Thursday, October 27, 2005

Why Does the Bush Administration Hate American Culture?

US Secretary of State Condi Rice's take on what UNESCO's Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity means in real-world terms is mostly right, but not totally. She has argued that it will "incite authoritarian regimes to violate the right to freedom of expression and minority rights." I can see where it might be used toward that end. But what she didn't say in that objection (the US and Israel are the only two members of UNESCO to vote against the declaration, which was passed in Paris last week with 148 votes for, two against, and four abstentions) is what everyone knows she really means: "the real impetus behind Rice's opposition would appear to be a desire to maintain [US] cultural hegemony and the economic benefits that come with it."

Of course, I know, the way to spin Rice's position, both cynically and idealistically, is, respectively, because we dominate already, we have nothing to gain by supporting other nation's cultural protectionism and second, free market open exchange and survival of the fittest IS American culture, so we're essentially arguing for the same thing the nations who supported the Declaration are. Both of these are easier to argue while you're on top, and although the second spin is certainly arguable, it's not exactly the aspect of our culture I want to be remembered most for by future generations.

But there's another way to interpret this. The reason other nations want to take measures to protect their cultural identity is because they value their cultural identity...they're proud of it. Sure they'd love to have the monopoly on global culture that the US has, but more than that, they want their culture to survive, so their posterity can see what they've accomplished. In that context, one can interpret Rice's objection to the Declaration to be a rejection of the importance of US culture. Perhaps it's not worth protecting in her eyes. Even she must be able to imagine that US culture won't dominate forever. With China and India rising, economically and culturally, we may see the day in our life times when we're glad the initiative passed.

Living in New York, where every other week it seems, we're celebrating our Irish or Italian or Jewish or African or Carribean or Colombian or Greek or Chinese or whatever heritage, it's odd to me that we don't understand, as a nation, why those native cultures feel threatened by the money and muscle behind promoting US culture to their children. It's one thing to stand on cold-hearted capitalistic principles when dealing with cars or computers, but when the product in question symbolizes the very identity of a people, I'd rather we not be the nation leading the charge to marginalize them. I like and am proud of American culture, but I'd be bored stiff if it were the only offering available for me to learn about (it's nowhere near old enough to answer many questions). I want the older cultures that don't have the resources to promote themselves globally to survive locally. If a bit of protectionism is needed to do so, then so be it. We're not talking about refrigerators here.


Blogger double-plus-ungood said...

Not completely on topic, but during the early mornings, my kids and I watch cooking shows. This morning it was Emeril Live, and the theme of the show was Las Vegas. He started the show with a glowing review of the Venetian Hotel, where he was paddled down ersatz canals by an opera-singing gondolier under a painted and cunningly-lit "sky" that unsucessfully tried to mimic Venice's famous light that was used with such great effect by the painters of the high Renaissance.

The kids and I had a short discussion about this mimicry, and about the sadness of making a cheap copy of a 2,000-year old culture like this in order to make a buck from the tourists.

Yeah, I can understand the need and desire to protect cultures.

10/27/2005 07:12:00 PM  
Blogger Ron Diorio said...

I recently read a review of "Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger", by Phillip Marchand if the SF Guardian and this stuck out.

"McLuhan believed that the artist did not create art objects; rather, the audience moved one to create a given thing. According to Marchand, when the Canadian government asked McLuhan his ideas about increasing Canadian content on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., he said that it wasn't necessary: When Canadians watch Bonanza, it is Canadian content."

And I wonder perhpas too cynically if the celebrating our Irish or Italian or Jewish or African or Carribean or Colombian or Greek or Chinese or whatever heritage in NY is not just part of productizing those cultures for consumption of their food, music or other cultural misc "community" tokens.

10/29/2005 07:09:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Very interesting point ron diorio, suggesting that in the end the reasons for protectionism boil down to economics (i.e., it may be "Canadian flavored" Bonanaza in the minds of Candinian viewers, but it's not Canadian artists receiving the revenues from those airings).

McLuhan is speaking broadly there of course. Having lived in the UK for a while watching both British and US programs on the TV, you do adopt the foreign characters as your own, but they don't speak to you quite as richly as your own, IMO.

10/29/2005 10:11:00 AM  

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