By Donald M. Bishop –
The death, earlier this year, of Michael Novak — philosopher, journalist, and diplomat committed to Public Diplomacy and international broadcasting – reminded me of an extraordinary five days I spent with him in Bangladesh in 1995. Here are some memories of his visit — and insights for Public Diplomacy.
In his public life, Novak was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1981 and 1982; led the U.S. delegation to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1986; and served as a member of the Board for International Broadcasting for eleven years. He was, however, best known as the “Roman Catholic social philosopher who abandoned the liberal politics he espoused in the 1960s to make the theological and moral case for capitalism.”
Novak was memorialized by the The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Pittsburg Post-Gazette, National Review, City Journal, Mosaic, The Tablet, Sports Biblio, Commentary, and The Deseret News. Mary Eberstadt, George Weigel, Will Inboden, R. R. Reno, James M. Roberts, Jennifer Marshall, Robert Bradley, Michael Barone, and many others also wrote tributes.
Let me add a few memories to the many encomiums. While I was the American Embassy’s Public Affairs Officer in Dhaka, Michael and his wife Karen came to Bangladesh for a series of visits and talks over five days in 1995. It was the richest and most rewarding program of my 31 years as a Public Diplomacy officer.
Let me explain why one of America’s most noted scholars came to Bangladesh, tell the back stories of his visit, relate some anecdotes, and recall some of his engagement with Bangladeshis. More than a reminiscence, I hope this short piece can yield some lessons for Public Diplomacy programming.
Three of the Novak brothers
Michael Novak grew up in a devout Catholic family in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The Novaks had four boys and a girl. In different ways, Bangladesh called three of the brothers.
The youngest, James, served in the Army, pursued a business career, and was the Asia Foundation’s representative in Bangladesh from 1982 to 1985. He later published Bangladesh: Reflections on the Water, considered by many to be the most insightful book on that nation written by a foreigner. When I was PAO, he had returned to Dhaka as a Fulbright Scholar.
The middle brother, Richard, became a priest and missionary in the Congregation of the Holy Cross, sent by the order in 1961 to then-East Pakistan. In the “Prophet’s Hair Riots” of 1964, Father Richard left Notre Dame College to help protect some fearful local people – an “errand of mercy.” He disappeared, evidently one more victim caught up in the intercommunal violence.
The oldest brother, Michael, had also joined the Congregation of the Holy Cross as a seminarian. He studied in the United States and Rome, but ultimately he decided to leave the order before ordination.
In the 1960s, Michael Novak published two novels; wrote freelance reports from Rome on the Second Vatican Council; opposed the Vietnam war; wrote speeches and position papers for Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy and George McGovern; and met and married the artist Karen Laub. He also began a long exploration of capitalism which led him to change some of his earlier views. His 1982 book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, won wide acclaim. Among its readers were Margaret Thatcher and John Paul II, who integrated many of its insights into his 1991 encyclical, Centessimus Annus. In 1994, Novak won the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.
I read the news of the Templeton Prize award just before leaving for my assignment in Bangladesh, and I learned that he planned to give a share of the money to Notre Dame College in Dhaka, where his brother had taught.
I wrote Michael to suggest that if he came to Bangladesh in connection with the donation, he should give USIS a week of his time. To fully appreciate the value of Michael Novak’s 1995 visit, we need to pause for some snapshots of Bangladesh, the 1990s, and the U.S. Information Agency.
Back Story: Looking at Bangladesh’s Economy
The American Embassy in Bangladesh had short term goals on many issues. Among them were free and fair elections, ending child labor in the garment factories, and helping the Rohingyas that fled into Bangladesh from Myanmar. The great long term need, however, was to discredit socialism and the system of “license raj” (oppressive sequential bureaucratic approvals, usually requiring a bribe, to open a business) that strangled economic initiative and growth. That would have economic effects, development effects, and political effects.
From my undergraduate classes in economics and from college summers in a Wall Street trading room, I had developed a firm commitment to the economic system of markets and enterprise. My Foreign Service assignments in Hong Kong, Korea, and Taiwan – three of the “Four Tigers” — confirmed my belief that jobs, livelihoods, and trade underlie political stability, progress, and human happiness.
“Capitalism,” however, was a pejorative word in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh – as in “capitalism equals laissez faire, and laissez faire means dog eat dog.” The word “capitalism” had been tainted by decades of socialist and communist thinking. Two American professors teaching in Dhaka – Laura Bhadra and Dipasis Bhadra – well described the strong allergy to the word “capitalism” by local elites. This was so great that I stopped using the world “capitalism” to describe the economic system – it was too charged. I began to speak rather of the “markets and enterprise economy.”
