Now Showing: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Americans

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By Martha Bayles
Sunday, August 28, 2005

When Benjamin Franklin went to France in 1776, his assignment was to manipulate the French into supporting the American war for independence. This he accomplished with two stratagems: First, he played the balance-of-power game as deftly as any European diplomat; and second, he waged a subtle but effective campaign of what we now call public diplomacy, or the use of information and culture to foster goodwill toward the nation. For Franklin, this meant turning his dumpy self into a symbol. "He knew that America had a unique and powerful meaning for the enlightened reformers of France," writes historian Bernard Bailyn, "and that he himself . . . was the embodiment, the palpable expression, of that meaning." Hence the fur cap and rustic manner that made Franklin a celebrity among the powdered wigs and gilded ornaments of the court of Louis XVI.

Today, as we witness the decline of America's reputation around the world, we're paying far more attention to Franklin's first stratagem than to his second. Indeed, despite a mounting stack of reports recommending drastic changes in the organization and funding of public diplomacy, very little of substance has been done. And most Americans, including many who make it their business to analyze public diplomacy, seem unmindful of the negative impression that America has recently been making on the rest of humanity -- via our popular culture.

A striking pattern has emerged since the end of the Cold War. On the one hand, funding for public diplomacy has been cut by more than 30 percent since 1989, the National Science Board reported last year. On the other hand, while Washington was shrinking its funding for cultural diplomacy, Hollywood was aggressively expanding its exports. The Yale Center for the Study of Globalization reports that between 1986 and 2000 the fees generated by the export of filmed and taped entertainment went from $1.68 billion to $8.85 billion -- an increase of 427 percent. Foreign box-office revenue has grown faster than domestic, and now approaches a 2-to-1 ratio. The pattern is similar for music, TV and video games.

This massive export of popular culture has been accompanied by domestic worries about its increasingly coarse and violent tone -- worries that now go beyond the polarized debates of the pre-9/11 culture war. For example, a number of prominent African Americans, such as Bill Stephney, co-founder of the rap group Public Enemy, have raised concerns about the normalization of crime and prostitution in gangsta and "crunk" rap. And in April 2005, the Pew Research Center reported that "roughly six-in-ten [Americans] say they are very concerned over what children see or hear on TV (61%), in music lyrics (61%), video games (60%) and movies (56%)."

These worries now have a global dimension. The 2003 report of the U.S. House of Representatives Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World stated that "Arabs and Muslims are . . . bombarded with American sitcoms, violent films, and other entertainment, much of which distorts the perceptions of viewers." The report made clear that what seems innocuous to Americans can cause problems abroad: "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?' "

One of the few efforts to measure the impact of popular culture abroad was made by Louisiana State University researchers Melvin and Margaret DeFleur, who in 2003 polled teenagers in 12 countries: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, South Korea, Mexico, China, Spain, Taiwan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Nigeria, Italy and Argentina. Their conclusion, while tentative, is nonetheless suggestive: "The depiction of Americans in media content as violent, of American women as sexually immoral and of many Americans engaging in criminal acts has brought many of these 1,313 youthful subjects to hold generally negative attitudes toward people who live in the United States."

Popular culture is not a monolith, of course. Along with a lot of junk, the entertainment industry still produces films, musical recordings, even television shows that rise to the level of genuine art. The good (and bad) news is that censorship is a thing of the past, on both the producing and the consuming end of popular culture. Despite attempts by radical clerics in Iraq to clamp down on Western influences, pirated copies of American movies still make it onto the market there. If we go by box office figures, the most popular films in the world are blockbusters like "Harry Potter." But America is also exporting more than enough depictions of profanity, nudity, violence and criminal activity to violate norms of propriety still honored in much of the world.

But instead of questioning whether Americans should be super-sizing to others the same cultural diet that is giving us indigestion at home, we still seem to congratulate ourselves that our popular culture now pervades just about every society on Earth, including many that would rather keep it out. Why this disconnect? Partly it is due to an ingrained belief that what's good for show business is good for America's image. During both world wars, the movie studios produced propaganda for the government, in exchange for government aid in opening resistant foreign markets. Beginning in 1939, the recording industry cooperated with the Armed Forces Network to beam jazz to American soldiers overseas, and during the Cold War it helped the Voice of America (VOA) do the same for 30 million listeners behind the Iron Curtain.

