The Magazine

The Picture of America

To see ourselves as others see us, diplomatically.

Feb 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 22 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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Martha Bayles, one of the great unsung critics of the baby boom generation, has written a book that is unusual for her. This is a brisk, how-policy-has-gone-wrong-and-what-to-do-about-it book, which conceals in its pages something more: a brilliant and courageous meditation on the difficulty of communication between modern and traditional societies. These difficulties, in turn, suggest that the values we regard as universally desirable may not be universal, or even desirable—and we certainly aren’t living by them. 

Louis Armstrong arrives in Milan on a USIA tour (1959).

Louis Armstrong arrives in Milan on a USIA tour (1959).

everett collection / mondadori portfolio / mario carrieri

The argument is simply told. Public diplomacy is vital to American foreign policy. It wins us friends in the world, explains our ideals to skeptical foreign audiences, and shows that we are serious about those ideals. Ever since the United States entered World War I, we’ve conducted public diplomacy with varying levels of finesse, funding, and commitment. 

Unfortunately, funding and commitment withered away with the passing of the Soviet Union. The Clinton administration, in its first term, proposed cutting the budget for Radio Free Europe. In 1999, the United States Information Agency (USIA) was shuttered altogether by legislation designed by Senator Jesse Helms, Vice President Al Gore, future vice president Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The act distributed the functions of USIA, like fragments of Orpheus’ body, among lower-level officials.  

Martha Bayles’s argument is that defunding public diplomacy in the 1990s didn’t halt our image-making activity; it merely privatized it: “The entertainment industry [took] over the job of communicating America’s policies, ideals, and culture to a distrustful world.” But the entertainment industry had changed since the 1940s and ’50s, when it had worked hand-in-hand with Washington to produce an image of America that was noble, heroic, and disinterested. 

Communications technology has changed from broadcast to satellite to Internet, and the post-USSR target audience has changed as well. It is located in different countries and has different problems. What’s happened in Hollywood is obvious. The creative output of America’s movie studios and television producers is of dismal quality: vulgar, sexualized, and violent. When it has a political message, it is usually anti-American; when it doesn’t, it is casually cynical about the motives and honesty of people in business, government, science, and journalism. 

The entertainment industry doesn’t necessarily intend to broadcast an image of American society that is devoid of culture, faith, and morality, and inhabited by deracinated, materialistic hedonists. But allowing the entertainment business to assume the job of communicating our image to the world has been a disaster for foreign policy. When a president speaks about freedom, Martha Bayles asks, what does it suggest to a foreign public? “The political wisdom of the American Framers? The giddy personal freedom expressed in a movie like Convoy?” That was a late Sam Peckinpah CB/trucker/road-revenge film that happened to be the first American movie the Communist party permitted into China in 1978—and it was a huge success.

American image-making was once a scarcity: Voice of America broadcasts had to evade jamming to reach their listeners—neighbors could denounce neighbors for listening—and Levi’s and 45 RPM records sold at black-market prices. But technology and private enterprise have made it a drug on the market. Each episode of Friends—which Bayles finds epitomizes American civilization in the eyes of the world—has been seen 17 billion times, counting illegal downloads and DVDs. A taxi driver in Warsaw teases a professor of American culture: “A contradiction in terms!”

 In the 1950s, George Kennan joked that, because the United States had no ministry of culture, the job fell to the CIA. Dwight Eisenhower had no André Malraux at his side, but we did send cultural assets abroad: Louis Armstrong, Leonard Bernstein, Van Cliburn. Americans have always had an uneasy feeling about highbrow culture—and pop culture as well. Art historians have been lecturing about Abstract Expressionism as a Cold War weapon since I was in graduate school, but Harry Truman nixed an exhibition of American painting that would have brought Jacob Lawrence to Europe as too advanced. When Ronald Reagan appointed Charles Z. Wick to head the USIA, an old hand declared that no one who had once been an arranger for Fred Waring should ever hold that post. 

 

Still, our old hands completely missed the opportunity created by avant-garde rock in the late 1960s. The major dissident group in late-1960s Czechoslovakia assembled around an underground band inspired by (among others) Frank Zappa’s The Mothers of Invention. “We missed the 1960s,” another old hand tells Bayles. In 1979, the USIA sent Frank Sinatra to Egypt. 

From what I’ve described here, Through a Screen Darkly might sound like a think-tank analysis combined with an exercise in conservative movie-bashing. It is not. Bayles helps us to experience the image of America through the eyes of foreign audiences—people she has met in Indonesia, China, Hong Kong, India, the Emirates, Egypt, and Russia—who are avid consumers of American popular culture. And as they view, they judge. 

