Right down the street here, the marquee on a beauty salon says: "God Bless America. Please use back door." In St. Petersburg, Fla., I saw another sign on a motel: "God Bless America. Two Heated Pools." Now, there is nothing wrong with mixing patriotism and commerce, or at least using the same size type to express two different ideas, but after a while, the whole thing gets a bit eerie.
There is talk of getting Madison Avenue to sell our "American values" to the "moderate Muslim masses," but I'm afraid we are dealing with two fictions here that are getting confused because of the same type size. There are many moderate Arabs and they have nothing against our values. They understand capitalism -- Mohammed was a merchant, after all -- and they love our educational system and civil rights. On the other hand, when they become "masses," the psychology changes. The mass has a collective store of emotion that responds better to the propaganda of its own radicals than to the cool, slick pitch for Western values. And there is very little we can do about that. If we show them Madonna singing "Material Girl," the mass will be outraged, even if everyone, individually, is thrilled. If we show them Madonna in a burqa, singing "Spiritual Girl," a new version of her earlier hit for which she is genuinely sorry, everyone will laugh. Only Michael Jordan might span the gap between the mass and the individual, because basketball is, apparently, a universal religion.
Usually, propaganda works on the already convinced to fire them up to do their best. That's what patriotic advertising and Hollywood did in the Second World War. Their products were aimed at Americans. In the Cold War, the West won over the youth of the communist countries through the providential genius of popular and underground culture. The official propaganda apparatus caught on eventually, but not before rebellious rock'n'roll, the Beat poets and existentialist movies demolished the inner Berlin Wall. The fact that the political establishments of the commie world lingered on for 20 years after the Beatles destroyed their ideology is testimony only to the power of inertia.
If our "Western values" are going to make a dent in the irrational frenzy that is now seizing the Muslim "masses," it's going to have to come up organically somehow, from inside our culture. Of course, we have very little "underground" culture today. Madison Avenue has indeed occupied all the areas hitherto reserved for the unbridled expression of our longings and angers. So, perhaps, it's only right that they take up the job. On the other hand, slickness may not go down at all well.
I met a Pakistani cab driver in Chicago who heard my accent and assumed I'd just come over. "I set you up in business with a cab," he offered. "You can make lots of money in America. Bring your wife, too. It's good." He handed me his card, which said his name was Mack. He would have been a convincing voice in a documentary aimed at the masses of Al-Jazeera watchers. A few thousand guys like that, and maybe our "values" won't need the hard sell.