September 02, 2005

Beyond MTV?

In addition to laying out the history of American cultural diplomacy during the Cold War, Martha Bayles makes an important point in this Wilson Quarterly essay: "Popular culture is no longer 'America's secret weapon.'" That seems right. Insofar as we're talking about the Middle East, which we usually are, millions of youths can already get the local equivalent of Lindsay Lohan and Enimem (or, if they want the real thing, there are plenty of local stations that offer it, plus, of course, the internet). The U.S. has nothing new and enchanting to offer on the pop front; this isn't the Cold War, where stimuli-starved Eastern Europeans would strain to hear the glittering and mysterious notes coming over American broadcasts from the west.

Now pop culture still has its uses, as Abu Aardvark would point out, but the United States government doesn't need to be promoting this sort of thing—through, say, Radio Sawa—and anyway, pushing it just reinforces the notion that American culture is dissolute, soulless, and mostly pornographic. Instead, Bayles suggests we start exporting high culture. Sounds good, but how realistic are her suggestion, really? "Support a spoken poetry program"? Okay, if that's what will burnish our image abroad, but will anyone abroad really believe that "American culture" has anything to do with spoken poetry? Or classical music? Or whatever? Granted, the United States right now probably has "more" high culture now than it did at any point during the Cold War—there are too many college-educated Americans for that statement not to be true—but thanks to the internet and globalization of the media, it's a lot harder to sell ourselves as anything but sex-crazed MTV-watchers.
-- Brad Plumer 12:54 AM || ||