“You cannot demonize people when you’re sitting there listening to their music. You don’t go to war with people unless you demonize them first,” said former Defense Secretary William Perry regarding the recent performance of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in Pyongyang, North Korea. Although the Bush Administration was less than enthusiastic about the trip, the warm response of the North Korean audience offered a reminder of the positive kinds of reaching out our country is capable of doing.
Imagine how America’s standing would have benefited by our putting billions of dollars into cultural exchanges rather than arms dealings and the bombing and invasion of Iraq. Imagine if we had sent dance companies all over the world, art exhibits, jazz and classical ensembles and orchestras, theatrical productions, instead of dropping bombs on a nation which did not attack the USA. Imagine!
Imagine if we had built mini-concert halls and theatres and art museums all over the world instead of rebuilding structures that we bombed in only one country.
Imagine if we exported our best poets, writers, actors, dancers to teach, give concerts and recitals, offer exhibits and discussions of their work, instead of exporting soldiers and construction crews to rebuild what we destroyed. Imagine.
My friend and mentor, Herbert Zipper, emigrated to American in 1946 after surviving Dachau, Buchenwald, and the ravages of liberated Manila. He had seen the restorative powers of the arts in both Dachau – secret concerts in the latrine – and Manila – an end-of-war concert in a bombed-out church.
Arriving in America he had an idea which he converted into a proposal to the State Department. His idea was this: since there were many aircraft carriers in dry-dock, why not retrofit one or two as floating theatres, concert halls, dance spaces, art exhibits and then assemble the best of American culture and take it all over the world – not just in big city ports, but in less rich areas of the world as well. Imagine, he thought, after the horrors of World War II, why not hasten the healing process by exporting works of beauty, of celebration of the human condition and the human spirit? Imagine, he mused, exporting American geniuses of creation, rather than B-29s and atomic bombs.
He, of course, received a polite and perfunctory response, and his idea was dry-docked along with the aircraft carriers. The idea, however, remains a brilliant one. And, certainly, the idea could be employed to encourage the exchange of arts – exporting and importing creative visions.
The New York Philharmonic trip to Pyongyang was just a hint of what could be a whole new approach to American diplomacy. Gandhi was once asked what he thought of Western civilization, and he replied, “I think it would be a good idea.” So, too, would America’s civilization and its dissemination.