Outlook: Exporting American Popular CultureOutlook: Exporting American Popular Culture

Byline: Martha Bayles

From the beginning, the United States has used its rich cultural resources to promote its national interests overseas. But today, with America's reputation around the world in decline, most Americans seem unmindful of the negative impression that we have been making with our popular culture. Since the end of the Cold War, funding for public diplomacy has been cut, while Hollywood has aggressively expanded its exports. The result is that we are super-sizing to others the very cultural diet that is giving us indigestion at home.

Martha Bayles , author of "Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music," was online Monday, Aug. 29, at 1 p.m. ET to answer readers' questions about her Sunday Outlook article, Now Showing: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Americans .

The transcript follows.

Vienna, Va.: Ms. Bayles,

Your article "Exporting the Wrong Picture" (The Washington Post, Sunday, 8/28/05) made me think a lot. I agree that popular culture presents a distorted image of American way of life: there is very little in pop culture about compassion of Americans, patriotism, and family oriented values. However I find it natural that in our politically correct and law obedient society, popular art searches for expression of darker, suppressed sides of human nature. It is also inevitable that our manufacturers of popular art produce only what could be sold. I'm sure you also teach your students that sublimation, aesthetisation of perversion and sin are also functions of art.

And yet I do not believe it would be possible to export "doctored" (if you feel shy about "censored") popular art. In fact it would be even counterproductive because such an attempt would convince intellectual elite in other countries that we are indeed a rather hypocritical society engaged in plain propaganda. It is better to admit with humility that our popular culture pervaded almost every society on Earth, rather than to invite new accusations that we are a cynically pragmatic society that does not object to eroding values of other cultures when it comes to political or financial gains.

Even if you managed to revitalize USIA or to create a new more culturally refined institution that would beam abroad an adequate image of our way of life, it would hardly help us out of the current miserable situation: What painting, song, movie can overwrite photographically accurate pictures of torture at Abu Ghraib?

Martha Bayles: Tough questions. First, I agree with you that serious art can and does deal with the darker side of human nature. If we censored all such work, we'd lose everything from the Oresteia to MacBeth, and be left with Barney the Purple Dinosaur. Or to put it in the context of popular culture, we'd lose Tupac Shakur and "The Wire" and be left with ... well, Barney the Purple Dinosaur.

But we have a problem, because our ever-so-prolific producers of trash enjoy the same freedom as our artists. And many of the people now attracted - and repulsed - by our trash do not share our all but absolutist ideal of expressive freedom. I agree with you that there is no going back: any attempt at government censorship would not only fail, it would also (given the commitment of contemporary culture to "transgressing the boundaries) pour gasoline on the flame.

Finally, cultural diplomacy is a long-term strategy whose underlying principle is not just to talk but to listen. The refrain of every USIA veteran I have read and talked to is that the most important part of the job is keeping open a two-way channel of communication. Maybe if such channels had been properly maintained in the last 15 years, we wouldn't be reeling from such spectacular misjudgments as the one that (at whatever level in the chain of command) approved the interrogation tactic of sexually humiliating Muslim prisoners.

The Hague, The Netherlands: Ms. Bayles- as the vast majority of American media productions, both good and bad, are for sale globally, and as it seems the vast majority of foreign media chooses to purchase and run specific content which portrays America in the worst possible light; to what do you attribute their decision to overwhelmingly purchase content most negative the American image- the fact that poorer quality shows are usually cheaper to purchase, or that the content re-enforces the image in which those countries and their national media outlets seek to propagandize America? Or could it be argued, using Europe as an example, that the specific content aired about American on those same foreign outlets reflects exactly what their European media customers want to see about America; as it reinforces their long held, historical negative images of America and also fulfills their need to see America as an inferior country culturally, historically and politically to their own?

Martha Bayles: Thank you for the thought-provoking question. I stand corrected by another reader that the "Harry Potter" films are largely British productions (it's high time the Brits went in for a little cultural protectionism!). My point is simply that the most popular films internationally tend to be blockbusters; "Titanic" still tops the list. And most of these do not depict American society directly. (Of course, interpreting their indirect symbolism is a cottage industry in academia.)

For the rest, I defer to the respondent. DO television viewers in the Netherlands demand, and get, only the shoddiest representations of America? This is a question that urgently needs to be addressed with some serious research. That is why I raised the issue.

Washington, D.C.: I lived for some time in Brazil, a country with substantial media capabilities of its own, but at the same time a wide variety of American programming available to those who choose to watch or listen to it. In my experience, it seemed that Brazilians (especially the younger generation) who had greater exposure to American pop culture tended to have more favorable attitudes toward the U.S.

I wonder what your thoughts are as to whether American pop culture is always viewed negatively abroad.

Martha Bayles: Oh no, not at all. Much of it is positive. And certainly there will be different patterns of response, not to mention selection, in different countries. I am very interested to hear this about Brazil.

Paris, France: Dear Martha,

I'll be in the middle of a dinner with friends when your event starts and won't be able to participate. I may not have been clear in saying that I live in Paris and the six hour time difference puts me in the evening here.

What I wrote in response to your article was that as an ex-foreign service officer with USIS, and former director of the American Cultural Center in Paris, I was in the middle of the long controversy over culture that resulted in the government closing down most cultural activities. For this reason I left the government after my Paris tour.

An attempt now to start up a slick advertising campaign to convince people to love us is as misplaced as was closing down everything 30 years ago. Culture is a longtime affair and changing cultural attitudes can't be accomplished overnight through a media campaign comparable to selling a new soap. We can throw as much money was we want at it and it still won't work.

The major reason culture was stopped in the 70's was that the so-called "realists" convinced the politicians that culture was artsy fartsy and that government money should not be spent on it. The political goals demanded something different. And, of course political goals are always short-term and few of the policy people are willing to wait for the long-term results to take hold. So, blind to the positive things that had happened through years of at least decent cultural programming, they took it all apart.

Just one small example of the myopia of the political side: In 1975 I predicted that the Socialists would be in power by the end of the decade - a simple cultural observation that I felt was obvious. The political side of the embassy was all over me, a cultural type who obviously didn't know what he was talking about. When I came to collect my bet after Mitterand's election, nobody remembered it.

I'm not sure governments are capably of working in the long-term or that politicians or bureaucrats can defend such projects. That's why I am sure the present effort will fail.

Good luck with your discussion.