Marchand Chronicles: Newsweek & PepsiToilets And Middle Fingers
The Marchand Chronicles
May 23, 2005
It's like the old (and dirty) joke: "You end two tyrannies, and you're not hailed as heroes. You free millions of people, and you're not considered liberators.
"But you flush one Koran . . ."
. . . and riots ensue that kill at least 17 people. Even worse was that the Koran-in-the-toilet factoid wasn't true: according to the correction on the Newsweek website, no evidence exists of any "Qur'an abuse" at Guantanamo Bay.
But even the rumor that a copy of the "Qur'an" had been flushed down the Qum'mode was enough to inflame the Islamic world to issue fatwas and vow jihad. Even if the story were accurate, it's still a telling observation about the "Arab Street" that when a brief blurb in a magazine on the other side of the world alleges the U.S. military engaged in "Qur'an abuse" — even though Gitmo detainees have themselves stuck Korans in toilets as a protest — they form riotous mobs that leave more than a dozen dead. While there is much to respect about a culture that treats their sacred texts as, well, sacred, their reaction to any insult by foreign "infidels" — whether real or not — says a lot more about them than it does about us.
In such an environment, would it not be an unreasonable suggestion to, say, American business school graduates, that in foreign environments they should be on their best behavior, lest their trespasses become international incidents?
Not if you're Indra Nooyi, president and CFO of PepsiCo. In her commencement address to the graduates of Columbia Business School (link: PDF) last week, she used a metaphor for the United States that represented both its vital status and its propensity to anger other nations: the middle finger.
While perhaps not the most delicate analogy (and probably somewhat anatomically inaccurate as well), it's a valid comparison if only because many of the world's citizens believe it. While she didn't explicitly mention nor even imply the riots spurred by the Newsweek report, it's a perfect backdrop to the reality of her speech: that slights, even perceived slights, have the potential to reflect badly on not just themselves, but the U.S. as a whole.
However, Ms. Nooyi's attempted symbolization of America as the middle finger angered many who considered the gesture outrageous and unpatriotic. After an apology in which she aptly noted that she had "proven her own point" about the dangers of being offensive, her critics still weren't impressed. Radio host and blogger Hugh Hewitt asked:
What's missing from this? How about any positive statement about what America does for the world, from liberating Afghanistan and Iraq to billions in tsunami relief? How about pouring AIDs relief into Africa and sending products, services, technology and trade around the globe. How about a full-throated defense of the country that analogizes it not to the middle finger but to the shoulders and spine of the planet, the last best hope of mankind.Well, because it's not a foreign policy oration, it's a commencement address about international business.
But even if she had began the sentence immediately after the middle finger analogy with something like "The United States has done many things in its history which should dispel this perception . . ." she would still have to conclude, as she did, that "Unfortunately, I think this is how the rest of the world looks at the U.S. right now." And her warning would still be applicable.
Furthermore, even though I agree with Hugh's point, the drive to make someone genuflect before all the good that America has done in the world strikes me as creepy. While Ms. Nooyi is an American citizen, she's originally from India.
The American reaction to Ms. Nooyi's address is, of course, several orders of magnitude from the Islamic reaction to the Newsweek vignette, and the last thing I want to do is suggest that they are in any way similar. In America, desecration of hallowed symbols is constitutionally protected, as it should be. And even the angriest response to Ms. Nooyi's statement would be a full-scale boycott of Pepsi and all of its subsidiaries, not riots that result in multiple deaths.
But let's not lose focus and overreact because a corporate executive was insufficiently sensitive about metaphors in one speech. Regardless of her rhetorical faux pas, what Ms. Nooyi said at Columbia was true; what Newsweek printed was not. Moreover, the criticism of mainstream media is that their reports on the war lack context and deliver a stunted, myopic view of events; while Indra Nooyi didn't deliver any context, her speech was at least cognizant of the reality elsewhere in the world.
Would that Newsweek could say the same.