Digging through an accumulation of holiday mail after a few days off, I found a handsome calendar for 2004 showcasing the work of photographers for The Christian Science Monitor.
As I leafed through it, I came upon two arresting photos. One was of two little African boys, submerged up to their necks and shoulders in a slimy swamp in Zambia. The swamp is the lair of crocodiles and snakes. But despite the danger, the boys dive in the shallows to haul up the sodden mankata root. It is what they and the local villagers survive on in time of crisis when the rains do not come and the corn crop fails. It is a symbolic picture of the despair and poverty that continues to assail too much of the world.
By contrast, the next photo was of Arab and Israeli girls, collapsed upon each other in uproarious laughter at a summer camp in Maine. Since 1993, Arab and Israeli teens have come to this sanctuary to escape violence, try to understand each other, and search for a road to peace. The photo of these laughing girls is a symbolic picture of hope.
How can the world move from the backwardness and despair in parts of Africa, Latin America, Asia - and particularly the Arab lands - that so often breeds hatred and violence, to an era of mutual understanding, stability, and progress offering hope and an antidote to anger?
This is an awesome challenge, which over many years will require the transformation of backward economies and the burgeoning of democracy upon which they thrive.
But if the challenge is great and long, are there not tiny steps we might take in 2004 that would at least make a dent in it? My thought keeps going back to those laughing Arab and Israeli girls in Maine, and the need for better understanding between peoples, races, nationalities.
Particularly in this technological age, there are many vehicles for communicating words and information. The United Nations tells us that nearly 600 million people now use the Internet, but the Internet is impersonal and often anonymous. Its credibility open to question. Government broadcasters like the Voice of America do a splendid job of interpreting US policy and describing American lifestyles, but they are government broadcasters nonetheless. Insofar as America is concerned, far too many non-Americans still establish their image of America by what they see on the Al Jazeera network and on the sex-laden, violence-driven trash that Hollywood sends abroad. (As Meryl Streep told The Wall Street Journal last year: "We export the crap. And then we wonder why everybody hates us and has a distorted picture of what Americans are.")
As Arab and Israeli teenagers understand each other better when they meet face to face in a summer camp in Maine, my experience is that non-Americans understand Americans better when they spend time with them in their own home territory. For the past several years, my newspaper has hosted visiting editors from countries as diverse as Tajikistan, Serbia, the former Soviet Georgia, and Kosovo. They came for a month to look at American journalistic techniques. They lived with the families of various staff members. They rode horses, went skiing, were taken to school football games and pizza parties, and dandled children on their knees. Sometimes we had vigorous discussions about US policies with which they disagreed. But they forged enduring friendships that continue, mainly by e-mail, today.
In its heyday, the United States Information Agency sponsored an international visitors' program that brought hundreds of up-and- coming politicians, journalists, artists, professors, and others from various lands to observe America and Americans. The State Department now administers what survives of that program with funds that are far too niggardly. Congress should give it a significant boost.
The private sector should get into funding and expanding the scope of this people-to-people program. Call it a patriotic duty. Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld says he's more worried about the coming generation than the present generation of terrorists, so call it a defense against terrorism. Call it a reparation of some of those millions that some corporate miscreants stole from their shareholders and taxpayers. But put the genius and innovation of American business behind it. Airlines could make available empty seats on their planes to bring selected students and visitors to America. Generous Americans would open their arms and their homes to them.
There are thousands of new friendships waiting to be made out there. Too bad these friends haven't yet met.
• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News, is a former editor of the Monitor.