Martha Bayles, who is now a visiting fellow at the Aspen Institute Berlin, recently gave a speech at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. The subject was America’s rapidly-declining reputation in the rest of the world.
Her conclusion? It’s our sick, degraded popular culture:
When people, especially young people, in rapidly modernizing societies look at America through the lens of our no-holds-barred popular culture, what they see most glaringly is a passion for personal liberation from tradition, religion, family, and restraint of all kinds.
She harks back to a time when the U.S. State Department could partner with Hollywood to officially screen American films at foreign embassies, because these movies presented a positive and clean-cut image of American life. Nowadays, she claims, the world is horrified by our "coarse, violent, and obnoxious" rap music, video games, and "’date movies’" (Date movies?). She also singles out internationally popular television series such as Sex and the City, Oprah, South Park, and Seinfeld (Yes, even Seinfeld!) for critique.
I can’t agree. To be fair, she does cite studies that show about a third of people polled in various countries dislike American popular culture, so she has a bit of empirical proof. But having lived abroad for years, and having talked to more people than I can count about attitudes towards the United States, I think she’s off the mark in two big ways.
No. 1. It’s the invasion of Iraq, stupid.
[Note: This is a paraphrase of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign slogan, not an insult.]
Bayles claims that the export of "debased material" from the U.S. to other countries is the unspoken "elephant-in-the-parlor" that degrades America’s image. But her speech has its own "elephant-in-the-parlor": the invasion of Iraq. Bayles mentions it only once, in passing. But guess what? Many foreigners have the good sense to judge American by its policies, not the latest Hollywood blockbuster or Lil Jon (G) album. Excluding the political extremes, the ordinary Germans I speak to on a daily basis over the past years report a mildly-to-strongly positive image of the United States — popular culture and all — until the invasion of Iraq.
Before Iraq, mainstream Germans may not have supported every aspect of American foreign policy, but they were willing to overlook some points of disagreement (too-uncritical support for Israel) because of the points of agreement (similar values; protection of Western Europe). They respected the people who made American foreign policy. They believed that America, while obviously pursuing its interests foremost, did care about general stability and progress, and was, on the whole, a beneficial and stabilizing force on the world scene.
Now that has changed, because of the way the U.S. staged the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Let’s review: The U.S. invaded Iraq on false pretenses (see Colin Powell’s speech). In order to achieve its ends, it seriously — and intentionally — damaged the reputation and effectiveness of the U.N. (a respected institution in Europe). After taking direct responsibility for the fate of 26 millions of Iraqis by invading their country and dismantling its previous government, the most powerful nation in the world then failed to ensure the safety and dignity of the Iraqi people by providing security and a workable political arrangement. Now, millions of Iraqis, through no fault of their own, face years of civil war. The civil war could engulf the region and provoke countless crises and problems (oil price spikes, refugee flows, new recruits to Islamic extremist movements) that will directly affect Europe.
All of this was, and is, perceived as the direct fault of the United States. The invasion and occupation of Iraq is thus seen, at the very least, as arrogant and reckless. At most, it’s seen as a serious crime against the international order. What’s more, the collapse of Iraq will continue to eat away at (what’s left of) America’s reputation for years. Every new atrocity, mass migration, or government overthrow in the region will be accompanied by a pointed reminder of who initially unleashed the instability. Some American neoconservatives are (contemptibly enough) trying to blame Iraqis for the current problems, but the rest of the world prefers Colin Powell’s formula: you break it, you bought it.
Compared to the invasion of Iraq (and the personality of George W. Bush), the impact of U.S. popular culture on foreigners’ attitudes toward the United States is a mere footnote.
No. 2. American Popular Culture Isn’t All That Unpopular
First point. Most Europeans I know have a relatively positive view of American popular culture. Sure, there’s nasty rap music and violent video games, but those are sub-cultural phenomena; nobody is basing their opinion of America on these things. Not to belabor the point (although it deserves belaboring): Percentage of Germans who know (and care) that gangsta rapper Lil Jon exists: 3%. Percent who know (and care) that the U.S. is losing the war it started in Iraq, thus condemning millions of Iraqis to forced migration, despair, or an ignominious death: 97%.
