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Interview: Martha Bayles on Popular Culture and Public Diplomacy

Martha Bayles

Through A Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad by Public Diplomacy Council member Martha Bayles is hot off the presses from the Yale University Press. I had a chance to read an advance copy, and it is lively. She will speak on May 5 at our monthly forum co-hosted with USC. I posed some questions to her.

Q: A foreign visitor returns home, surprised that American society is so different than what she had seen in the movies and on television. You say entertainment projects a “fun house mirror” view of the U.S. PAOs have tens of thousands of dollars to spend. Hollywood has billions. How can Public Diplomacy counter these distorted images and perceptions?

BAYLES: The funding discrepancy is sobering, but there’s nothing new about America’s public diplomats being outspent – by Hollywood, by unfriendly foreign governments, and (in recent years) by the Pentagon. This hasn’t prevented the best of them from making a difference when and where they can.

I’m not the only one to see our ubiquitous popular culture as the elephant in the Public Diplomacy living room. Many of the public diplomats I interviewed, both at home and abroad, echoed this comment by one USIA veteran: “Popular culture is part of the landscape that the Foreign Service and State Department have to deal with, but nobody’s thinking about it.”

What does today’s popular culture tell the world about America? Freed from regulation and restraint, the U.S. entertainment industry now revels in portraying all the vulgarity, violence, and vitriol it was once forbidden to portray. This is unfortunate, because every society has a golden mean between liberty and license, and American popular culture once occupied that mean, pleasing large and diverse audiences while respecting widely held norms of decency and propriety. This was true of Afro-American music when it “crossed over” to the white audience, and of vaudeville when it “cleaned up its act before taking it on the road.” Respecting shared norms never cramped the style of musical geniuses like Louis Armstrong or brilliant comedians like the Marx Brothers.

In my conclusion I offer suggestions about how we might begin to reckon with this topic. I begin by stating that censorship of America’s cultural exports is not an option, owing to the cultural and technological changes of the past forty years. But that doesn’t mean public diplomats can’t do anything about entertainment that offends foreigners or distorts their understanding of America. My strongest suggestion is to contest the picture. Export the American debate over popular culture, and create forums in other countries for public discussion of popular culture content, ours and theirs. What better way to demonstrate the power of free speech, including criticism and censure, as opposed to repression and censorship?

Q: You say that Public Diplomacy is “exporting our culture war.” Tell us more.

BAYLES: One obvious example is how, in the ongoing conflict over draconian anti-gay laws in Africa, U.S. citizens have stoked the flames on both sides. In Chapter 8 of my book I describe how Scott Lively and other U.S. evangelists traveled to Uganda to preach fire-breathing sermons demonizing homosexuality in a society where the overwhelming majority of the population, Christian as well as Muslim, already disapproved of it. When these outsiders gained a hearing by joining forces with Ugandan ministers accusing the gay-rights movement of being a Western conspiracy, violence broke out, and one well-known gay activist, David Kato, was killed.

The U.S. embassy’s response to this furor was to take sides, sending its senior officer to join a march protesting the murder of Kato. Some Americans would applaud this decision, others would deplore it. But that is my point. When Americans are divided on an issue, our public diplomats should try to explain that division, while also affirming our country’s basic principles – in this case, the respect for the will of the majority, weighed against protection for minority rights. What the embassy in Kampala should have done is speak forcefully about the history of gay rights in America and stress that while some Americans oppose homosexuality on religious grounds, our society does not countenance hate-mongering and violence.

But to do this, we need public diplomats who can look past their own ideological blinders and see that the job is not simply to explain what divides Americans but also to impart what we cherish in common – for example, the capacity to disagree vehemently but not violently. That’s why I suggest recruiting “purple” public diplomacy teams made up of blue-state and red-state officers, training them together, and requiring them to serve together in the field. This course of action is risky, but not as risky as what we are currently doing,

Q: Tell us how the US entertainment industry is making compromises to gain access to China.

BAYLES: The prospect of the Chinese market is so alluring that some U.S. entertainment companies seem willing to barter away their hard-won creative freedom in order to break into it. This trend is largely lost on our domestic news media, which tend to repeat the conventional wisdom that Hollywood is bargaining hard and getting what it wants.

For example, shortly after DreamWorks Animation announced that it was building a new studio in China in early 2012, the Chinese government announced that it was raising its annual import quota of foreign (read: U.S.) films from twenty to thirty-four. Given the timing, this raising of the quota was widely reported as a victory for Hollywood (and for Vice President Joe Biden, who helped broker the deal). But I wonder. The greater the number of U.S. films produced with an eye to the dazzling Chinese market, the greater the leverage the Chinese authorities will have over their content. At some point, it may cease to matter whether U.S.-Chinese co-productions are actually produced in America or in China. But this will not be a neutral outcome, because while Hollywood may not consider these films part of a global contest for cultural superiority, China most certainly will.

