Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Let Them Have Oprah!

For years I have half-joked that if we want to solve the governance problems in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan or any other backwards, belligerent country all we need to do is entice and enable all those nations' women to watch Oprah Winfrey. After such exposure, I surmised that the political scenario would change for the better, pretty damn fast.

Well what do you know? In reading SuperFreakonomics (SF) by Levitt & Dubner, I discovered that a very similar phenomenon actually occurred in India, of all places. It turns out that India (and China) are relatively inhospitable or even, downright cruel to women. Female fetuses are commonly aborted, and the prospects for those that survive are often grim. The Indian culture deprives women of higher education, tacitly supports wife-beating and generally, treats women in a sub-human manner. This doesn't happen everywhere in India but it manifests itself frequently enough to be well-known.

In SF they tracked areas where the situation had improved markedly for women and SF's findings traced the changes to television. It turns out that Indian villages obtained TV coverage and TV sets at different times. Those locales where TV became available showed dramatically better results with respect to a woman's treatment and human rights. I don't know if Oprah is on the air in India, but it seems that exposing people to what exists outside their enclaves does indeed foster behavioral changes in society...you can read the statistics for yourself in SF (incidentally, I really like the book.)

So if all this about India is true, and even making allowances for the fact that it is a democratic country, I think that if we plugged women in the Middle East into conduits like TV and the Web, that good stuff (by our standards) is bound to happen.

Periodically we have gone to war with troublesome nations like Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, yet we pay little attention to the underlying sentiments that pervade the local population. We lost the Vietnam war simply because we did not understand how to oppose an enemy who hit, ran and used the countryside/local population as camouflage. Similarly, we do not comprehend Iraqis or the Afghans and we largely ignore their customs and tribal nature. After more than a decade of bellicosity, the Soviets were unable to conquer Afghanistan so what gives us the notion that we can do any better?

My Oprah quip is just a trivial expression for what I believe is needed in the Middle East. You can bet that when Obama soon explains his war escalation and exit strategies, he won't mention anything like educating the locals in western ways, using TV and media propaganda. Yet if it works in places like India, then isn't it worth a try in Iraq and Afghanistan?

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