Tying Down a Cultural Giant

There's an amusing scene in Gulliver's Travels where the protagonist awakens from a nap and has his first encounter with the tiny people of Lilliput.

There's an amusing scene in Gulliver's Travels where the protagonist awakens from a nap and has his first encounter with the tiny people of Lilliput. "I attempted to rise," Gulliver recalls, "but was not able to stir for, as I happened to be on my back, I found my arms and legs were strongly fastened on each side to the ground…I likewise felt several slender ligatures across my body, from my armpits to my thighs." A sleeping giant, the Lilliputians discover, is surprisingly easy to tie down.

This fictional scene is being replicated in real-life, with the United States as the target.  Since 1998, a group of governments representing nearly 60 countries has met annually to devise ways to tie down the giant known as American popular culture. The group is known as the International Network on Cultural Policy (INCP). Its members feel that American popular culture represents an existential threat to their own identity. As Kim Campbell, a former Canadian prime minister put it,  "images of America are so [globally] pervasive…that it is almost as if instead of the world immigrating to America, America has immigrated to the world, allowing people to aspire to be Americans even in their distant cultures."

INCP's members hope that by the end of 2004, they can finish fashioning the "thread" they'll use to bind down the United States. The thread takes the form of a proposed global treaty on cultural goods, backed by the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). If the treaty should pass, cultural goods will be made exempt from future free trade talks. Bureaucrats who happen to believe their fellow citizens consume too many American movies, for example, will be able to impose various forms of screen quotas to reduce consumer access to Hollywood's forbidden fruit. Stripped of its ability to raise the matter during trade negotiations, Washington will find it difficult to overturn this protectionism.

Anxiety about American cultural reach is hardly new. For many of INCP members from the developing world, denouncing Western cultural exports in general - and American cultural exports in particular - as a source of cultural "pollution" is an old hat. Take the example of China (which belongs to INCP). Paul G. Pickowicz, a historian at the University of California, San Diego, has documented how, over the past 100 years, Chinese "political and intellectual elites" of various ideological stripes (Communist, nationalist, socialist, etc.) have routinely "sought to mobilize (and manipulate) ordinary people by issuing grave and sometimes hysterical warnings about the dangers of alien cultural contamination." Ironically, those warnings have often come in the form of heavy-handed propaganda films made with technology that originated in the West.

Nor is a suspicion towards American culture exactly new for the Western countries involved with INCP. Take France for example, INCP's call to take up arms against global cultural "homogenization" (a code word for "Americanization") sounds like a better-camouflaged version of the hostility towards American popular culture that has long exercised France's America-phobes. Beneath the surface of INCP's talk of the need to protect "cultural diversity" in an era of "globalization" and the "increased mobility of people, economic liberalization, new communication technologies and industry consolidation" is a fear of America's cultural power.  INCP gives the French a chance to package old wine into new wineskins, as it were.

In the mid-1990s, for example, during a trade tussle between France and America over cultural issues, French producer Marin Karmitz said that "sound and pictures have always been used for propaganda, and the real battle at the moment is over who is going to be allowed to control the world's images, and so sell a certain lifestyle, a certain culture, certain products, certain ideas."

The tone of Karmitz's rhetoric is not so different from that thrown around by some of INCP's most ardent supporters. In early 2003, Sheila Copps, Canada's former Minister of Heritage, portrayed INCP's work as nothing less than the defence of "the right of creators and thinkers to express themselves freely, as well as the right of states to establish their own cultural policies." To give into demands for freer trade in cultural products would be "tantamount to putting our soul on the auction block." (Actually, it could just be a way to create new opportunities for artists everywhere to expose new audiences to their creations - but let that pass for now.)

Although INCP is mainly run by Western states (Canada and France are especially active), it's interesting to note the similarities between INCP's hostility towards American cultural exports, and some strains of thought found in Islamic fundamentalism. In the 1940s, a school of thought known as "Islamic economics" came to life in India. Its supporters, according to University of Southern California at Los Angeles Professor Timur Kuran, were intellectuals "striving to justify why [Muslims] should have cultural autonomy and even their own state," instead of joining in the building of a secular Indian state.

As Prof. Kuran puts it, to the intellectuals' horror, "secularism was turning Muslims into pseudo-Muslims with mindsets and lifestyles indistinguishable from those of Westerners." The intellectuals' one hope was to show Muslims that "Islamic and Western values [were] incompatible." They did so by creating a school of economic thought built on selective quotations from the Koran. These quotes purportedly demonstrate how "certain universal economic practices" (such as charging interest on loans) are un-Islamic. Muslims who accept "Islamic economics" must reject "assimilating into the emerging global culture whose core elements have a Western pedigree."