Sunday, August 12, 2007

Reading between, and to the right of, the lines

Growing up in urban India with an operable grasp of the English language, it wasnt too hard (indeed, it was nearly unavoidable) to get glimpses into American life and culture, even in the pre-internet and pre-cable age. There were Hollywood movies, pop music, occasional TV shows and documentaries on Doordarshan, snippets and syndicated columns by and about Americans in the Times of India, and, of course, comics and books.

One source that stood out was the Reader's Digest. When I was little my parents regularly borrowed this magazine from a nearby library, and I remember hungrily devouring it from the index page all the way through the artwork on the backface. What was unique about RD was that it offered a very different perspective on America and Americans than other media. If Hollywood was about the beautiful and cheerful songbird on the summit of a tall tree, RD told stories of the small, unglamorous creatures on the forest floor and in the bushes. RD mostly featured, and still does, stories about everyday Americans in everyday (and sometimes exceptional) circumstances.

It had been years since I had laid my eyes on a Reader's Digest when I found one in a friend's living room. While flipping through a couple of articles, it occurred to me that the tenor sounded familiar....and disturbingly so. I am in the habit of tuning in to right- and left-wing talk shows on TV and radio (helps remind me of, and appreciate, my sanity), and there was my reference point - the revered Reader's Digest turns out to be a right-wing mouthpiece!

Not to say that I had carried my childhood enamorment all along. By the time I was in college, I had grown tired of the gooey and staged nature of the stories in RD and had quit reading it. Around a same time a cynical relative of mine, who had just returned after studying the critical arts in the US, sneered when she saw a copy of the magazine in a highbrow bookstore, "Redneck trash for some is literature for others", or something to that effect, the full meaning of which I did not comprehend then. No wonder I was so surprised to discover for myself that RD is on the same limb as Rush Limbaugh!

Take a look at a recent issue. One of the articles titled "World's Most Dangerous Leaders" is a rap-sheet on Hugo Chavez, Kim Jong-il, Bashar al-Assad, and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Of course, there is no denying that these leaders are openly hostile to America and is likely that they wish her harm, but some of the "charges" against them are little more than innocent facts; for instance, Venezuela program of exchanging cheap oil for healthcare personnel with Cuba is projected as an affront to America (maybe the author was simply pissed off that America, which has a disastrous healthcare system, didn't think of it before Chavez!). There is a good chance that changing circumstances will have America supplying these very leaders with arms and encouragement as soon as, say, a decade down the line (yeah yeah, its happened before)...it would be interesting to see if the RD would still portray them in the same light.

Another telltale article is about how "your safety is at stake" while traveling by road because "thousands of truckers are on the road illegally". Ostensibly, the central story of the piece is about corruption in motor licensing departments, whereby unqualified truck drivers get permits by paying bribes to avoid tests. It is a serious issue that deserves concern, but what RD really has in its sights is - guess - illegal immigrants! The article cites two stories of fatal accidents where the truck driver involved had procured licenses by paying bribes; maybe it is only a coincidence that both these drivers happen to be immigrants. It reminds me of a rather amusing argument I had seen between Bill O'Reilly and Geraldo Rivera, where O'Reilly insists that the central issue of a fatal drunk driving accident was the nationality of the guilty driver (an illegal immigrant from Mexico).

An idle search turned up a wiki with a similar assessment of the magazine, though certainly more colorful than mine:
"...Reader's Digest has since its creation consistently reflected a conservative viewpoint. From Cold War-era anticommunist screeds to modern neocon essays, some of the excerpts have always reflected a rah-rah, military booster, "God, Country, and Family", barbarians-at-the-cultural-gates rightist tilt. These selections...(seem) to offer less a denouncement of leftist excesses than a sense of indignation at the simple existence of any in the first place."
"Rah-rah, military booster" publications and commentators are not hard to find in mainstream American media, and raise no eyebrows here. What tickles me is the fact that the RD ships out this worldview, in addition to cliches like the American dream and liberty, to all over the globe where numbskull readers like me gladly suck it up.

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