Michael Novak’s books, many conversations with Fulbrighter James Novak, and a close relationship with the American Chamber of Commerce in Dhaka helped me see that ordinary Bangladeshis were not poor because their nation lacked resources, or because of Malthusian “overpopulation.” Rather their work, energy, and creativity were hobbled by the socialism of the founders of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, by the desire of the “haves” to keep their wealth, by constant political turmoil and general strikes, by government marketing boards, by license raj, and by the allergy to the word “capitalism.”
The Embassy’s Economic Section and the USAID mission alike focused on raising the incomes of Bangladesh’s poor and urging policy reform, and Ambassador David Merrill was committed to the Mission Strategic Plan process. (The MSP was the earliest version of what has now become the Integrated Country Strategy). As Director of the U.S. Information Service, I thus leaned our programs to help shift local elite thinking toward markets and enterprise.
The Press Section translated and placed hundreds of articles on trade and economic policy in the local media. USIS supported every trade show and exhibit. I ramped up our output of stories on USAID programs. We had a productive relationship with the American Chamber of Commerce. And Michael Novak’s visit could put Bangladeshi officials, businessmen, and scholars together with one of America’s leading advocates of markets and enterprise.
Back Story: Dialog with Islam
In the 1991 census, Bangladesh was 88.3 percent Muslim, 10.5 percent Hindu, 0.6 percent Buddhist, and 0.3 percent Christian. Though secularism was one of the four fundamental principles of the nation’s 1972 Constitution, Islam became the state religion in 1988. In the 1991 elections, the Islamist party, Jamaat, won 18 seats, so secular principles were being challenged, and there were intercommunal tensions.
I had studied Islam in graduate school, so I was sensitive to the fact that Bangladeshis might look at the United States through religious lenses.
When I got to Dhaka, one of my first tasks was to update the Country Public Affairs Plan. The old USIA template was to identify “communication tensions” that might impair bilateral understanding and cooperation. Since nearly nine in ten Bangladeshis were Muslim, inevitably there’d be some lack of understanding that derived from religion. USIS might help overcome this, I wrote — with more dialogue, more getting out and meeting Muslims, and more demonstrating the commonality of human concerns that our two nations might have. I thus included “Dialog with Islam” as one of the goals in the Plan. Ambassador David Merrill was quite enthusiastic and approved it.
(I note in passing that when the Country Public Affairs Plan got to Washington, I learned, it raised eyebrows. To say that USIS should engage with Islamic publics and that USIS might discuss religious issues in order to create bonds of mutual understanding and trust made our plan stand out – far out. Among the reactions were “the United States is a country, and Islam is a religion. How can a country talk to a religion?” “These are two different realms of life, and the twain doesn’t meet.” Another was – “we talk to our friends. We reward our friends. We give them grants and make them IVs. Our friends are the secular leaders of society, or those Muslims with a liberal and cosmopolitan view of things. We don’t reward those like the ‘fundamentalists’ who are hostile to us.”)
Five intense days
About a year after I wrote him, Michael Novak let me know that he and his wife Karen had scheduled their trip to Bangladesh, and he remembered my request. He agreed to address two of our preoccupations – the markets and enterprise economy and “dialog with Islam” – and he suggested adding human rights.
This was, perhaps, the best and richest program of my career in the Foreign Service.
In the front summary of Embassy cable 95 Dhaka 04374 of September 11, 1995, I summed up the activities and the impact: “USIS enlisted Novak as a Volspeaker. He advanced Country Plan goals in human rights, economic reform and liberalization, and dialog with Islam with three progams: (1) Are Human Rights Universal? (2) Capitalism for the Poor, Capitalism for Democracy, and (3) ‘Reflections on Islam and Democracy.’ Novak was interviewed by three newspapers, and Bangladesh Television taped a half-hour interview. His programs were truly outstanding. High level audiences turned out to hear this noted intellectual; thanks to USIS were profuse. Media coverage of the visit – before, during and after – pro and con – was unprecedented for a USIS speaker. A lively debate continues in the newspapers.”
So great was the interest in his thinking that one round table with the creams of business and the universities ran more than four hours. It’s not possible to compress my file of transcripts, news reports, op-eds, editorials, and translations, but here are a few wave tops.
His interview with Sangram, focusing on economics and development, perhaps made his key point: “The great challenge for Bangladesh – as for all poor countries – is to provide the means of capitalism to the poor – what some of my friends call “barefoot capitalism” – to make it possible for poor people to become economic actors and improve their income . . . and in this way to make themselves more active citizens.”
