Still Alive

Has it really been more than a month since I posted an entry?  If you are out there, fanatically loyal reader, I apologize.  This blog is a challenge, when all one does all day is try to find the next sentence in a book manuscript.

Nevertheless, good intentions spring eternal, and I hereby post an op-ed that appeared two days ago in the Boston Globe and will appear tomorrow in the International Herald Tribune.  It's a preshrunk version of a long chapter I just wrote for my book, called "The Washington-Hollywood Pact."  Hope it will hold down this page until next time.  (I vow to do better!)

Risky business for Hollywood

From the negative depiction of Washington in most Hollywood movies and the frequent criticism of Hollywood in Washington, you'd never guess the film industry and the U.S. government are an old married couple who quarrel at home but are united before the rest of the world.

This unity was on display last month in Washington at a contentious panel discussion sponsored by Vanderbilt University's Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy. The issue at hand was the export of American films to billions of people around the globe who both welcome and resent them.

Hollywood and Washington have cooperated closely on this export, now more than 10 times larger than America's import of foreign films, creating a balance of trade more favorable than that of any other industry save aerospace.

The problem, however, is that our old married couple achieves this by treating film like any other product - and in the process ignores foreign resentment toward Hollywood's enormous cultural power.

Many Americans assume that the popularity of American films is a natural outcome of global consumer preferences. And in much of the world, demand has always been strong. But equally strong have been the cajoling, persuading and downright strong-arm tactics that for years have been applied to foreign governments by the Motion Picture Association of America and various players in Washington, from the Defense Department to (most recently) the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

These tactics have fostered resentment - and resistance. On the Washington panel, one speaker was a former minister of Canadian Heritage, Sheila Copps, who recently lobbied Unesco to adopt the Cultural Diversity Convention, a resolution affirming the right of any country to exempt "cultural goods and services" from the rules of international trade agreements.

This is not the first such initiative, and to opponents, it is just an excuse to erect protectionist barriers against the "free flow of information" (especially Hollywood films). To its advocates, it is a crucial defense of national cultures against the onslaught of "global mono-culture" (especially Hollywood films).

The Cultural Diversity Convention was adopted by Unesco in 2005 by a vote of 148 to 2, with only Israel joining America in opposition. The resolution is not binding. Even so, such a high-profile endorsement of cultural protectionism should worry both Hollywood and Washington.

But Hollywood could care less. On the panel, Dan Glickman, president of the Motion Picture Association, jokingly recalled that when he was secretary of Agriculture under Bill Clinton, his European Union counterpart tried to block U.S. farm products on the grounds that "genetically modified food was cultural." The Cultural Diversity Convention, Glickman said, felt like "déjà vu all over again."

Yes, you heard right. The world's most powerful film lobbyist dismisses the idea that movies are culture and insists that they are mere commodities.

To repeat, this has long been the U.S. stance in high-pressure trade negotiations. After all, argues Curb Center director Bill Ivey in his new book, "Arts, Inc.," America has never had a ministry of culture, charged with supporting the arts at home and shaping their flow to the rest of the world. This is mainly because we've never wanted one.

Yet this lack of leadership leaves Hollywood and Washington talking about America's most important cultural exports as though they were so many bioengineered eggplants.

It is also ironic, because when the Motion Picture Association was founded in 1922, it was in reaction to a 1915 Supreme Court decision that defined cinema as "business, pure and simple," and therefore not eligible for First Amendment protection.

Because this ruling raised the specter of state censorship, the major film studios agreed to adopt the Production Code that restricted sex and violence. Only later did the courts redefine cinema as protected speech - which is to say, as artistic expression.

American film makers today have more freedom than any of their predecessors or peers. Sometimes the results are wonderful. But sometimes they are deeply offensive: empty spectacle, sniggering adolescent treatments of sex and ultra-violent imagery.

As a result, millions of foreigners - not just ministers of culture, but also ordinary people - feel assaulted. When Hollywood and Washington respond to their concerns by reducing film to the status of "business, pure and simple," they add insult to perceived injury.
May 8, 2008 2:33 PM |



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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Martha Bayles published on May 8, 2008 2:33 PM.

I Was Wrong was the previous entry in this blog.

More on Cultural Diversity is the next entry in this blog.

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