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U.S. pop culture seen as plague

- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 2004

Part Five of Five:

Robert H. Bork remembers his ambivalence in 1989 as the Berlin Wall came down and dungarees and rock music poured into the former East Germany.

"You almost began to want to put the wall back up," says the former Supreme Court nominee, a tart critic of American popular culture.

If there is one proposition on which Western European elites and radical Islamists, American social conservatives and snobby latte town aesthetes all seem to agree, it is this: American popular culture is a subversive thing.

The critiques are both secular and sectarian, and they gained intensity in 2004.

French President Jacques Chirac, during a visit to Hanoi in October, accused the United States of spreading a "generalized underculture in the world."

This juggernaut of crassness, if unchecked, he suggested, will stamp out whatever folkways and native idiosyncrasies lie in its path.

"All other countries would be stifled to the benefit of American culture," Mr. Chirac warned, speaking in a city once under French dominion. "If there was a single language, a single culture, it would be a real ecological disaster."

For Islamic fundamentalists, American pop culture beckons the faithful to depravity.

Sayyid Qutb, a founder of political Islamism, spotted the subversive potential as early as the late 1940s. Not in Manhattan or Hollywood, but in Greeley, Colo. At a church dance. While a disc jockey played the swing-era classic "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

"The dancing intensified," wrote Qutb, an Egyptian then studying America's education system, in his influential book "Milestones." "The hall swarmed with legs. ... Arms circled arms, lips met lips, chests met chests, and the atmosphere was full of love."

After love, license. Followed by perversion. Then chaos.

'Global theme park'

Things have gotten considerably racier since Harry S. Truman was president -- and American pop culture has become ever more pervasive.

The world is way more "American." The pull of our ideals, media culture and economic opportunity works in mysterious counterpoint, and often dissonantly, with the overwhelming military might and principled clout for which we have been chided of late in the court of the "world test."

This series has considered aspects of this pervasive American influence -- from ideals of freedom to language, entrepreneurial ingenuity and sports -- and some of the consequences and repercussions.

Sometimes, you'd think we were the bad guys. As it turns out, though, individual national identities tend to more than hold their own against American pop culture within their borders.

But even so, not one of these countries is a serious rival to America as an international culture. (Maybe that's what's eating the French.)

Our pop culture is resented in parts of the world as evidence of a poisonous contagion. "Coca-Colonization" it's been called, another takeover of the Third World, but with a twist: imposing a cookie-cutter consumerist culture from without rather than looting natural resources from within.

American-made movies, music, television shows and pop icons are said to litter the globe, disrupting cultural ecosystems and Americanizing (read: corrupting) impressionable minds. The effects are everywhere.

Last month, an advertisement in Jerusalem featuring "Sex and the City" actress Sarah Jessica Parker hawking soap was deemed too revealing.

Two weeks ago, Chinese censors suspiciously eyed a poster of a semi-naked Pamela Anderson, the "Baywatch" icon, protesting the fur industry.

Singer Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" in February was a sneak preview seen 'round the world.

There's fear and revulsion here at home, of course, on both the left and right.

"Jihad vs. McWorld" author Benjamin Barber, a liberal communitarian, has written that American "cultural imperialism," fueled by a global economy, will "mesmerize peoples everywhere with fast music, fast computers and fast food -- MTV, Macintosh and McDonald's -- pressing nations into one homogenous global theme park."

The most recent reports from the Motion Picture Association of America show that in 2003, the top five films worldwide were all American-made. Offshore box-office business overall hit $10 billion for the first time, and the MPAA attributed the growth of 5 percent to the strong performance of movies such as "Finding Nemo," "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

In recent years, American recording artists accounted for 50 percent to 60 percent of the top 100 albums in major world markets, according to data provided by the London-based International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI).

But IFPI also says that up to seven in 10 records sold worldwide carry music from artists native to the local market. In France, for example, French artists still accounted for about 60 percent of sales this year.

Cross-pollination

"American dominance is just a myth," says Charles Paul Freund, senior editor of Reason magazine. "The biggest films in most major markets are really not American films."

Mr. Freund notes that Bollywood movies still rule the Indian market. Likewise in Western Europe, native films are more popular than American imports. Even the Chinese film industry may become a juggernaut within a generation.

Cultures are cross-pollinating to compete in an increasingly global marketplace. And just as in pro sports, American music, movies and TV suck in talent from other places and recast and regurgitate them in more potent ways.

More foreign stars are showing up in Hollywood films: Producer Brian Grazer and director Ron Howard plan to cast foreign actors alongside Tom Hanks in their adaptation of "The Da Vinci Code."

For the first time a Japanese movie -- this year's horror flick "Ju-on: The Grudge" -- was remade for American audiences by the same director, Takashi Shimizu. And don't forget a New Zealand filmmaker, Peter Jackson, directed the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

America imports reality-TV concepts from the United Kingdom, echoing the way "All in the Family" and "Sanford and Son" were drawn from British sitcoms back in the day. Our TV shows have to fight for foreign audiences compared with 20 years ago.

"Seinfeld," at the peak of its U.S. ratings strength in the mid-1990s, earned only a late-night slot in Britain because its American quirkiness didn't generate demand, notes Harvey Feigenbaum, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University who studies the overseas appeal of U.S. culture.