Novak’s discussions of faith and society likewise covered extensive ground – the fall of the Soviet Union, the waves of capitalism, the strengths and weaknesses of democracy, Fukuyama’s “end of history,” relativism and truth, and “fundamentalism” among the topics.
I still use his carry-in-your-backpack insight that “The free society depends on three systems. You must have a free political system — democracy – and you must have a free economic system – capitalism or some version of capitalism. And in addition you must have a moral and cultural system. In the case of Bangladesh, the moral and cultural system is supplied mostly, but not only, by Islam, and in Christian countries by Christianity and humanism.”
In a long interview by Ittefaq, Novak added: “We do have to live with one another. We have to learn how to be faithful to our religious traditions, how to go more deeply into those, but how to live with respect and honor for people who are different from us. Surely the resources of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are powerful enough to allow us to do that.”
Novak’s knowledge of many faiths and his study of Islamic principles and scripture meant that his conversations with Muslim leaders were friendly and fruitful. As I think back on those meetings, six years before 9/11, Novak was pointing toward dialog among faiths and the need for religious liberty because God wants only voluntary worship. The pull of Salafism was not yet in evidence in Bangladesh. In retrospect I wish that USIS could have focused even more on “Dialog with Islam” in the MSP.
Public Diplomacy Lessons Learned
By the numbers: One reason that Michael Novak’s rich program made an impact on local thinking was that USIS had time to prepare. This allowed us to do things by the numbers, very thoroughly – translations, a briefing paper for Novak on local economic thinking by the Bhadras, careful work with co-sponsors, and so on.
Cross the language divide: For instance, the ace USIS press team translated Novak’s most important articles into Bangla before his arrival. The texts were published in full in six or eight capital newspapers, generating intense interest. The outline of Novak’s views may have been known among a small group of English-reading intellectuals. The Bangla translations projected this thinking much more broadly.
Interviews and a book: Novak met local journalists one-on-one several times for interviews. I noticed that he was well practiced in this format. He took his time to think through answers, and he spoke slowly in complete sentences. Even so, many of the journalists missed or misstated his points. Not satisfied, we made sure that his interviews were recorded, transcribed, and translated into Bangla, and we later published the full texts in a book under our imprint — Gonotantra O Pujibad Nirbachito Probondha [Essays on Democracy and Capitalism]. The concept was to give his visit a longer shelf life.
Don’t do lots of things, do a few things well! The solid impact of Michael Novak’s program illustrated, to my mind, that it’s better to concentrate on a few things, and do them thoroughly, than to sprinkle Public Diplomacy pixie dust onto many different issues and programs.
There were many touching personal moments during his visit. A retired senior detective of the Bangladesh Police unexpectedly showed up at the hotel asking to meet Father Richard Novak’s brother Michael. Three decades before, he had been the detective who investigated the disappearance of Father Richard. His body was never recovered, but his glasses were found, and the retired detective explained how he and a local optician confirmed that the lenses matched Father Novak’s most recent prescription, found in his room at Notre Dame College. A brotherly sadness between the two men filled the hotel room.
During the visit, Karen Novak met local artists, and she presented Notre Dame College with one of her prints, “The Archer.” Her own talk addressed how art could interpret and present new meditations on faith.
Traveling upriver to a Catholic convent, the older Bengali sisters told Michael their memories of his missionary brother. Michael spoke to them of his prayer life — for his family – and for Bangladesh – in ways that give me a personal glimpse of the character inside the noted scholar.
Michael Novak’s visit to Dhaka was a chapter in his family’s commitment to Bangladesh. His donation to Notre Dame College – still the capital’s leading secondary school – was a tangible contribution to that nation’s future. Given Bangladesh’s economic progress since 1995 – tangible but slow — the scholars and political leaders who read his articles in their own language and attended his programs may recall them as far-sighted. With some Bangladeshis now attracted to Islamism, the scholars might wish to revisit his counsels on faith and society. And giving USIS so much of his time was one more expression of Michael Novak’s service to America, once more joining in American Public Diplomacy.
For this Public Diplomacy officer, however, the visit was more.
Michael Novak did not come to his views of development via graduate school economics. Rather his degrees were in theology and philosophy. (In this regard, he followed the path of Anglican clergyman Adam Smith.) From Novak, I became more open to welcoming the insights of other academic fields, walks of life, and faith into debates over development programs.
Finally, to be admitted to Michael Novak’s friendship had a lasting impact on my life, and it made me more conscious of something I understood earlier. He exemplified Public service anchored by values, a moral consciousness, and continued study and reflection. To my mind, his voice will be sorely missed.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.