Afghanistanism comes home
by Posted Sat, Dec 1 2001
My classmates from the Columbia School of Journalism Class of '58 exchanged e-mails in the aftermath of Sept. 11, recalling that as students way back when, we were all implored to help the news business survive by remaining ever vigilant about the crime of “Afghanistanism.”
Our professors called writing dull copy about far-away places that had no meaning to an American audience “Afghanistanism.” Afghanistan was an unknown place with a funny name at the end of the world. Better, the professors thought to keep the papers local and write about international news only when it was meaningful to the public – the American public. Even though we had several international students, we were still taught the American way for the American news business.
I remember chuckling about how we had passed Afghanistanism by in the late 1970s and early '80s when the Soviet Union's Red Army invaded Afghanistan and that beleaguered, far away, misunderstood country became a major area for Cold War confrontation. President Carter cancelled this country's participation in the 1980 Moscow Olympics because of the invasion. Four years later, the Soviet Union would back out of the Los Angeles Olympics in retaliation.
The official reasons for the 1984 decision was that Los Angeles was an unsafe city, and at a press conference announcing the move I was introduced to the Soviet world champion weightlifter who was billed as “the world's strongest man.”
“Are you afraid to go to Los Angeles?” I asked him.
“Oh yes,” he answered, “ I am very afraid,” and then he smiled coyly. Even athletes were caught up in the Cold War.
Afghanistanism was a joke to the Class of '58 and it remained a joke right up to the last 20 years of the last century. The problem, of course, was that it was not only the news business that suffered from an Afghanistanism syndrome but so did the public and the United States government as well. The government grew so nervous about the Soviet Union's invasion that it authorized support for the so-called mujahadin (the word means Freedom Fighters) who mobilized to resist the Red Army. (The Russians called our freedom fighters “dushman”. Their word meant “bandits.”) Our freedom fighters, including the Taliban of those days, actually became dushman after the Soviets pulled out. And today we have new mujahadin fighting old ones. And these new mujahadin are so divided that President Bush cannot allow them to occupy Kabul and setup a provisional government.
For journalists there are two points to be made about all this:
The first is that the news business has a faster learning curve than the United States government. From the beginning of the air war a few weeks before this writing, the news business has been dwelling on how potentially dangerous the American-backed “Northern Alliance” would be as a single organizer of a new government in Kabul. And the news business has quickly learned what a morass of tribal conflict Afghanistan is even now.
The second point is that even though the news business may be quicker to learn than governments, there is still too much it did not know as the Western World sunk into this potential quagmire. The debate over whether is Islam is or is not responsible through its teachings for these attacks and the aftermath is still not resolved at this writing (on the second monthly anniversary of the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. How many people Osama bin Laden, his followers and his protectors, speak for is unknown.
In a world increasingly brought together through communications, commerce, travel, migration and education, it is incumbent that the young of the developed countries, whether they intend careers in journalism or not, become educated in the history, sociology and languages of different parts of the world even before those areas signal conflict on political radar screens.
The story of the last 20 years – the years in which the Cold War wound down and ended – is littered with failures to bring home the importance of events before they took place. Africa is a case in point: conflict between the Tutsis and the Hutus in Rwanda that resulted in genocide, which went unreported for weeks; fighting between Sudanese Muslims and southern tribes has gone on four years and is largely unreported. In Latin America and Asia there are similar stories; as there are in Europe (in the Balkans, the Caucuses and Russia) and North America as well.
A primary mission of the news business is to work as a distant early warning signal of impending problems for the public and those who can deal with those problems. It must work in a convincing way, and that means news organizations must train and educate journalists to work in various parts of the world knowledgably. They cannot fit the image now in vogue – that of parachutists jumping into an area to cover disaster on short notice. That perpetuates “Afghanistanism,” a concept that has long since outlived its usefulness, if it ever had any at all.
If you would like to discuss this further, person to person, my phone number is 1-573-884-1599 in Columbia, Mo., and my personal e-mail, with no pre-formatted replies, is firstname.lastname@example.org. And, yes, I look forward to talking to you about this and any problems affecting the news business that are on your mind in Ljubljana at the next IPI World Congress or whenever we might meet elsewhere.
Thank you for your time. Goodbye.