Sunday, June 24, 2007


By Kevin Stoda


Some five years ago, I contacted the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in the USA and Canada concerning the abuse of its long-earned good name as a benevolence agency by the American media. One programmer had intentionally used the name of their very agency in a TV series which glorified violent tactics of the CIA in defense of the homeland.

At that time, I was living in Mexico and I was watching FX-TV when a program I’d never seen before came on the air. It was called THE AGENCY. It sought to both glorify and humanize the CIA as a weekly television drama.

In this particular episode, an American-Palestinian working for the U.S. government was forced to become involved with a terrible terrorist group of sadists in Palestine, who were threatening to kill his nearest family members if he didn’t agree to cooperate with them. Two other CIA operatives followed the man’s trail back to Palestine by posing as MCC workers from Canada.

I was irate as I observed the storyline enfold. THE AGENCY portrayed the two covert CIA agents disguised as MCC’s volunteers working with the Palestinians for most of the episode. As I watched, it dawned on me how this sort of program might draw CIA-enemy fire to unsuspecting MCC (development) volunteers around the globe

I immediately sent e-mails of enquiry out to MCC representatives in Pennsylvania and in Ontario.

“Had they seen their good name services drug through the grime and sludge of an imaginary--but representational-- CIA counter operation?”

“ Was MCC worried at all that their benevolent work and their volunteer workers around the world would not only be defamed—but would have their lives and their work threatened by groups who don’t understand the difference between TV portrayals and real life activities of the MCC?”

Let me explain!

I have known 100s of Americans and Canadians who have volunteered to work with MCC in the four corners of the globe to empower peoples in developing countries over the past four decades. I, myself, donated money to some MCC projects and their educational projects in Nicaragua while I lived and taught there over a decade ago. Over the past three decades, I have regularly donated to MCC projects--especially in Palestine, Lebanon, South Asian and Indonesia in recent years.


In short, I was sincerely worried by the fact that this program, THE AGENCY, was endangering (or was potentially endangering) benevolent efforts around the globe now and probably in the far-distant future. This long-term worry of mine had been spawned by the recognition that I was watching a rerun of that program of THE AGENCY in my Monterrey, Mexico home. I thought: “Someone in the future in Taleban regions of remote Asia might see the program and unfairly link MCC efforts with CIA ones.”

What if this episode (and others like it) are played over-and-over again around the world or in specific regions until slowly the local population in a particular part-of-the-globe equate benevolent development work with working hand-in-hand with the CIA. In other words, it wasn’t only defamation of MCC’s projects that I was worried about, I was worried about the negative educational and propaganda value that all America TV series and movies receive in every corner of the globe. Basically, reruns can run forever.

Having lived in over ten countries (including some in the Middle East) and having traveled to or done volunteer work in many others over the prior decades, I know how much supposed-knowledge about America is acquired and misunderstood through media, film, and other cultural exports.

Just last month, I heard an Arab-expatriate here in Kuwait claim that the reason the young people in Kuwait and other Arab lands drive so recklessly is because of what they see glorified constantly in American cinema and film. (Currently, Kuwait is the second most-dangerous country to drive in.)

I laughed to myself at the blame-game represented by this Arab man’s claim that the American media could encourage disrespect for human life on the roads of Kuwait. On the other hand, as an educator, I have to recognize that there are many things children and youth don’t learn from their parents--but rather learn from TV, play station, and film.


Five years ago, one of the MCC-USA offices, whom I wrote to via e-mail, did get back to me. After further investigation of the matter, the representative admitted that MCC had received some other concerned letters and phone calls concerning that episode of THE AGENCY. However, after contacting various active MCCers, the benevolent agency had determined that there was no evidence of backlash against MCC workers (or their projects in the Middle East or around the globe). Meanwhile, MCC-Canada never replied at all to my enquiry.

With this particular response to my enquiry of concern, I decided to not discuss publicly this matter until today. If the people involved on the ground at MCC and in other volunteer agencies did not desire to raise a fuss about THE AGENCY episode’s repeated showing around the globe, why should I raise a fuss?

[Admittedly, I had already written a few of my U.S. congressmen and senators from my home state of Kansas about my concern for the good name and safety of MCCers, but I never received a reply from them either.]


I heard on the Voice of America Radio today from a young American, who like me, has spent extensive time in the Middle East, i.e. living and traveling in numerous countries there during this first decade of the 21st Century. This particular American being interviewed on VOA had taken time to improve his colloquial Arabic and did most of his research out of Jordan.

Through his tales, he confirmed my own belief that most citizens around the world can really tell the difference between “a nation” and “people of a nation” much better than most Americans apparently do.

As that radio interview on Press-Conference USA (VOA Radio) continued, this young American stated that as long as our own government isn’t achieving real peace in the Middle East in a reasonable amount of time soon, it was up to people-to-people efforts to make the bigger difference in how Americans are viewed abroad.

Currently, there are too few Americans volunteering and working shoulder-to-shoulder in the Middle East solving long-term development problems.

Part of this is due to the result of our own government’s short-sighted policies over the decades in supporting the status-quo and supporting economic and social elite who have left a large number of the region’s peoples under-trained and in poverty --as well as left out of major decision making circles. The tragic events of 9-11 were the tip of the iceberg of a groundswell of resentment at USA foreign, economic and indirect social policies dating back over a century.

