Taking a world's-eye view of America
How pop culture is our most prominent (and destructive) export
What picture comes into your head when you hear the word “America” or “American society”? Whatever picture it is (and we all have one, differ though it may from person to person), it is most likely not the picture that would pop into the mind of someone raised in, say, Saudi Arabia, or Ethiopia, or China.
We should be concerned, however, about the nature of this picture that has developed of America in most parts of the world. Such is the argument of Martha Bayles (former guest of the Journal on Volume 10) in her new book Through a Glass Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad. In the 1990’s, Bayles writes, America, having defeated the Soviets in the Cold War, decided to get out of the public diplomacy business, dissolving the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1999. But public diplomacy didn’t stop just because the government stopped taking responsibility for it; rather, the reins were handed over to the producers and pushers of pop culture. Now, America’s image is almost entirely shaped by whatever the pop culture industry happens to be pumping out at the time—and in recent years what it has been pumping out has been increasingly toxic, especially as it finds its way into more traditionally oriented communities in the Middle East and Africa.
In the introduction, Bayles recounts an interview she conducted with the leader of an Islamist terrorist organization in Jakarta:
Like many people I have met overseas, Rizieq showed little awareness of America’s larger cultural heritage, or even of its ‘classic’ popular culture. To him, American culture consists mainly of the latest commercial entertainment, from rap and rock that “reduces you to the level of animals, making you dance like a monkey,” to films and TV shows that “use slogans like ‘freedom’ to cover immoral behavior like gambling, alcohol, prostitution, and homosexual marriage.” He also believed that the US government was deliberately exporting these harmful influences as part of a Western conspiracy to destroy Islam.
What most Americans take to be the relatively harmless, if perhaps not the most desirable, aspects of popular culture is taken around the world to be an accurate representation of America and her values. And while the rosy optimism of the early 90’s led us to declare that democracy and freedom were our greatest exports, the reality is that our most visible offerings to the global marketplace in the past few decades have been things like pornography, fast food, and Britney Spears.
If America’s image is to be restored, Bayles writes, we must “stop treating American entertainment as cultural expression at home and a commodity overseas,” and instead get serious about attending to and polishing our reputation. And that polishing will, one hopes, include asking some difficult questions about whether or not we have become as obsessed with cheap, trashy entertainment as the world believes.
Through a Glass Darkly is available from Yale University Press; a full review of the book can be found on the website of the Weekly Standard.
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