Juan Cole, a blogger and professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan, has come up with an intriguing idea for how to fill this gap. He wants to hire skilled linguists to translate into Arabic the classic works of American political thought -- especially those works that deal with freedom of religion, division of powers, sovereignty of the people, and equal rights. He has in mind the essays and speeches of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Tom Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King Jr., and Susan B. Anthony; a solid history of American Jews and other minority groups; maybe a few good books, written by American historians, about Iraq. Cole also wants to subsidize Middle Eastern publishers to print these books in large numbers and at low prices, and he wants to pay fees to book dealers throughout the region -- just as publishers pay Borders and Barnes & Noble here -- to display the books prominently.
This isn't just an idea. Cole has established the Global Americana Institute and the Library of Americana Translation Project. Since he outlined the idea in his blog late last year, readers have sent him $13,000. He claims that some foundations are 'jumping-up-and-down enthusiastic' to pour in the big bucks, once he obtained the legal status of a nonprofit organization. The federal government just gave him this status two weeks ago. He's filling out the grant applications now. He also recently returned from the Beirut international book fair, where he says several Middle Eastern publishers and dealers expressed great interest in the project (and, no doubt, in the prospect of the money).
Long ago, the federal government did on its own just what Cole proposes to do. The United States Information Agency -- then an independent agency -- maintained libraries in Amman, Istanbul, and elsewhere, filled with translations of American political and literary classics. The Franklin Book Program, a nonprofit company with funding from the State Department and private foundations, published hundreds of titles and stocked them in libraries and bookstores all over the world. The Franklin Book Program shut down in 1977, its international board having determined -- prematurely, it turned out -- that its mission was accomplished. In the 1990s, under pressure from the Republican-run Senate (especially Jesse Helms, then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee), the USIA was absorbed into the State Department; its budget was whacked and its agenda politicized; its libraries were shut down, their books remaindered.