Monday, 19 March 2012

The Ugly Americans: How Not to Lose the Global Culture War

Martha Bayles from C-SPAN on

Watch the full lecture here 

The Ugly Americans: How Not to Lose the Global Culture War
By Martha Bayles

On December 4, Martha Bayles. delivered the fourth of the 2006-2007 Bradley Lectures.

At the outset, I should say that my book is very much a work in progress. I'm only midway through the research and cannot pretend to have all the answers. But I'm working hard on collecting most of the questions.

The current debate over America's declining reputation has focused on "public diplomacy," a term coined in the 1960s by Edmund A. Gullion of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and perhaps most fully articulated by the U.S. Information Agency in a statement recently quoted by William P. Kiehl, editor of an excellent new book from the Public Diplomacy Council called America's Dialogue with the World:

Public diplomacy seeks to promote the national interest and the national security of the United States through understanding, informing, and influencing foreign publics and broadening dialogue between American citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad.

Inherent in this definition is a tension between "informing," in the sense of objective reporting, and "influencing," in the sense of shaping a "message" to win foreign support for U.S. policies. The first is modeled on the journalistic ideal of truth-telling, the second on the need for propaganda--or, to use the preferred military term, "strategic communications." Both of these aims are legitimate, but obviously they pull against each other. And the resulting tension is not likely to be resolved any time soon.

But this is not my topic. My topic is the cultural dimension of America's image--or if you prefer, the image of American culture in the world. The USIA definition does not include the word "culture," but during the Cold War, this and other agencies of the U.S. government (including the CIA) practiced a vigorous "cultural diplomacy" in the sense of fostering educational and scholarly exchanges; sponsoring artist and writer tours; and supporting libraries, translations, intellectual publications, and scholarly conferences.

Why, then, does "culture" scarcely appear in the many reports on "public diplomacy" published in Washington since 9/11? The easy answer is that unpopular foreign policies cannot be made popular by a sprinkling of cultural pixie dust. But in the battle for hearts and minds against radical Islamism, not to mention resurgent anti-Americanism elsewhere, cultural diplomacy--and an awareness of how American culture impacts others--is crucial, because in the long run, it is mainly through culture that one group of people judges the humanity of another.

There is growing evidence of a cultural dimension to global anti-Americanism. For example, the political scientist Giocomo Chiozza has revisited the data in the Pew 2002 Global Attitudes Survey and found a surprising trend. As he writes, "movies and television are arguably the two main venues that have defined the United States as a popular icon." Yet the data suggest a "striking" degree of "dislike of American popular culture among those individuals who had a favorable opinion of the United States: about 38.2 percent of the people who were mildly supportive of the United States disliked its music, movies, television, and about 29.5 percent of those with a very high opinion of the United States thought likewise of its popular culture."[1]

At the same time, the image of America as uncivilized, unlettered, and uncouth appears stronger than ever. Simon Anholt is a British "branding" guru who, together with Seattle-based Global Market Insite, Inc. (GMI), conducts online research into global attitudes toward products and, most recently, nations. In the debate over America's image, an oft-cited source is the Anholt-GMI Nation Brands Index (NBI), which recently offered this gloomy assessment: "The place, the products, and the economy are still respected globally. But its governance, its cultural heritage, and its people are no longer widely respected or admired."[2] Indeed, in the 2005 NBI report, the United States is ranked dead last--thirty-fifth among thirty-five nations--on the "cultural heritage" scale. Asked if this was a "protest vote" against U.S. foreign policy, Patrick Spaven, a researcher for the British Council, thought not. Noting that Great Britain, America's ally in Iraq, was ranked fifth for cultural heritage, Spaven commented: "The loud voice of U.S. popular culture may be drowning out the quieter voice of heritage."

