Many people believe that, in addition to issuing visas to foreigners wishing to visit the United States, American embassy officials primarily discuss weighty international issues with foreign officials. The truth is that most U.S. diplomats, including ambassadors, spend a far greater percentage of time reaching out to average citizens in the countries where we work.
Outreach might sound simple but can be very challenging, especially in countries where the power center seeks to maintain and tighten its control over the population. Leaders unwilling to give up power don't appreciate outside voices questioning their methods and goals. Finding the right tools to facilitate the sharing of ideas and information can be difficult, but, thanks to the efforts of Sharon Hudson-Dean, my public affairs counselor, and the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC) based in the Chautauqua, New York, we here in Harare now have some of the most effective tools imaginable -- brilliant books and a forum in which to discuss them.
Founded in 1878 at the Chautauqua Institution, the CLSC is the oldest continuous book club in America. Each summer, the CLSC chooses nine books of literary quality and invites the authors to Chautauqua present their work to an audience of approximately 1,000 readers.
Earlier this year, we inaugurated two CLSC-Zimbabwe groups with an ambitious12-book reading list loaded onto Kindles purchased through a U.S. Department of State Innovation Fund grant. Our two circles include a senior group of government officials (academics, editors, and other thought leaders), and a Next Generation group of up-and-coming young intellectuals. Both groups include several embassy staffers, and I make an effort to attend all of the meetings, which are held every two months to discuss one or more of the books we've read.
To say that the discussions have been productive and energetic understates the impact this initiative has had on communications dynamics here. While none of the books relate to, or even mention, Zimbabwe, the discussions have helped to shed light on a number of social, cultural, and political problems that have plagued this country for decades.
The first book we discussed was Hampton Sides' Hellhound On His Trail. This gripping account of the travels and actions of James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., might not seem like something that would resonate with a Zimbabwean audience, but the night we discussed the book showed me otherwise. There was, of course, interest in race relations during that turbulent period of U.S. history, but the account of the FBI's actions to track Ray down proved the most provocative to some of our Zimbabwean colleagues. Despite FBI director Hoover's antipathy for King and the Bureau's actions to discredit him, the organization's professionalism assured that it would leave no stone unturned to solve his murder. In Zimbabwe, where police and military organizations are blatantly partisan, the FBI's actions impressed our group tremendously.
Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do, by Michael J. Sandel, was another book that provoked lively discussion. People not unexpectedly saw his discussion of morality in government decision-making as entirely pertinent to the current situation in Zimbabwe.
Having completed eight of the twelve books on our the reading list, I've found a nugget of wisdom in each that can be applied to the tasks I've set for myself in Zimbabwe. From the beginning, my aim has been to bridge the cultural and political divide separating our two countries for the past decade, and to get the dialogue back into rational territory. Great books, and the Chautauqua list is great, and the intellectual concepts that they contain, provoke the kind of discussions that span these gaps of misunderstanding and mistrust. A discussion of "what's the right thing to do” from a philosophical viewpoint is non-threatening and allows the issue to be dissected without the acrimony that is generated from a discussion of specific situations. All of the books on the list, such as The Last Great Revolution and Islam: A Short History, contain universal principles that, when discussed, point to solutions for the problems we face. Discussing these principles has helped us to start building the necessary bridges linking our people and our countries in a mutually beneficial way. In addition, it has helped each of us to grow intellectually as individuals. Sharing ideas and interpretations in a collegial atmosphere has demonstrated that there is more that binds us together than there is that separates us.
There is an old public service ad line I recall that says, “Reading is Fundamental.” The CLSC has validated that statement admirably, and even more has shown that reading can also be FUNdamental.