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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“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.