Earlier this week on my friend Endo’s excellent blog, he had a brief comment on the winners of the Webby Awards. He made the comment that his post was part of his "ongoing quest" to care about the prizes. I’m in the same boat. The awards, which started in the Web’s Paleozoic Era (mid-’90s) in San Francisco, have appeared to be a testament to the stamina and ego and hopes of becoming a household name of someone named Tiffany Shlain.
But I digress. My perusal of the Webby list was arrested at the very first entry, for the "activism" category. And the Webby goes to … The World Citizen’s Guide. The link goes to a site from a group called Business for Diplomatic Action. The guide’s home page explains that it’s a project involving students from Southern Methodist University who worked with BDA to get to the bottom of a troubling trend in this global free-trade world of ours: Lots of people outside the United States don’t like the United States very much; more to the point for the business group, many folks outside our borders look on U.S. corporations and brands with a mixture of envy and loathing; that’s a bottom-line problem now and could become a crisis.
So Business for Diplomatic Action sent people out into the world to find out why non-Americans aren’t in love with America, and the guide says the group identified four causes: "our U.S. public policy, the negative effects of globalization, our popular culture, and our collective personality."
"Collective personality"? That one hurts, especially since I like to be considered a jerk on my own considerable merits instead of getting lumped in with the rest of the rubes and yahoos.
The online guide can’t do much about "our U.S. public policy," or globalism, or our popular culture. So it’s designed to address the collective "Not Only Ugly, But Loud and Ignorant American" issue. That’s a pretty ambitious task in itself, and the online guide is disappointingly thin, consisting of a handful of official resources for Americans traveling abroad; a collection of some of the flags of the world, each accompanied by a fun fact about the country ("While in Syria, pass things with your right hand or both hands, but never pass anything with just your left hand."); and there’s a Harper’s-index style rundown on the world’s population that’s not bad.
There’s an accompanying five-page brochure you can download that offers a lot more traveler-specific advice: Don’t talk religion. Try the local language. Be interested in the local version of "American Idol." Don’t forget to smile (though some travel guides will tell you that smiling is one of the very American habits that non-Americans distrust.
So the least of my questions is what the judges saw here that merited an activism award. I also wonder whether the well-meaning people behind the effort really think this is the kind of "activism" that will make a difference in a world that’s come to distrust and dislike us for a lot more than our habit of raising our voices to make our English easier to understand.
It’s easy to mock an effort like this; but I suppose it’s a good cause — trying to make us all aware that we’re ambassadors for the U.S.A. when we travel. Yet — is my unintentionally boorishness, or some other Yank’s culturally sensitive grace, really going to sway someone who’s real fear of my country comes from what’s becoming a habit of fixing the world by sending in the troops, damn the facts, the expense, and the world’s opinion?