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Part II - In-Country, The Battle for National Cultures

By Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan

From the outside looking in, Canadians’ commitment to Canadian art must look impressive. Radio stations play Canadian music, orchestras perform works by Canadian composers, theatres perform Canadian plays. Then there are all those movies that used to be shot in the US but are now being produced in Canada - to the increasing upset of Hollywood [LA Times].

Yet while Canadians support Canadian culture in principle, their support for it in practice is an artificial construct, an illusion held together with mirrors and twine and lots of government subsidy. In a country whose citizens make a great show of wanting to be different from the Americans, it is clear that given the free choice, they’ll consume American culture rather than their own. Without the subsidy, most of that impressive public support melts away.

Next door to the largest pop cultural industrial complex on the planet, questions of support for national culture [National Post] are more than just academic. With a common language and easy access to American radio, TV, movies, books, magazines and music, American culture is about as familiar to Canadians as their own. A recent poll even found that French-speaking Quebecers prefer American pop culture to imports from France.

Believing that encouraging a homegrown cultural identity is important, generations of Canadian governments have passed Canadian content laws, subsidizing Canadian-produced music, movies, books and magazines, and dictating that broadcasters and presenters carry a minimum requirement of Canadian content.

Classical musicians who want government funding have to perform at least some Canadian music to be eligible. Canadian orchestras and theatre companies, radio and TV stations and magazines, all know that if they want to do business in Canada, a portion of their seasons or airtime or publication must be given over to work with an approved “Made in Canada” label.

While the goals of such a system might be desirable, cultivating the home-grown in this way is problematic. Such a system supports many second- and third-rate artists whose work wouldn’t survive open competition and critics worry about propping up a culture of mediocrity. Paradoxically, those artists whose work is good enough to compete often have difficulty getting recognition at home because consumers have learned to be wary of the “Made In Canada” label. Canada’s artists generally have to leave the country and make it south of the border before they’re appreciated at home.

But if protection has its downside, so does the open market. In Canada last year, despite considerable government support for the Canadian film industry, only two percent of movies playing in theatres were Canadian [National Post]. Decades ago when American magazines were allowed free access to Canadian newsstands, Canadian newsmagazines perished, and didn’t reappear again until they were again given economic protections by the government.

And Canada is just a particularly acute case of free trade becoming American cultural domination. Countries around the world worry about the loss of their cultural identity [NYTimes]. In China, residents of remote villages grow up with Dallas reruns on their TV’s. In Turkey, Baywatch is a ratings phenomenon. In India, Who Wants to be A Millionaire is the biggest thing on TV [Times of India]. American music dominates radio airwaves in many countries, and there is a lucrative trade in pirate tapes of American movies and music from Kathmandu to Hong Kong.

The concerns aren’t just economic. At home, Americans worry about the effect the entertainment industry has on their own culture, but no imaginable triumph of the entertainment culture will make America other than America. Other countries see their struggle against the value system behind American entertainment as a matter of cultural life and death [Times of India]. They fear that American values as portrayed on screen or CD will not just affect but subvert and ultimately supplant their own cultures.

Fearing this, numerous countries have their own versions of the Canadian content laws “The Dutch decided two years ago that their orchestras must devote at least seven per cent of performing time to the work of Dutch composers, while France has responded to the decline of the French language with a host of projects designed to emphasize Frenchness.” [Telegraph]

The French are among the most aggressive about protecting their cultural identity, deeply subsidizing culture in all forms, and this French resistance is far more frequently noticed in the American press than its counterpart in other countries. Still, as the battles to keep American slang from encroaching on French language show (le hot dog, anyone?) culture resists regulation. French films, which used to have a wide following both inside and out of France, have lost market share in recent decades. Last year, though 120 French movies were produced, fewer than a third of the movies shown [Telegraph] in French theatres were French; American movies dominate.

In the past year there have been two international summits – with the US pointedly not invited – to discuss what should be done to protect national cultures from the Americans.

Last September in Greece, cultural representatives from 70 nations formed a new body called the International Network for Cultural Diversity to protect national cultures. "We want this to be a legal and enforceable agreement that will give countries the ability to support culture and diversity and to stand up to trade measures that are infringing on their cultural sovereignty." [CBC]

At another international conference last December, this time with delegates from 60 countries in Ottawa, the majority of attendees reaffirmed their desire to take a protectionist stance in cultural matters: "you can't stop the transmission of U.S. culture, so it needs to be regulated [Ottawa Citizen]."

That means national content quotas and a limit on the amount of American cultural products allowed in, as well as how and where these products can be sold and distributed. But cultural products are now America’s biggest export [Globe & Mail], and the Americans are not about to stand by and see their markets killed by regulation. In free trade negotiations, the Americans have put cultural trade front and center.

Some countries, notably France, have refused to include cultural trade clauses in trade agreements, fearing that “such clauses turn culture into a commodity” and therefore put national cultures at the mercy of well-financed American business interests. “For that reason, France derailed the Multilateral Agreement on Investment talks four years ago, and refuses to allow culture to be included [Globe & Mail]in World Trade Organization agreements.”

Besides, the Americans aren’t above suggesting a little government intrusion on the free market of their own when it suits their purpose. Hollywood’s film industry has been crying for government subsidies [Variety] for American movies because so many movie productions have been lured away to film in Canada. The Canadian government does subsidize shooting movies in Canada [Ottawa Citizen]. Labor is cheaper as well. But when the vast majority of movies shown in your country are American, when American movies profit handsomely from the Canadian box office, it doesn’t seem unfair to try to grab some production dollars in return.

In countries like China, where CD piracy takes place on a massive scale and where Americans insist on government enforcement of international copyright, the government is ambivalent [NYTimes] about shutting down the copiers. Average Chinese cannot afford Western CD prices, and while there is a huge appetite for American music, little of the money used to purchase it legally stays in the country. In effect, the Chinese have chosen to steal the foreign product rather than compete with it by subsidizing a domestic product.

For those nations that do choose to compete, usually by subsidizing their own cultural production, the payoff may not come in dollars alone. By subsidizing movie production Canadians hope to create a production infrastructure [CBC] that will support better Canadian movies. By spreading money around to Canadian composers and coercing musicians and orchestras to perform their work, it is hoped the quality of composition improves. The goal, in other words, is not higher profits but better movies and better music.

At that level, self-reliance is a strategy that has clearly fostered success as well as protecting failure. Though the Canadian book industry is currently in shambles, Canadian writers have flourished in recent years, and have recently seemed to win every major international literary prize in sight [Globe & Mail]. Those smaller cultures that, like Canada, find themselves outmatched by seductive, slick American challenges need to remember that America did not always seem so omnipresent and irresistible.

When Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “The American Scholar” in 1837, he worried that his country might never be more than a pale cultural imitation of Europe. The remedy for that condition, Emerson said, was cultural self-reliance. If Emerson was right that self-reliance is the defining American virtue, then nothing in the end is more American than cultural resistance to America.

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