It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that mass-market
cultural products from the US like Lethal Weapon 4, Sorority
Boys and Meet Joe Millionaire send a less-than-flattering
message to the youth of the world about what it means to be American. Some
truths, surely, we hold to be self-evident. But, as Newt Gingrich and
Peter Schweizer recently reported in the Los Angeles Times, Boston
University academics Margaret
and Melvin DeFleur have taken the time and money to collect some
empirical data on the subject.
Interviewing middle-class high school students in 12 non-Anglophone
nations from South Korea to Nigeria to Pakistan, they found that that
cohort gives the American people a big thumbs-down. According to the
DeFleurs, these kids' exposure to American movies and television shows has
led them overwhelmingly to the view that "Americans are violent,
materialistic, want to dominate, are disrespectful of people unlike them,
not generous, unconcerned about the poor, lack strong family values and
are not peaceful". They also believe that "many Americans engage
in criminal activities and American women are sexually immoral".
Gingrich and Schweizer lay the blame for this astounding result at the
doors of Hollywood, not Washington. They call for some self control on the
part of US media moguls, notwithstanding their practically inviolable
First Amendment right to say whatever they want, wherever and however they
want. It's hard to argue with this particular call to balance the exercise
of rights and freedoms with a pinch of restraint. It's not just Saudis,
Mexicans and Chinese who might breathe a sigh of relief if they copped
just a bit less of the worst of the televisual equivalent of American junk
mail, and at a slightly lower volume. Not a few media consumers in
Michigan, Melbourne, Manchester and Manitoba might be quite pleased too.
But Gingrich and Schweizer aren't really saying less American Voice is
more. Significantly, they also urge the Bush Administration to put more
effort into "public diplomacy programs" that put the world in
touch with "real Americans", so that America's "largely
undeserved" image in the world can change. Hmmm, that sounds
suspiciously like a call for some serious counterspin, also known as
The DeFleurs themselves recommend the inclusion in military briefings
and related official news releases a reminder that "the exercise of
military or economic power is being undertaken not for imperialistic
purposes but to assist and protect others from unwanted circumstances and
conditions". The "obvious" examples they cite of this
assistance and protection include "plans to depose despots with
weapons of mass destruction" (sic). The DeFleurs suggest this type of
message "needs to be emphasised by all official spokespersons with
great frequency and by all channels available". Is this Back to
the Future, The Crucible, or what?
Astounded yet? Well, Melvin DeFleur also makes the jaw-dropping claim
that "pop culture, rather than foreign policy, is the true culprit of
anti-Americanism". Views can and do legitimately differ across this
planet on many aspects of the conduct of US foreign policy. But it's
clearly nonsense to suggest that a bright shining line can be drawn
between matters geopolitical and cultural. It's even more ridiculous to
suggest that the anti-American "global teen" mindset that
allegedly is "one of the parts of the requisite foundation for
next-gen terrorism" - the DeFleurs again - is really a by-product of
bad sitcoms like The Nanny and Ally McBeal, and nothing at
all to do with the way the US globally superflexes its military and
economic muscle. How come these global-teen-terror-cells-waiting-to-happen
don't seem to express the same knee-jerk revulsion for the people,
cultural and sexual morés of France - the nation that recently gave the
world Catherine Breillat's Baise-Moi?
The offending representations targeted by the DeFleurs, Gingrich and
Schweizer do contain important truths about Americans, at home and abroad.
Of course, there are other American truths as well because - to paraphrase
Australian actor Judy Davis - all cultures are terrible and beautiful.
America and its people are every bit as much Mike Moore in Bowling for
Columbine as they are Arnie in Kindergarten Cop, every bit as
much Wag the Dog and Kevin Spacey in American Beauty as they
are Beavis and Butthead and Britney Spears in Crossroads.
They are also everything sold and broadcast everywhere by CNN, Disney,
DreamWorks and the Coen brothers, which adds up to a very complex set of
And lest we forget, all these entertainment products and more were made
by Americans, and largely for (and for the benefit of) Americans.
Collectively, Americans are responsible and accountable for the wider
impact of the representations in these products - just as they are
collectively responsible and accountable for the actions of their elected
President. Just as that President now wishes to hold Iraqis collectively
responsible and accountable for the actions of Saddam Hussein. You can't
keep having it both ways, not in the real world outside your living-room
Even high school students in Islamabad have figured that out.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.