More than 70 percent of the most popular shows in 60 different countries were produced locally in 2001, Mr. Freund says, with American programs struggling in prime-time slots.

Mr. Feigenbaum says foreign viewers generally prefer to see their own culture beamed back from their television sets. And yet they still have a healthy appetite for American fare in a way that we don't have for theirs.

Some competitive realities work in favor of American content. Thanks largely to spreading privatization, the number of television networks internationally has exploded, greatly expanding the demand for cheap programming.

Stateside shows such as "ER" and "Lost" may cost oodles to produce, but they can be sold easily overseas because the fixed cost is spread over numerous buyers. Foreign production companies, by comparison, generally sell shows for one market, their own, so the full costs must be covered.

"They're willing to suffer a drop in market share because that's what they can afford," Mr. Feigenbaum says of international networks' interest in U.S. shows.

Whose culture?

It's sometimes a thin line between American pop culture and "global" culture.

"Somebody would look at Pizza Hut in Thailand and say this is American cultural imperialism," postulates Harvard University's Joseph Nye. "But wait a minute -- where did pizza come from? We're a country of immigrants. Our culture is constantly changing, and we often repackage things that were cultural exports to this country."

OK, Italian immigrants invented pizza. Optimists say globalization means more cultural choices for everyone, not global homogeneity.

"No American artifact will 'Americanize' a foreign user any more than playing a Japanese-produced video game will make you Asian," Mr. Freund argues. "It's preposterous."

The spread of American pop culture is potentially "a force for good," a prescription for gaining allies through attraction rather than coercion, says Mr. Nye, author of "Softpower: The Means to Success in World Politics."

"In Iran, you'd find that the ruling mullahs would be repelled by our country," he says. "But if you look at Iranian teenagers, there's nothing they would like more than to watch an American video in the privacy of their own home."

Mr. Nye says even a movie such as Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," the screed against President Bush that recently opened in Tehran, could wind up having a counterintuitively positive effect within closed societies. He paraphrases how Soviet audiences reacted to the 1957 movie "12 Angry Men," with its narrative of American bigotry and racism: " 'If they can make that movie about themselves, they must be free.' "

Reason to worry

The chance that a young Middle Easterner will see expressions of freedom in American culture is, to Mr. Bork's mind, dim. Because he thinks most of what Hollywood exports is "trash."

Of course, one man's "trash" is another's retro refinement: The biggest U.S. crossover into Europe's pop music market this year was jazz-pop singer Norah Jones, who triumphed at home as an antidote to the very sort of puerile, youth-pandering pop music that Mr. Bork detests. Her "Feels Like Home" album was a top seller in Germany, Britain, Holland and Australia.

Sure, there's the bloody "Kill Bill" movies. But what's so "trashy" about international hits such as "Finding Nemo," Pixar's family-friendly aquatic hit? Or, more recently, "The Incredibles," which tweaks the nanny-state risk-aversion and hyper-litigiousness stifling American energy and creativity?

Another controversial American movie -- Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" -- proved almost as popular overseas as the Good Book it was based on.

Fittingly enough for our theme, the Nicolas Cage movie "National Treasure" proved to be good, clean fun and with more than one twist on American history.

Granted, these are exceptions in artistic taste and vision. Conservatives who detest the ABC phenom "Desperate Housewives," gangsta rap and the entertainment mainstreaming of homosexuals, however, are not likely to prefer a measure of tyranny to a free culture awash in sex, violence and indecency.

In a recent cover story in National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru argues that the conflation of American religious conservatives and Islamic fundamentalists is unfair. The former don't want to live under a theocracy; they seek no more than a return to the moral norms and restraint of the 1950s.

Still, Mr. Bork, author of "Slouching Towards Gomorrah," thinks some conservative (not to say radical) Muslims have a legitimate point -- as do American evangelicals and others on the religious right.

"They have good reason to be very worried about" the spread of American movies, music and fashion, Mr. Bork allows. "I suppose it's better than what they have now, but I wouldn't celebrate too much if they began to adopt our popular culture."

Power to provoke

Mr. Freund offers an inspiring anecdote. In Talibanized Afghanistan, in 1997, all aspects of culture -- movies, music, photographs, art -- were strictly forbidden. Yet smuggled copies of "Titanic" (which many an American pastor preached against) found their way into Afghan homes.

The movie was so popular that young men in the capital of Kabul wanted their hair cut in the style of star Leonardo DiCaprio. At weddings, cakes were shaped like the Titanic.

It seems as if pieces of "Titanic," so to speak, are tastiest where local cultural cuisines don't nourish.

So maybe American pop culture in a host of forms doesn't rock the world in quite the same way as our love of freedom, our faith, our big-heartedness, our enterprise, our language and higher education system, and our passion for winning a good ball game all do.

But move over, Jacques Chirac. A former French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, holds that America's power in the post-Cold War era continues to rest on our ability to "inspire the dreams and desires of others, thanks to the mastery of global images through film and television."

British Invasions and Bollywoods, if not despots, have nothing to fear from our pop culture. Even in crasser forms, it likely will go on reflecting America by inspiring, challenging and provoking.

And when not suppressed by censors or stifled by state subsidy, the individual artist, entrepreneur or pol in other lands will tend to want to compete.

Now that's Americanization.

Part IIII:

Second place not an option in U.S. sports

Christian Toto contributed to this report.