This was not always the case. During the Cold War, when the U.S. government was busy exporting elite American culture, popular culture was also enlisted in the cause. Embassies screened Hollywood movies, and the Voice of America reached millions of listeners with celebrated jazz broadcasts. But during the 1990s, Washington was in a triumphant mood and eager to reap a "peace dividend," so both public diplomacy and cultural diplomacy were drastically downsized. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, government-sponsored educational and scholarly exchanges, artist and writer tours, libraries, and translations were cut by one-third between 1993 and 2001, from $232 million from $349 million (adjusted for inflation). And while funding for public diplomacy in general has made a comeback since 9/11, the 2005 report of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Cultural Diplomacy noted that of the $245 million annual budget of the State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, only $3 million was devoted to cultural activities.

Does this mean that the world has been lacking for American cultural stimuli? Of course not. During the same period, the export of American popular culture skyrocketed. The Yale Center for the Study of Globalization reports that between 1986 and 2000, the fees (in constant dollars) generated by the export of "filmed and taped entertainment" went from $1.68 billion to $8.85 billion an increase of 426 percent.

There is, of course, a positive side to this export. I have long defended what is most vital in American popular culture. Yet in recent years, popular culture has become more and more debased. For reasons partly cultural, partly economic, and partly technological, the entertainment industry's system of self-regulation has dissolved, fostering what the old Hollywood moguls called "a race to the bottom." The most lucrative sectors of youth culture--rap, "date movies," and video games--are now so coarse, violent, and obnoxious, the Pew Research Center recently reported that over 60 percent of Americans are very concerned about what their children are seeing and hearing.[3] And this debased material flows freely--by satellite, Internet, and piracy--to millions of human beings on the planet who have no other access to knowledge about the United States.

Why is this elephant-in-the-parlor fact rarely mentioned in the post-9/11 debate over public diplomacy? I would offer three reasons. First, as I have already mentioned, that debate is framed in terms of information, not culture, with most of the heat being generated by the perennial tension between journalism and propaganda. In that debate, one hears passing references to entertainment, but typically with the word "light" attached. For example, al Hurrah TV, the new U.S. government channel going out to the Arabic-speaking world, is said to carry "light entertainment" along with public affairs and news. I would suggest that "light" is not the most accurate term.

The second reason is that Washington has long supported the export of popular culture, especially Hollywood movies, on the theory that doing so is not only good business but also good diplomacy. In this talk I will focus on whether this assumption is still valid: first by giving a brief account of the relationship between Washington and Hollywood; then by discussing how things have changed--not only popular culture itself but also the audience it is reaching. My hunch, which I am in the process of testing, is that this export continues to be good business but may no longer be good diplomacy.

The Washington-Hollywood connection dates back to 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson and the Committee on Public Information enlisted the aid of the fledgling film studios (which were not yet in Hollywood) to make features supporting America's entry into World War I. These were domestic propaganda, and some, with titles like The Hun and The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin, were heavy handed, indeed. Then, after the war, Washington rewarded the studios by pressuring war-battered European governments to open their markets to American films. By 1925, U.S. films had captured 70 percent of the screens in France, the country that before the war had dominated the world market. To be sure, this could not have happened if American films had not been hugely appealing in their own right. But without Washington's help, it would have been a lot harder to make the world safe for Hollywood.

And so began a pact, a tacitly approved win-win deal, between the nation's government and its
dream factory. This pact grew stronger during World War II, when Hollywood's contribution was to make eloquent propaganda (such as director Frank Capra's Why We Fight); to produce countless features (good, bad, and indifferent) about every aspect of the struggle, from the front lines to the home front; and to permit stars such as Jimmy Stewart to be directly in the armed forces. After the war, Washington reciprocated by using subsidies, special provisions in the Marshall Plan, and general clout to make further inroads into European film markets, to say nothing of Japan.

From the 1940s to the present, the government has held up its end of the bargain by continuing to press the U.S. advantage in trade negotiations over "intellectual property" of all kinds, especially films. And this has been very good business. As Dan Glickman, current president of the Motion Picture Association of America, remarked last year, "Alone among all the sectors of the U.S. economy, our industry is the only one that generates a positive balance of trade in every country in which it does business."

