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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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.