or Georges Marchais (Communist Party leaders in Italy and France) applied to join the Trilateral Commission, could they be admitted?" the Hungarian asked.
"I don't know about that," Franklin said very slowly and then added, "I hope they would."
The second place where the WPI journalists' incongruity was startlingly evident was at the annual WPI luncheon with the corporate and foundation sponsors of the institute. Ten tables of business executives were sprinkled with the journalists, who in private voice grave misgivings about capitalism.
In fact, among the group, the economic debate is paramount. Peter Van Deutekom, the Dutchman, referred to a visit to Monsanto Chemical company "spends millions of dollars on their so-called public responsibility program which is designed to fight 'negative publicity' about accidents and the harmful effects of chemicals.
"Take also one of WPI's corporate sponsors, Union Carbide, which is involved in the Black Hills Indian area -- it gives you mixed feelings," Van Deutekom said.
The week the journalists spent on a South Dakota Indian reservation apparently affected them deeply, for they mentioned it frequently.
"We met people who were living in circumstances which we hardly believed would exist in a country which is so rich," Van Deutekom said.
The group's debates in their hotel rooms, on planes, on their 50-day bus ride through the Midwest, are perpetual and vigorous. What is the meaning of "free world?" What should be done about Iran? How can three television networks, NBC, CBS, ABC, "give at the same time, the same hour, the same image to the same public?" Why does the US press largely ignore most of the world with its four billion plus population?
Americans are not the only ones to suffer the WPI scrutiny. Group members can be tough with each other.
Ahounou described one incident with "my fellow from India." As the two were eating at the same table in a restautant, the Indian woman picked at her food and left her plate almost full when she was finised.
"without any consideration for being polite I said to her, 'Okay, the next time you know that you want to eat that way, keep away from me,'" Ahounou said. When she asked why he was so rude, he explained that it was because she was from a country where people were starving to death.
What has the WPI program accomplished for these men and women? The Norwegian said he hoped it made him more tolerant, especially of the Third World. The Dutchman said it made him more cynical because he found people so often defending things he considered immoral or unethical. Carlos Salgar from Colombia said the program improved his English which almost didn't exist before. At first he learned much English by watching Sesame Street and the Muppets on television. When asked if one could learn Spanish in Colombia by watching television, Salgar grinned beneath a floppy, dashing mustache. You can watch the Muppets in Spanish," he said.
Bruno Lopez, the yougest of the group, said WPI did not change his leftist political views but made them "more sophisticated, more complete, and gave me more elements for reasoning. I used to think the USA was a country of exploiters; now I see it's a complex mix of realities. You have the government, you have corporations, and you have the people. The people have a very specific cultural attitude but I think they are basically good people."
Van Deutekom said meeting face to face the WPI man from Indonesia, Sjahrir Wahab, who spent 2 1/2 years in jail to defend freedom of the press "made a big impression on me and is one thing i will take home; it will never leave me, I guess."
Olga Curado from Brazil could scarcely be found between her interviews and filing stories for her newspaper in Brazilia on the presidential primaries. Laughing and hurrying off for her next appointment, she said, "It is good for my career."