But is it good diplomacy? The third reason why no one asks this question can be found in a neglected chapter of Cold War history: the late 1960s and '70s. That was when a new generation of American writers, rock stars, musicians, filmmakers, and visual artists adopted a confrontational stance toward "the system" (meaning the war in Vietnam, white racism, political dishonesty, and the power of U.S. corporations). As everyone knows, this 1960s counterculture offended conservative sensibilities in the United States. But from the vantage point of cultural diplomacy, it had one distinct advantage: it also upset the powers-that-be in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

For example, the anarchic rock musician Frank Zappa was hardly on the list of approved artists sent abroad under the U.S.-U.S.S.R. cultural agreement. But that did not stop Zappa and his band, the Mothers of Invention, from becoming a symbol of freedom to Czech playwright (and later president) Vaclev Havel. In 1969, after the Soviet invasion crushed the Czech dissident movement, the most effective voice of protest was a rock band, the Plastic People of the Universe, who took their name, and some of their style, from Zappa. Indeed, Zappa remained one of President Havel's heroes: in 1990, he offered Zappa a job as special ambassador to the West on trade, culture, and tourism.[4]

The State Department could not showcase someone like Zappa officially. But they could, and by most reports did, feel secret delight when the works of Zappa and other countercultural figures, introduced as contraband into the Soviet sphere, proved more subversive there than they were at home.

A similar delight was voiced during the winter of 2001-2002, when the United States and its allies ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan, and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal-- not known for praising post-1960s rock music--celebrated its return to the long-hidden record players of Kabul. But these murmurs have not been heard lately, perhaps because most Americans suspect that today's "envelope-pushing" popular culture--foul-mouthed rap, sniggering sitcoms, gory films, and video games with no moral compass--is not the best way to counter enemies such as the resurgent Taliban.

How did American popular culture become so debased? To some critics, especially those steeped in Platonic skepticism toward democracy, the answer is simple: popular culture is debased because it is popular. Plato accused poets of catering to the "small minted coin" of the mob, which is why he banned them from his republic. Yet this is not my view, because popular culture has not always been this way. What are the characteristic vices of democratic taste? Sentimentality, bombast, vulgarity, violence. American culture has never lacked for these vices. But its genius has always been to offset them with commensurate democratic virtues: humor, vitality, openness, diversity, dynamism.

If the vices dominate today, it is not wholly because of democratic taste. The real change is among elites--not just professors and intellectuals, but also people in the entertainment industry, from "A&R" (artists and repertory) executives to decision makers, gate-keepers, and opinion leaders of all kinds. Here is a recent example: we are now living with the disappointment of not being able to read O. J. Simpson's latest book, If I Did It. In case you have been in a state of cryogenic suspension for the past few months, this "novel," in which the acquitted murderer describes how a fictional character named "Charlie" butchered Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, was signed by Judith Regan of HarperCollins, and its publication was scheduled to coincide with a much-hyped interview on Fox TV. The aim, of course, was to titillate the public with a quasi-confession, replete with blood-and-guts detail.

As it happens, public outcry prompted the cancellation of both the book and the interview. But this is exception that proves the rule. This thwarted mega-media-event is in tune with American culture nowadays. In a single bold stroke, HarperCollins and Fox sought to benefit from two different abuses: first, the abuse of freedom of expression as it now stands enshrined in U.S. law; and second, the abuse of the important legal protection against double jeopardy. My point is that a few years ago, the rot would not have proceeded this far, because the relevant gatekeepers would not have allowed it to. No publisher would have considered publishing such a vile book, and no television network would have dreamed of running such a vile interview.

As I say, this pattern--of some (not all) cultural elites working not to refine or "uplift" popular taste, but rather to degrade it--has been vigorously debated here in the United States. And left to our own devices, we might have a chance, if a slim one, of sorting it out. Of course, as the Simpson example suggests, the problem now goes beyond the familiar mantra of "sex and violence" into a contest to see who can be the most cynical toward everything that holds American society together--not just our institutions but also the basic elements of trust and reciprocity that make up civil society. In this vein, consider this list of the most popular U.S. television shows on Arab satellite TV. I should mention that there are no Nielsen ratings or other reliable market research in most Arab countries, so the best measure of popularity is which shows are the most talked about. So, by this yardstick, the top shows are Sex and the City, South Park, Friends, Seinfeld, and (number one, I hear) Oprah.