Bayles discovers, for example, that Friends is America’s calling card to the rising generation in a world of emerging modern economies. It fascinates because it shows a paradise they don’t have: a space of freedom between education and adult responsibility that exists nowhere else, and is filled entirely with pleasure. After a year as an exchange student in the United States, a young Egyptian tells Bayles that she “was astonished to see how much time Americans spend with their families.” She had had every reason to think that there were “no families, just individuals” in America. In China, young adults study episodes of Sex and the City as if the show were a manual for conducting adult sexual relationships, delivering its advice in a world that excludes children, parents, and grandparents of adults.

But American television can do much worse than fail to convey family warmth, idealism, and public-spiritedness: It can support an unjust status quo. Russian television has specialized in imitations of American trash-talk and reality shows, and the authorities encourage them. Bayles argues that the format is inherently antifreedom: Vulgarity on television  demoralizes Russian society and reinforces its crude self-image. Vladimir Putin is delighted when reform candidates ask Russians to turn off the TV, get out, and demonstrate: Doing so reveals them to be effete, Westernized Muscovites. (“That way the ‘real Russia’ can hate them all the more,” a Russian writer tells Bayles.) Reality shows are useful to tyranny because they have “encouraged ordinary people to accept—even welcome—being spied upon.” This kind of programming “reinforces the power of authoritarian government in countries where ordinary men and women are already cynical and distrustful.”

Bayles is sore about what’s happened to American entertainment and our government’s inability to restart public diplomacy, and she has interesting ideas about what has gone wrong. But the emotional focus of Through a Screen Darkly is not public diplomacy’s message or medium; it’s the audience that fascinates her. Broadly, she defines the target audience as consisting of “restive populations under authoritarian governments.” They are largely, but not completely, non-Christian. And what distinguishes this audience from its Cold War predecessors is not any specific religious difference, but the nature of its relationship to religion as part of a traditional way of life that is all-encompassing. 

Our fellow Friends-viewers abroad are bound by ties of kinship, custom, and belief closer to those of continental Europe during the ancien régime than to those of the world of the Founders—or even our fathers. Our devout neighbors may be offended by Friends’s treatment of casual sex and immodesty, but the shock of a traditionalist family viewing it is of another order. People bound up in family and clan relationships, who feel duties to parents, siblings, and spouses, and who have regional, tribal, and sectarian loyalties, see a world they can hardly believe, but which they believe to be ours: a grouping of utterly unmoored individuals with no human affections they can recognize, no religion, no sense of honor, and free of any social or family expectations. Friends must strike audiences in these societies as Samuel Beckett’s plays struck Paris in the 1950s: depicting humanity stripped of everything human.  

America’s new image undermines our claim to speak for universal values, blue or red. Through a Screen Darkly is carefully friendly to figures in the Obama administration and conventionally scornful of George W. Bush’s aim to promote democracy. But that doesn’t protect Hillary Clinton from some of Bayles’s harshest criticism—for the “gender agenda” of her term as secretary of state, for example. 

“Mainstream feminists like .  .  . Clinton are secure in an image of themselves as good mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, and friends .  .  . educated and respected,” she writes. But when Clinton (or Eve Ensler, another of Bayles’s targets) brings her feminist balm to traditional societies in Africa and Asia, she speaks to an audience with a very different picture of the typical American woman: “rampantly materialistic, promiscuous, contemptuous of men, and indifferent to such duties as caring for children and the old.”

In the eyes of Congolese women, for example, a Desperate Housewives image seems appropriate. Ensler’s foundation uses royalties from The Vagina Monologues to build safe houses for women in a number of African countries; in war zones, they’re a godsend. But in other areas, people think they tempt adventurous adolescent girls to run away from their families. This doesn’t help women as much as it injures what “the Congolese value most: the unity of their family and community.” Even in wartime, feminism’s agenda strikes Congolese women as bizarre, since they mourn when anyone in their family is butchered: 

Do we want to tell the Congolese that we care more about their wives and daughters than about their husbands and sons? Our preoccupation with individual freedom, including sexual freedom, over other, more communal claims, can make freedom less not more desirable.

Bayles understands that the golden age of American public diplomacy is over. The Cold War audience yearned to be free; our mission was to ensure that they were well-informed and to urge them to be hopeful yet patient. Today’s audience has far more in common with its rulers than did the peoples of the Warsaw Pact, who were subject to an alien Communist regime. And today’s regimes can reassert their authority by mobilizing against a common threat to ruler and ruled: a godless, rootless America. Our gospel of freedom and individual possibility has little purchase in places where familiarity with our popular culture demonstrates that the outcome of our gospel is loathsome.

Bayles’s genius here is not just in dissecting the pathology of the pop-culture mind, but in revealing its effects on the world at large—in matters of war, peace, freedom, and human relations. She is also open to the idea that the entertainment industry’s distortions and libels have a degree of truth to them. And that’s the bad news: America’s image, as distorted in Hollywood’s mirror, may be telling us something unlovely about ourselves.

Sam Schulman is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.