BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Here's a passage from an essay by the Arab-American writer Elmaz Abenatter [sp?]. "They circled me in the playground and shouted "Darkie!" at my braids trying to explode into a kinky mop or "Ape!" at my arms bearing mahogany hair against my pale olive skin." What's notable about the essay isn't the racially-charged content. It's the venue --an anthology titled "Writers on America" published by the U.S. State Department! The booklet, featuring the musings of such literary figures as Michael Shaban [sp?], Julia Alvarez and Robert Pinsky is officially propaganda, published explicitly to influence foreign audiences. It is also, therefore, by the terms of the Smith-Munt [sp?] Act, unpublishable here in the United States. Joining me now is the editor of Writers on America, George Claque [sp?]; George, welcome to the show.
GEORGE CLACK: Glad to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: So it's absolutely impossible to get these essays in your hands if you're here in the States. There is no way that you can get around the Smith-Munt Act to read the works of Richard Ford and Julia Alvarez on the meaning of being an American writer.
GEORGE CLACK: Well, as I understand it, the law applies to State Department employees; it does not apply to American citizens. So if an individual citizen would have a copy of the book-- there would be nothing preventing them from doing anything they want with it.
BOB GARFIELD: How about the web?
GEORGE CLACK:The way the lawyers have interpreted the prohibition to continue in the, the age of the internet is that we do not provide the internet URL -- the web address for any of our publications or any of our materials, and obviously I can't provide that to you now. That said-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD:But if I should happen to know it and put it on, say, the onthemedia.org web site for anyone who would be interested in checking out-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
GEORGE CLACK: If you find out about it and you put it up--the law does not apply to you.
BOB GARFIELD: In this anthology are some of the most heralded writers America has to offer. Were you editing them as a literary editor or as a State Department official?
GEORGE CLACK: I would hesitate to seek to improve the prose of most of these people. That said, in a few cases, as a State Department employee, I was aware that there were some things that they said that you might be able to say to an American audience, and because of our cultural context, we would all understand what they mean but that a foreign audience might, might see things in a different way. If, for example, a writer had been called some sort of racial epithet as a child and they put that into the essay, certain racial epithets I felt would trouble foreign audiences even more than they troubled me, and-- I managed to persuade the author that it would not be wise to run some of the more explicit material. My great concern was sort of the, the out-of-context usage of material from the book.
BOB GARFIELD: Are there any pieces in the anthology that I will be surprised that they were published by the State Department?
GEORGE CLACK:There's a number of essays that clearly point out that all is not perfect in American society; when we were putting out the essay, we believed pretty strongly that it is a strength to have different voices -- that is, not State Department officials saying something but private individuals -- writers who are respected in their own right saying what they want to say about America. We believe that it enhances the credibility of the product. When you read through this body of essays, you won't finish it and say this has been a series of hymns to the greatness of America. I hope the sum total is that America's fundamental values are very sound values worth emulating, but you won't in every single essay feel that they're singing the party line by any means.
BOB GARFIELD:Do you think that the very fact that they State Department's seal of approval will be on the cover of this book will disqualify its content in the eyes of the readers we're most interested in influencing?
GEORGE CLACK: I'm pretty confident that this book will get out and reach a lot of people and have some influence in the world. At the same time I'm well aware that there is a segment of the world that is so against the idea of America that they will take this book and write their op-ed pieces and use it to basically say that the United States is trying to do something subversive and terrible through this book. But-- I still want to put out the book. I still want to give them that opportunity, because I think getting these things into play in the public discussion is a worthwhile thing to do.
BOB GARFIELD: Very well! George Claque - thank you very much!
GEORGE CLACK: Oh, you're welcome!
BOB GARFIELD:George Claque is the executive editor of Writers on America. Nobody at the State Department needs to know, but you can link to excerpts from the essays from our site at onthemedia.org.