A mixed bag, for sure. I am one of those people who find Seinfeld funny, but I am not so sure about South Park, which I find deeply nihilistic. But to judge by the smiles I see in the audience, there are some South Park fans in the room. About comedy these judgments are tricky, because it is the function of comedy to throw everything up in the air. I would argue, though, that there is a difference between classic comedy, in which everything is thrown up in the air but comes down in more or less the right place; and nihilistic comedy, which just keeps throwing everything against the wall in a fit of destruction.

Of course, you could ask whether such disagreements even matter, because sometimes even innocuous material can seem worrisome overseas. For instance, the 2003 Congressional study known as the Djerejian Report (after its chair, former Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian) noted:

Arabs and Muslims are also bombarded with American sitcoms, violent films, and other entertainment, much of which distorts the perceptions of viewers. . . . A Syrian teacher of English asked us plaintively for help in explaining American family life to her students. She asked, "Does Friends show a typical family?"[5]

Am I out to censor Friends? Will my book advocate restricting the export of certain kinds of popular culture? It will not, although a cogent argument could be made in favor of controls similar to those once imposed domestically by the Hays Office and the TV networks. The problem is this is not going to happen. Even if it were technologically feasible, it would not be economically acceptable--or politically prudent. The United States is now in the position of having to affirm the crucial importance of free speech in a world that has serious doubts about it. And the best way to do this is to show that freedom is self-correcting: that the American people possess not only liberty but also a civilization worthy of liberty.

Which leads me to my final thought. When American leaders talk about "liberty" and "freedom," what do people around the world hear? To people educated in the Western tradition, it should be clear that "liberty" comes from the Latin, libertas, meaning an acquired state of independence that bears certain duties. "Freedom" comes from the German Freiheit and the Old English folcfre, meaning kinship within a community not ruled by outside power. Both linguistic traditions carry strong connotations of responsibility and capacity for self-government on both the individual and the community levels. Both are different from "libertinism," from the Latin libertinus, which refers to a person recently emancipated from bondage who cannot handle his newfound liberties.[6]

But to the majority of people around the globe, which of these meanings does America now project? Human beings everywhere are drawn to the freedoms enjoyed in this country. Yet they are also repulsed by what they perceive as our abuse of freedom. This is true of ordinary mortals, not just fanatics. When people, especially young people, in rapidly modernizing societies look at America through the lens of our no-holds-barred popular culture, what they see most glaringly is a passion for personal liberation from tradition, religion, family, and restraint of all kinds. They might be forgiven for missing the part about self-governance.

That is the problem we have, and that is the problem that a new, twenty-first-century cultural diplomacy must find ways to address.

Martha Bayles is currently on the faculty of the Honors Program at Boston College and a visiting fellow at the Aspen Institute Berlin.


1. Peter J. Katzenstein and Robert O. Keohane, eds., Anti-Americanisms in World Politics (Cornell University Press, 2007), p. 102.

2. How does the world see America?, The Anholt-GMI Nation Brands Index, Executive Summary, July 28, 2005.

3. Support for Tougher Indecency Measures, But Worries About Government Intrusiveness, Pew Research Center for The People & The Press (April 19, 2005), p. 2.

4. The story goes that Havel was talked out of the appointment by then-Secretary of State James Baker, whose wife Susan had been one of the "Washington wives" ridiculed by Zappa at the Senate hearings on rock lyrics instigated by Tipper Gore. Havel did make Zappa an unofficial cultural attaché, but soon afterward the singer succumbed to prostate cancer.

5. Changing Minds, Winning Peace, report of the US House of Representatives Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World (2003), p. 21.

6. See David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom (Oxford, 2005), Introduction.

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