Admittedly, an even greater part of the problem in the region has had to do with the under-education and lack of good governance in these same regions. This has led to joblessness and powerlessness among the various tribes and peoples of the semi-continent.

This under-education and lack of training, however, provide opportunities for doctors, nurses, teachers, and all kinds of technical persons to come and serve here.


On the other hand, we need to recognize that American media, film, popular culture, and literature also make a difference, too. Even if the great majority of the non-Americans who see such exploitive TV productions, like THE AGENCY, do not unfairly link volunteer organizations to the troublesome history (and present) of the CIA, such a TV series surely makes some potential volunteers in the USA think twice about volunteering in the Middle East--as fear of terrorism and its backlash leads to increased pressure upon their loved ones’ viewing and responding to the fears awoken by such a program.

Other USA and Canadian TV programs, like the series “24”, create a situation in North America where people who might otherwise volunteer to serve in the Middle East might believe that they would be stigmatized as a CIA operatives just by showing up. That is, they would potentially start-off on the wrong-foot in their journey abroad by being overly cautious as they begin to anticipate not being welcomed (due to the same concerns I raised after I viewed the images on that MCC episode of THE AGENCY).

On the other hand, it is sometimes appropriate for some Americans in some instances to travel under the guise of being Canadian amongst some unknown groups in the Middle East. (By "unknown", I mean groups or circles of peoples whom the traveler doesn't know and feels might not like Americans.) At least, this is what the American interviewed on the VOA news program indicated.

However, such a Canadian cover is seldom—if ever—necessary when working and traveling abroad. I have never used one myself.

Naturally, such concerns about being stigmatized by either the American government or media/film/literature often proves warrant-less. This is because, as I mentioned above, most Middle Easterners (and other peoples around the globe) don’t confuse individual Americans for the American nation’s policies or for its abusive cultural manipulation as forged by TV reruns.

Nonetheless, one cannot ignore the fact that some Americans have been unfairly kidnapped and attacked by peoples who have become twisted by poverty and/or circumstance. I, for example, still mourn the horrible execution and death of the young Mr. Berg in neighboring Iraq three years ago. Berg had traveled in the Middle East to help Iraqis to build their country—i.e. he had nothing but benevolent intentions.

Therefore, one certainly needs to be careful if one comes to volunteer, to work, or to participate in people-to-people exchanges in the Middle East.

However, you should be even more ready to be embraced upon arrival by Middle Easterners--as long as you show great willingness in getting-to-know those peoples you should be coming prepared to encounter and to work with in the first place.


Far too many Americans, for example, in Egypt where I visited twice this past year, go there to work and simply live most of their lives in compounds or in semi-closed communities--and really don’t get to know much about what all the peoples around them are thinking and feeling.

I have seen a similar lack of local knowledge at and around American military facilities and in too many ex-pat communities in most other corners of the globe.

Too little contact is made also in the country of Kuwait where I now live. This wasn’t always the case. Hospitality in the region was once legendary.

In a land once known far-and-wide for its hospitality, the growth in the numbers of foreigners here has sadly led to a decline in person-to-person exchanges. This is partially due to the fact that many rich Kuwaitis had their hospitality abused by the growing number of foreign workers (now numbering 2 to 1 against the local population). On the other hand, a culture of wasta (which means favoritism through connections) and striving towards elitism, also leads Kuwaitis to separate themselves from vast numbers of foreigners.

On the other hand, tens of thousands of American soldiers are also cordoned off from the local peoples of Kuwait at the U.S. military encampments set far out in the desert—far away from where most of the more cosmopolitan Kuwaiti's interacts.

In short, the majority of the 10s of 1000s of U.S. military personnel stationed in Kuwait each year are not permitted regularly and freely to interact with the local population at all in any homely or natural setting. This is particularly sad because Kuwait is likely the most pro-USA country in the region.

This intentional isolation is ostensibly carried out in Kuwait is because there are two million other foreigners here—some of whom may not be so happy to receive US troops.

This sort of fear is certainly perpetrated by some of the realities on the ground. These realities include the fact that Americans know so little about the countries that they are sent to as soldiers that they can’t readily tell different peoples—for example, between Kuwaitis, Egyptians, Saudi, Yemeni, Iranians, and Iraqis.

Moreover, news TV from some neighboring countries and the influence of indirect USA-media propaganda from reruns of TV series, like THE AGENCY, and the showing of movies, like THE SEIGE, lead to sudden rises or peaks in anti-American sentiment among the non-Kuwaitis.

Finally, to some small degree, there is an elitist desire in Kuwait not to allow Americans to get too intimately involved with other locals and local groups in forging a more progressive and equitable country and multicultural people in this 21st century.

Despite the three rationales noted above for separating 1000s of Americans from local contact with Kuwaitis, I think Americans can do (and are welcome to do) more to reach out and get to know the country they are stationed in—along with the great variety of peoples who live here.

Moreover, recently, one Kuwaiti friend of mine who once studied and graduated from at my alma mater in Kansas told me directly, “We need more Kansas in Kuwait. Just as you need more Kuwait in Kansas.”

[That’s right, America, maybe there is something you can learn and bring home, too, when you spend more time meeting peoples in this region of the world face-to-face! This Kuwait friend was referring to "family values", i.e. where one receives support throughout one's life from one's extended family. He was saying that American culture enforces a sense of lack of identity which leads to many young people adrift.]



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