August 21, 2007 | HARMLESS UNTRUTHS

Iron Man

Frequently in life, your interests in converge in unexpected ways, and I guess that is one of the things that keep this mortal existence halfway exciting.

Today I am thinking about Cal Ripken, Jr., and specifically, about the recent news that he has been appointed “Special Sports Envoy” for the State Department, a strange position that is kind of a “goodwill ambassador” thang. Presumably he’ll make a fair number of trips around the world, meeting with regular people, teaching kids about baseball. He is succeeding Michelle Kwan’s run as special sports envoy.

Ok. I guess.

Growing up a Marylander, of course, I have known about Cal Ripken for my whole life. I remember being a young kid, maybe around 10, and my sister had a poster of him that was one of those posters that also served as a means to measure your height. So perhaps I marked turning 5′ tall by making it up to Cal’s chin, or something. But I have never been a huge baseball fan so I paid only minimal attention to his long career, only really noticing the highlights, the streak, the switch from shortstop to third base, the retirement. I think of him while driving past Havre de Grace or when he shows up on Comcast commercials.

I have really nothing negative to say about Cal Ripken — for baseball fans he is legendary, and he has always seemed to be a decent person, and we can certainly use all the decent-human-being athletes we can get.

Still, I think appointing him as “special sports envoy” is kind of a dumb choice for a stupid position that is part of a truly idiotic foreign policy agenda. I can hardly think of an American celebrity likely to face a greater discrepancy between domestic adoration and overseas indifference. And if there is anything that would make me lose the tiniest smidgen of respect for Ripken, it is signing on to be part of Condi Rice’s State Department and Karen Hughes’s public diplomacy shop.

There is a role for sports to play in international affairs and public diplomacy, and it is an interesting topic, ranging from the ancient to the modern Olympics, encompassing cricket competitions and the growing global popularity of basketball. But honestly, if any athlete today can make any difference at improving relations between the U.S. and the rest of the world, it is David Beckham, the overrated but attention-generating soccer star who has been helping create record crowds for Major League Soccer. I can’t help but think that America’s general lack of interest in soccer is a minuscule but real part of our general isolation from the rest of the world. I mean, it would be lovely if Americans could muster up the interest to learn the names of 32 countries involved in a World Cup, and cheer for an underdog nation as much as they do for a small-time NCAA team with a chance to reach the Sweet 16. So I am all for working to increase Americans’ interest in and enthusiasm for soccer. Thanks, Becks.

But I don’t anticipate much of a long-term Beckham effect in America, and even less of a Ripken effect on international understanding. But you can draw an interesting parallel. The thing is, the slowly increasing popularity of soccer in America has little to do with international superstars, but has rather a lot to do with an American media that has learned to tap into recent immigrants’ love of the game. With increased communication possibilities and hundreds of satellite channels, even succeeding generations of kids, fairly well assimilated into the American mainstream, will not really need to become fans of the Yankees or the Braves — they can keep watching their relatives’ domestic clubs, cheer on their local MLS team, keep up with European club results via streaming video. This is one of those side effects of globalization.

In the same way, we don’t really need to have high-profile celebrities pushing the American brand on the rest of the world. The world around us already has plenty of exposure to American celebrities, and that saturation is in fact a lot of the problem. What we need is to give more of the world a chance to interact with ordinary Americans. Just as the impact of millions of immigrants helps soccer develop in America, sending millions of Americans out into the surrounding world would help people understand the U.S. a lot better (and vice versa).

That’s why our public diplomacy has been so off-course for so long. The U.S. needs to stop focusing on big programs, on big names, on marketing and branding, and concentrate squarely on enhancing the quantity and quality of international interpersonal interaction for ordinary people in the U.S. and abroad. I’ve half-jokingly stated that we should send all 16- or maybe 18-year-olds into exile for a year, and make them survive on their own in another country as a rite of passage to adulthood. But more realistically, we need to work on using technology to create actual meaningful interactions among people around the world. The State Department ought to spend its time on advocating foreign language education in America, on harnessing blogs and Youtube and Xboxes and virtual worlds, on encouraging international travel (the great passport fiasco of 2007 isn’t helping), and on educational and other exchange programs. (I know they do these things, but not nearly on the scale necessary.)

It would be a lot more effective to send thousands of American baseball fans around the world to explain the sport, and why they care about it, and what it means to Americans, rather than to send a retired Hall-of-Famer to places where nobody has heard of him.

Secretary Rice, in that press release linked above, claims “he’s going to go out and I’ll bet he’ll find people who want to be Cal Ripken in Pakistan and people who want to be — (laughter) — Cal Ripken in Guatemala and people who want to be Cal Ripken in Europe. ” But this just isn’t true (except maybe in Guatemala). People around the world don’t want to be Cal Ripken, and there’s no reason to push that idea upon them. But I think they would be interested in talking to American teenagers, even those who are not yet tall enough to reach Cal’s chin, who do want to be Cal Ripken when they grow up. And not to underestimate American youth, I bet there are a lot of them who would also like to know what Pakistani kids want to be when they grow up. We just have to figure out a way for them to communicate.

We’ll get there. I just wonder whether it will be with the help of, or in spite of, the efforts of the State Department.