By the time you read this, the flames may have died down–or they may be raging further out of control. As I write, the passions fanned by the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad have ignited fires in many parts of the globe, a frightening reflection of the chasm of misunderstanding between the West and the Muslim world.
Only a couple of weeks ago, I was treated to a happier vision of the state of dialogue on this planet. It came at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland. There’s something called the Davos spirit: It’s a sense of optimism grounded in a conviction that the world’s challenges can be addressed by people of goodwill, and that many of our biggest problems can, and must, be solved by business.
The optimistic Davos spirit is, curiously enough, forged by an appreciation of the power of talk. Talk doesn’t get a lot of respect as a rule. We’re a culture of action. We speak admiringly of men or women of action, and when we say someone is all talk and no action… well, who wants to be that ineffectual? But the whole point of Davos is to get people from all over the world talking together freely, openly, and largely cordially in the hopes of forging understanding, making connections, and maybe even agreeing on some answers.
Now, it doesn’t do to get too dewy-eyed about Davos, which is mostly a gathering of rich, powerful people interested in remaining so. The wines are expensive, the surroundings luxurious, and much of that talk can be pretty gaseous.
But there are also some amazing moments. One of the best, for me, came during the closing-night gala. Part of the evening’s festivities was a tribute to New Orleans, complete with Mardi Gras beads, jazz, and–yikes!–Cajun food as interpreted by Swiss chefs. At one point, I found myself swaying to a wonderful New Orleans blues band. Swaying rapturously along with me (and this is the sort of thing you know either from peering at people’s name tags or because the evening’s dress code was black tie or “national dress”) were Chinese government functionaries, Middle Eastern entrepreneurs, German industrialists, and African central bankers. All happy, all singing along to a rousing version of the Louis Armstrong hit “What a Wonderful World,” appropriately enough.
And all were–when the music stopped–talking.
I thought of these two opposing visions as I read this month’s cover story, senior writer Linda Tischler’s riveting examination of Al Jazeera’s plan to launch a global English-language network. I expect we’ll catch some flak for putting “Osama TV” on the cover of Fast Company. We did so not to be inflammatory, but in something akin to the spirit of Davos. The rising global tide of anti-Americanism is one of the greatest threats to U.S. economic power and U.S. business. In mid-February, for example, thousands of rioters protesting the cartoons in Lahore, Pakistan, trashed a Citibank branch, a KFC, a Pizza Hut, and a Holiday Inn. You can’t find clearer proxies for Brand America than those names. One of the things that’s fueling disdain for the United States is the sense that we know little about the world beyond our borders and that we no longer harbor the “decent respect for the opinions of mankind” cited in the Declaration of Independence. We may not like what we hear on Al Jazeera International, but if it helps us understand how the rest of the world sees us–and maybe even get a little of our own message out to the rest of the world–it will have performed a signal service. As Josh Rushing, the former U.S. Marine who’s signed up to be a host on the new network, puts it, “In the way America deals with Al Jazeera, there is nothing less than our national security at stake.”
Or, as no less a man of action than Winston Churchill put it in an appreciation of the virtues of talk: “Jaw, jaw is better than war, war.”