The New Cultural Diplomacy?
During the 1990s the U.S. government quit engaging in old-fashioned cultural diplomacy. With the Cold War over, it proceeded between 1993 and 2001 to cut the State Department budget for cultural and educational programs by 33 percent, dismantle the U.S.Information Agency (USIA), and close American libraries and cultural centers from Vienna to Ankara, Belgrade to Islamabad.
At the same time, the U.S. exported popular culture, especially movies, big time. Between 1986 and 2000 the fees generated by American exports of film and tape went from $1.68 billion to $8.85 billion, an increase of 426 per cent. Not only has foreign box office revenue grown faster than domestic, it is now approaching a 2-to-1 ratio.
In other words, while the big State Department was dozing at the wheel, the "little State Department" (the nickname, since the 1940s, of the Motion Picture Export Association) was busy prying open new markets all over the globe.
Which brings us to the present moment: "Fahrenheit 9/11" is now playing in theaters in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and on DVD in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. According to the New York Times, the theaters are packed. And the message, diplomatically speaking, seems twofold: First, people are struck by "how the American adminstration was able to manipulate the American people." And second, they "want to know more about the reaction to the movie among Americans, who have bought more than $103 million in tickets."
In other words, American democracy is still being showcased overseas, only now the image is of mindless mob being manipulated by demagogues. We could be sanguine and assume that this is OK, it shows that we are free to disagree. But if we keep in mind the classic and contemporary critique of democracy as...well, as a mindless mob being manipulated by demagogues, then this new cultural diplomacy looks less appealing. Maybe the old USIA wasn't so bad, after all?