In his book, "Cultural Exchange & the Cold War," veteran foreign service officer Yale Richmond quotes the Russian novelist Vasily Aksyonov, for whom those VOA jazz broadcasts were "America's secret weapon number one." Aksyonov said that "the snatches of music and bits of information made for a kind of golden glow over the horizon . . . the West, the inaccessible but oh so desirable West."

To my knowledge, this passage has not been quoted in defense of Radio Sawa, the flagship of the U.S. government's new fleet of broadcast channels aimed at reaching young, largely Arab audiences. But even if it were, who could imagine such a reverent, yearning listener in the Middle East, South Asia or anywhere else today? The difference is not just between short-wave radio and unlimited broadband, it is also between Duke Ellington and 50 Cent.

During the Cold War, Washington also boosted the commercial export of popular culture, adhering to the view set forth in a 1948 State Department memo: "American motion pictures, as ambassadors of good will -- at no cost to the American taxpayers -- interpret the American way of life to all the nations of the world, which may be invaluable from a political, cultural, and commercial point of view."

And this boosterism continued through the 1960s and '70s, even as movies and rock music became not just unruly but downright adversarial. During the 1970s, the government worked so hard to pry open world markets to American entertainment that UNESCO and the Soviet Union led a backlash against "U.S. cultural imperialism." In 1967, the VOA began to broadcast rock and soul. And while a provocative figure like Frank Zappa was hardly a favorite at diplomatic receptions, many in the foreign service understood his symbolic importance to dissidents, including Czech playwright (and later president) Vaclev Havel. In general, the U.S. political establishment was content to let America's homegrown counterculture do its subversive thing in Eastern Europe and Russia.

In the 1980s, the mood changed. Under Ronald Reagan appointee Charles Z. Wick, the United States Information Agency (USIA), the autonomous agency set up in 1953 to disseminate information and handle cultural exchange, was more generously funded and invited to play a larger role in policymaking-- but at the price of having its autonomy curbed and the firewall between cultural outreach and policy advocacy thinned. It is noteworthy that these changes occurred amid the acrimony of the culture wars. Like the National Endowment for the Arts and public broadcasting, the USIA eventually found itself on Sen. Jesse Helms's list of artsy agencies deserving of the budgetary ax. And while the others managed to survive, the USIA did not. In 1999 it was absorbed into the very different bureaucratic culture of the State Department.

Today we witness the outcome: an unwarranted dismissal of elite-oriented cultural diplomacy, combined with an unquestioned faith in the export of popular culture. These converge in the decision to devote the bulk of post-9/11 funding to Radio Sawa and the other commercial-style broadcast entities, such as al-Hurra (a U.S.-based satellite TV network aimed at Arab listeners) and Radio Farda (which is broadcast in Farsi to Iran). Because the establishment of these new channels has been accompanied by the termination of the VOA's Arabic service, critics have focused largely on their news components. But what benefit is there in Radio Sawa's heavy rotation of songs by sex kitten Britney Spears and foul-mouthed rapper Eminem?

To the charge that the Bush administration is peddling smut and profanity to Arab teens, Radio Sawa's music director, Usama Farag, has stated that all the offensive lyrics are carefully edited out. Yet there is something quaint about the U.S. government's censoring song lyrics in a world where most people have ready access to every product of the American entertainment industry, including the dregs.

American popular culture is no longer a beacon of freedom to huddled masses in closed societies. Instead, it's a glut on the market and, absent any countervailing cultural diplomacy, our de facto ambassador to the world. The solution to this problem is far from clear. Censorship is not the answer, because even if it were technologically possible to censor our cultural exports, it would not be politic. The United States must 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 Americans have not only liberty but also a civilization worthy of liberty.

From Franklin's days, U.S. cultural diplomacy has had both an elite and a popular dimension. Needless to say, it has rarely been easy to achieve a perfect balance between the two. What we could do is try harder to convey what the USIA mandate used to call "a full and fair picture of the United States." But to succeed even a little, our new efforts must counter the negative self-portrait we are now exporting. Along with worrying about what popular culture is teaching our children about life, we need also to worry about what it is teaching the world about America.

Author's e-mail : martha.bayles@bc.edu

Martha Bayles, author of "Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music" (Chicago), teaches humanities at Boston College and is working on a book about U.S. cultural diplomacy.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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