- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2003

The “Big Brother” TV show unifies cultures in Africa. Egypt bans “The Matrix: Reloaded.” Australian Christian schools outlaw “Harry Potter.”

Debates about Western culture, particularly American culture, often take on a new dimension when they occur in foreign places.

“The biggest concern that people have is the erosion of local traditions, the encouragement of immediate gratification, the emphasis on a superficial view of reality,” said Michael Medved, a syndicated, conservative American talk show host.

In the United States, there was some uproar recently about “The Matrix: Reloaded” when several New Jersey teenagers were said to have planned to imitate the film’s stylized violence in a massacre, which was averted.

The film, which has brought in more than $500 million in global sales, focuses on the trials of Neo, a computer hacker played by Keanu Reeves, who tries to free humanity from enslavement by artificial intelligence.

“The Matrix,” which was the first film in the series and was released in 1999, was attacked as having influenced the Columbine High School killers in Littleton, Colorado. But an analyst of Egyptian culture views Egypt’s decision in June to ban “The Matrix: Reloaded” this year as springing from the country’s insecurities.

“There are real concerns in Egypt about issues like globalization, the real economic power of international corporations, real concerns about the very limited space for democracy, and real concern with what’s going on in Israel and Palestine,” said Ted Swedenburg, an anthropologist at the University of Arkansas.

“There was some kind of sensitivity to the fact that [the film] contained a Zionist message,” Mr. Swedenburg said, referring to Zion, the film’s name for where free humans congregate.

Egypt’s censors, who didn’t ban the 1999 film, were more discreet, saying in a statement that the 2003 film “explicitly handles the issues of existence and creation, which are related to the three divine religions, which we all respect and believe in. … Such religious issues, raised in previous times, caused crises.”

Other African countries have received another form of American entertainment enthusiastically: a version of CBS’ reality TV show, “Big Brother,” customized for Anglophone Africa. “Big Brother” was originally a European TV show.

In the CBS show, 12 persons are confined to a house wired with cameras. Each week, someone is voted off until one remains and wins a half-million dollars.

The difference in the African version is that the 12 persons come from different English-speaking countries — including South Africa, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Nigeria — and the winner takes home $100,000.

In the United States, some entertainment critics worry that the show, part of a growing trend of reality TV, promotes superficial values and deception.

But in Africa, the hugely successful show is breaking down cultural boundaries and encouraging open talk about HIV/AIDS and other taboos, said Edward Lifschitz, the curator of education at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art.

“The program is working toward this sense of Africans feeling kinship to each other, rather than simply to their country or tribe,” he said.

Mr. Lifschitz said American concern about voyeurism doesn’t come up in Africa, where there are issues about how many wives a man can have. He added that Africans have long enjoyed real-life dramas more than fantasy stories.

Sometimes, however, the culture debates aren’t so different.

Around the world, some Christians have tried to prevent their children from reading the “Harry Potter” series, the fifth installment of which came out recently and has become the fastest-selling novel ever.

Some Christians in the United States and abroad worry that the novels about a young wizard inspire witchcraft.

In Australia, 60 Seventh-day Adventist schools have shunned the novels. There have been attempts in 13 of the 50 United States to ban the books from public libraries.

Connie Neal, author of books arguing that “Harry Potter” promotes biblical values, said hysteria about the novels is overblown and has spread because of the Internet.

Last year, she said, the Onion, a satirical magazine, posted an absurd story about 14 million children converting to Satanism because of the novel.

But, Mrs. Neal said, the article was forwarded around the world through the Internet as if it were authentic. This led to book burnings and other protests, which, she said, reporters emphasized too much.

Mrs. Neal said the novels offer a convenient forum for parents to discuss good and evil with their children. “It sets up a fantasy world where we can talk to our children,” she said.

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