Wednesday, April 20, 2005

arrogant media

I had vague knowledge of this. I seem to recall that among all the boilerplate language about Lyndon Baines Johnson was a factoid that he was worshiped by a group of folks on a small island off the coast of New Guinea.

It was one of those classic "man bites dog" stories, and the American press ate it up. But, as Fortean Times reports, "these press reports portrayed the islanders as intellectually confused and incapable of the most basic logic. The trouble is, it wasn't true. Even more troubling, these influential publications engaged in what we might term 'armchair journalism', not even bothering to send their own reporters into the field to see at first hand what was happening. The Time, Newsweek and Times accounts are conspicuous in that there are no bylines whatsoever – they appear to have been taken from wire reports. Later reports in other publications actually claimed that the islanders worshipped Johnson as a god."

Turns out the whole thing was a scam so sophisticated it was completely lost on the so-called sophisticates of the West.

In 1964, Dorothy Billings, who is now an associate professor of anthropology at Wichita State University, traveled to the island to see for herself what was happening.

"What Billings discovered was an elaborate soap opera, a piece of political theatre and a game of high stakes," FT reports. "She found New Hanover to have a rich history of using play-acting and bluffing as a negotiation ploy that could be used in order to embarrass a foe."

The article continues: "According to Billings, the Australian authorities responsible for overseeing the island had taken the 'cult' story at face value and were clueless as to what was motivating the islanders' 'strange' fixation on Lyndon Johnson. It was a cultural misunderstanding – the equivalent of a non-English speaker growing confused after hearing someone say that a friend has 'kicked the bucket.' The phrase has nothing to do with kicking or buckets, but is an idiomatic way of saying that someone has died, a bit of Western slang not intended to be taken literally. The Australian officials did know that there was a tax protest movement on the island that threatened to make them look bad, so they were more than happy to broadcast the tale about a strange 'cult' of irrational natives to the international press in hopes of making the islanders themselves look bad. And they succeeded."

Fascinating story. But it reminds me again of how arrogant we are in the West, especially those of us in the media. For my money, I have to say that the NYT is one of the worst offenders, which this story clearly shows. This is another example of why we need to uphold diversity as a top priority, and we need to rethink what diversity means. So long as diversity is framed around a concept of cultural superiority, we will continue to misunderstand the messages conveyed by our neighbors in an ever shrinking world. And that, I believe, will only increase the potential for growing conflict and ultimately threaten our privileged position on the global stage.

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