(This review is based on a longer version that appeared recently on my own blog.)
M.I.T. economist Lester Thurow, in his book Fortune Favors the Bold presents some interesting theories regarding the increasing economic backwardness of the Arab world, and its potential to fuel future terrorism against the West. Thurow’s book has some very thought-provoking ideas relevant to both the arts and global terrorism.
I wrote a past post on my own blog on why the U.S. should spend resources on Arab-language “propaganda” like the Al Hurra satellite T.V. channel, which broadcasts out of Washington, D.C. at U.S. taxpayer expense.
Some U.S. think tank analysts have argued that Al Hurra isn’t doing very well, in part because it is perceived as propaganda in the Arab world, and in part because it is too similar to other Arab-language news channel offerings. They point out that coverage of Rumsfeld’s testimony during the U.S. Senate hearings on Abu Gharib “transfixed many Arabs,” because Arab political processes were notoriously opaque, and Arab political leaders were almost never accountable to anyone, let alone elected representatives. Instead of broadcasting news, Al Hurra should start carrying Arabic language translations of selections of C-SPAN programs likely to be of interest to Arabs. Eventually, Al Hurra might obtain permission and resources to broadcast the normally closed deliberations of Arab government bodies as well. This would distinguish it from other Arab news broadcasters, and provide programming of proven interest to Arab audiences (the workings of democratic government in action).
However, in his book, Thurow cites some remarkable statistics about the Arab world.
Google found the same remarkable U.N. statistics on Aljazeera: although there are approximately the same number of Spanish and Arabic language speakers in the world (270 million), more books are translated into Spanish in a single year than have been translated into Arabic in the last millennia!
Thurow argues in his book that, while in the past the vast fortunes and wealth have been created through the command of natural resources, today the great creator of national (and personal) wealth comes through command of ideas and technological know-how. He argues that, just as there were regions that were big losers and big winners in past economic revolutions (e.g., the Industrial Revolution), there will be regions that will be big losers in this new knowledge-based revolution. While most other regions of the globe are thoroughly plugged into the modern world, if you’re an Arab who only speaks Arabic (the majority) then you don’t have any idea what the modern world is like since nothing gets translated into Arabic! (Thurow is proud to point that two of his own books have been part of the tiny number (10K!) of books translated into Arabic over the last millennia, so at least Arabic speakers are reading his particular argument!)
This would suggest how the U.S. might spend its resources on the most effective Arab media. (I argue in this past post on my blog why this is important, but there has been a wide-ranging discussion on what T.V. would be the best to translate into Arabic: news, Carl Sagan, “Leave It To Beaver,” or the ever-popular “Dallas”?) Rather than subsidizing an Arab-language T.V. channel, which is expensive, the Pentagon might just air-drop machine translations of the international best-sellers over the Arabian peninsula. (What can I say? Our incredible folks in uniform believe in air power and dropping things from airplanes. Maybe a little too much.) Those of you who speak another language and have tried the Altavista Babelfish translations know there are problems with machine translation. But, my sources in the loop with the Pentagon inform me, after all, that the Pentagon has the best unclassified machine translation systems around — definitely an improvement over Babelfish. And, the Pentagon has people that believe media penetration is good for promoting democracy and U.S. interests, so this is the sort of thing they would probably be inclined to do.
Unfortunately, the Aljazeera page goes on to point out that, even those few novels written or translated into Arabic tend not to be read. Despite the huge number (270 million) of Arabic speakers, a best-selling novel in Arabic will have a run of only 5,000 copies, compared to hundreds of thousands of copies when printed in a language such as Spanish, with a comparable number of speakers!
This latter statistic probably goes a long to explaining why virtual no books get translated into Arabic: Arabs, it seems, don’t like to read books much, even the ones printed in Arabic. Even if the Pentagon air-dropped the latest international best-sellers over the Arabian peninsula, they might not actually pick up the books and read them. It seems they do, however, watch Arabic-language satellite television (and surf the Web), so we’re back to determining the best content for Al-Hurra.
(What we would really need is not an Arab-language C-SPAN but an Arab version of Oprah to start her book club over there. Those folks over there need to start reading more…. Make book club shows, not war!)
Given these statistics, I have to agree with Thurow, however, on his assessment for the Arab speaking world: if your people don’t read, they can’t possible take advantage of the knowledge-based economic revolution that is sweeping the globe. This means continued poverty for most of the Arab world, and that, in turn, means a continued problem with terrorism for the West. (Aljazeera continues with devasting quotes from the U.N.’s report: “educational curricula in Arab countries that ‘bred submission, obedience, subordination and compliance rather than free critical thinking.'” Yuck. No wonder the Madrasses cause so many problems for the West.)
The problem of terrorism resulting from an increasingly economically backward Arab world is perhaps the most pressing immediate problem for the United States. Thurow’s book presents the problem in stark relief.Powered by Sidelines