Further, even rap is not regared as uniformly evil: the reaction is often two-sided, in the sense of "yes, it’s pretty coarse," but then, just as much, "those Americans, for all their faults, are damnably dynamic and creative." Recently, for instance, Die Zeit published a long, fair-minded and generally positive history of rap music (including a visit to Brooklyn, where it all started in the mid-1970s). German hipsters wrote to this very staid weekly newspaper to congratulate it for its unexpected fair-mindedness.
By far the most popular exports, however, are mainstream, relatively wholesome commercial Hollywood action movies and romances — anything that has Jennifer Aniston or Brad Pitt or even Tom Cruise. (Most-watched movie in French history? Titanic.) If Bayles believes shows such as Seinfeld and South Park are harming America’s image, she’s got it exactly wrong. I have met dozens of German and French fans of these shows. These programs create an image of Americans as relaxed, funny, hip, casual, ironic, open-minded, and sincere. South Park, and the movies its creators made, are also popular here, as is The Daily Show. And of course, The Simpsons is now practically an international language.
Second point. In the speech I linked to, and in this interview, Bayles laments the fact that we’re no longer exporting Duke Ellington but 50 Cent. That is, no longer are we parading the virtuous, positive image of America that popular culture reflected in the 1950s, but rather "debased material" which mocks American values and showcases our depravity. Ms. Bayles appears to simply assume that television shows that sometimes highlight the underside of American life or mock American values harm America’s reputation. The opposite is true: these shows improve America’s image because they take pot-shots at American values and institutions.
In Europe, it’s precisely The Daily Show and The Simpsons and Michael Moore (whatever you think of his methods) that mesh with the ideas educated European have of the role of the artist or cultural critic. It’s a sign of health when artists and writers critically examine — and even vituperatively attack — their own countries’ values, traditions, and policies. Europeans expect this sort of critique of their own societies from their own creative elements, and they get it.
Two recent examples, picked at random: I just saw Claude Chabrol’s 1990 film of Madame Bovary (G). Have middle-class values (patriotism, ‘common sense’, hollow sentiments) ever been more acidly mocked? Example number 2: L’Enfant, an estimable movie by the Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Philippe Dardenne. The plot (ridiculously shortened): Unemployed welfare cases in a moribund Belgian industrial town bear a child and then sell it. Were European critics outraged at its bleak portrayal of failed European social policies and anomie? No, they gave it the Palme D’Or.
To Europeans, then, people like Michael Moore, and shows like The Simpsons, provide social critique — a bracing tonic to arrogance and self-satisfaction. Americans are respected for the rare ability to combine this critique with laffs-a-plenty. Further, many American artists are popular and influential in Europe. The outsiders, subversives, and freaks: Charles Bukowski, Paul Auster, Allen Ginsberg, the Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, Truman Capote, Hank Williams, Jr., Johnny Cash, Mahalia Jackson. And, yes, to a certain extent, rap stars. What attracts Europeans is the rebellious, anarchic, extravagantly individualistic side of American popular culture. If it has a dark side to it, all the better.*
So, to sum up: at least in Europe, you might improve America’s image not, and I repeat not, by presenting images of wholesome American ‘traditional values.’ A better way might be to show the world that Americans can be just as self-critical as other nations, and recognize that their country has social problems. Finally, and most importantly, that Americans acknowledge and regret the harm recent American foreign policy has brought to millions of innocent people, and are committed to preventing further such disasters.
* It also helps when an American shows a genuine interest in a country that is not America. The writer Jonathan Littell, a U.S. citizen, recently scored a trifecta. Not only did he write a 900-page novel (exertion factor), but did so from the point of view of an unrepentant Nazi (controversy/social critque factor), and did it in French, as an hommage to his French literary idols (engagement with foreign culture factor). He swept the French literary prize season.