MAGAZINE REVIEW: Dispatches in America 

No Single America: In the run-up to the presidential elections, a new quarterly helps us understand who we think we are

Dispatches in America
With Paul Theroux, John Kifner, Samatha Power, Muamil Jaleel
Vol. 1, Dispatches, $15

The decade’s latest journalistic scandal involves a tiny community newspaper on the outskirts of Houston. The Montgomery County Bulletin was exposed nearly two weeks ago by a comprehensive article in Slate that showed the paper plagiarized hundreds of sources from around the world. The publisher has since sacked the writer, Mark Williams, and shuttered operations for good.

Though the Bulletin’s ethical lapses are hardly as scandalous or deleterious as Jayson Blair’s fabrications or Judith Miller’s gullibility, the hack publication does raise questions about the media that we in the media don’t often like to think about, or admit — that we obscure truth about as often as we reveal it.

In an insightful and curmudgeonly essay called “Mind Blindness and the Decline of Hitchhiking,” travel writer Paul Theroux asks us to reconsider our normal mode of information dispersal — that is, the get-it-first mentality.

“What we get — what we are still getting — is foreground, not background,” he writes of the media’s Iraq War coverage.

We know all about what troops are doing, he says, but little of who the Iraqis are. We know about roadside bombs, but not the differences between Sunnis and Shiites. Journalists tell don't provide a sense of perspective, scope, or depth. They rarely give all that minutia, all that embedded detail, a comprehensible shape.

“If all that reporters describe are disasters, assassinations ... riots and reverses,” Theroux writes, “we are left with an image of the world as fragile or accident-prone, and the best-intended news story becomes the source of stereotype and untruth.”

There’s a hint of hysteria in Theroux’s admonition (and a feeling of being somewhat behind the times), but his larger point should be taken seriously. What’s newsworthy is what’s unique, ironic, and weird. What’s newsworthy is not what makes up a person’s felt life — what’s normal. If your understanding of the world comprises media, then your worldview is, ipso facto, abnormal.

Theroux holds the media partly responsible for the Bush administration’s successful bid to invade Iraq. He doesn’t call for fundamental change, just greater struggle from the press to enlighten the public, to inform in the face of provincialism, to open minds amid efforts to close them.

“News distorts precisely because it is news, because it is the nature of news to be discontinuous,” Theroux writes. “Poor information is a cause of stereotyping, and blatant stereotypes ... create xenophobia, which is the opposite of curiosity.”

Theroux essay appears in a new quarterly that hopes to provide more background about the world and less foreground.

It’s called Dispatches and this inaugural issue focuses on American culture, looking at it from “the inside out, the outside in,” write co-founders Mort Rosenblum and Gary Knight.

Subsequent issues will feature a similar mix of commentary and reportage. This time, though, contributors decided to look at American from a distance, and through the haze of a presidential campaign, to find a global superpower that's a world of its own, one that's rife with idealism and contradiction.

“[Americans] are surprised at how few of the 95 percent of humanity with whom they share a planet actually do hate them,” the editors write. “Even now, after war in Iraq has gone so horribly wrong, many people still look across the ocean for hopeful signs of change.”

In a way, Theroux and the three other writers who make up this issue seem like docents giving a tour of the heterogeneous and surely confusing (to the outsider) cultural mish-mash that makes up American society.

Veteran journalist John Kifner writes of how Americans are not beholden to history in ways familiar to Europeans and residents of the Middle East.

Samantha Power, the foreign policy expert who consulted Barack Obama, writes about the paradoxes of American exceptionalism.

Dispatches ends with an essay by Antonin Kratochvil, whose photographs of the “extremes of the human condition” are rendered with unflinching compassion.

The best piece, though, comes from a Kashmiri Sufi Muslim who embarks on a journy to understand America. His name is Muzamil Jaleel, and true to his editors’ cheeky description of him, he comes off as a “for-real Borat.”

His piece is a triumph of first-person journalism, a terrific example of the power of immersion reportage — while touring the U.S., he wears his identity on his sleeve to bravely face citizens of country that believes itself to be Islam’s enemy.

Or so he thought.

Jaleel, in “A Kashmiri in America: A Lucky Shade of Brown,” was convinced the U.S. had oversimplified Islam’s role in 9/11. He disliked a foreign policy that understood Muslim societies through the lens of al Qaeda.

“Now I would confront my uneasiness about a people whose image of Muslims was that of elusive terrorists whose pictures were splashed again and again across TV screens and newspapers,” Jaleel writes.

And so he did, traveling through the Deep South, to California, and to New York. But what he found was far more complex than he thought.

Sometimes, it’s hard to understand yourself, because you can’t get outside yourself. The perspective of others is necessary to pursuing self-knowledge. Ditto for one’s culture. We’re surrounded by it. It’s invisible. So our assumptions of what’s true about our culture may contravene a foreigner’s.

Theroux worries that we’re more disconnected and more ignorant, that America has produced a generation infantalized by technology. Instead of broadening horizons, he says, technology has shrunk them. He likens this “mind-deadening parochialism” to the mental condition of autistics. It's “mind blindness,” he writes, and it's the “opposite of empathy.”

That might be true, but Jaleel found plenty of empathy here, even among Christians surprised to learn that Muslims believe in Jesus and that the Qur’an shares a past with the Bible.

Jaleel didn’t find the kind of ignorance one might expect after reading Theroux, at least not a kind of ignorance that’s any worse than anywhere else in the world. Outsiders, Jaleel says, are just as ignorant, especially about a country as large and complicated as America.

“Nothing is homogeneous in this country, not even the language,” he says. “As for religion, those Christians we talk about divide into dozens of denominations. ... In such a vast nation, dreams and nightmares cover a lot of ground. ... For a curious outsider, Hollywood images and Wal-Mart are not reliable sources.

“There is no single America.”


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