At the same time, the manipulations of the Chinese regime should not be equated with the cultural pushback arising in foreign markets with conservative social values, such as India, Indonesia, parts of Africa, and the Arab Middle East. Throughout my book I distinguish between genuine cultural pushback, which reflects real popular sentiment against offensive material, and pseudo-cultural pushback, which in many authoritarian regimes is used as a cover for the repression of political dissent. In China there is real public sentiment against offensive entertainment. But responding to it is hardly the first priority of the regime. Instead, the Chinese Communist Party deliberately confounds what the public finds morally objectionable with what it finds politically unacceptable.

The prospect of U.S. entertainment companies surrendering creative freedom to ideologically aggressive foreign governments did not arise during the Cold War, because none of the Communist powers was in a position to tempt Hollywood with a rich consumer market. Today, however, China is in that position, which is why its apparent ability to bend Hollywood to its will ought to trouble us.

Q: There’s a debate among practitioners over how much Public Diplomacy should support today’s foreign policy initiatives, and how much it should do to create understanding of the U.S. Surely it will do both, but what’s your take on the needed balance?

BAYLES: Borrowing loosely from historian Nicholas Cull, I offer here a list of the four goals of US public diplomacy:

(1) Listening. This goal has two sides: the respectful, considerate side, which matters when you and your interlocutors disagree; and the shrewd, calculating side, which matters when you need to know what the other guy is thinking.

(2) Advocacy. A better and more accurate term than propaganda. It means explaining, defending, and gaining support for your government’s policies and principles. Advocacy is not necessarily untruthful. Indeed, persuasion based on truth is the lifeblood of democratic governance. When Americans do advocacy well, we make freedom and democracy look good. When we do it badly, we discredit our ideals.

(3) Culture and exchange. This goal encompasses both the sharing of expressive culture (literature and the arts) and the conducting of “people-to-people” programs between Americans and others. Prominent among these is educational exchange, for both students and mature scholars. The flagship here is the Fulbright Program, founded in 1946 and (uniquely at the time) structured not just to bring foreigners to the United States but also to send Americans abroad.

(4) News reporting, by the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and other U.S. broadcasters. Using every existing media platform, these broadcasters address overseas audiences in their own languages, with a major emphasis being on the reporting of truthful and accurate news, especially local and regional news, to people in countries where the media are censored or otherwise compromised. This type of broadcasting is called “surrogate,” meaning substitute.

Neither Cull nor I include psychological warfare as a Public Diplomacy goal for the obvious reason that its reliance on deception, cunning, and outright disinformation quickly poisons the atmosphere of trust that public diplomats seek to cultivate.

Advocacy overlaps quite naturally with listening, because people in democratic societies are accustomed to letting the other side have its say while also having theirs. But it mixes less well with artistic and educational exchange, because those involved in these efforts are dedicated to sharing artistic expression, scholarship, and learning for their own sake, not using them to further governmental ends. Nor does advocacy combine easily with news reporting, because the credibility of any news organization, especially a government-sponsored one, is hard to build up and easy to tear down at the first hint of ideological bias.

It is normal for a government agency to have more than one goal. Indeed, because government agencies are subject to diverse pressures from different constituencies, their goals are usually multiple, overlapping, and conflicting. This was certainly true of the USIA, and it is still true of any agency involved in public diplomacy. Setting psychological warfare aside, advocacy is the most difficult to reconcile with the other three goals. To advocate is to explain, defend, and seek support for government policy as forcefully as possible without resorting to manipulation or dishonesty. There is no getting around this goal – indeed, no government would pay for public diplomacy if it did not involve advocacy. What’s crucial is finding the right balance.

This theme has been sounded time and again in the post-9/11 debate over public diplomacy. Yet too often the next step is not serious reform but a quick fix or faddish enthusiasm that fails to give new focus and substance to US public diplomacy.

Q: You’ve said that U.S. public diplomacy is “moribund.” Why? And how can the patient be revived?

BAYLES: At the end of the Cold War, America made a serious mistake in cutting back on government-sponsored public diplomacy and entrusting its reputation to the entertainment industry. But that does not mean we can just turn back the clock. Too much has changed.

At the same time, though, I do not agree that there is no longer any role for government. Some have argued that because America speaks to the world with a multiplicity of voices, including foundations, NGOs, arts organizations, universities, businesses, religious groups, and so on, the best course of action is simply to keep the government out of it. This idea appeals to Americans, with our penchant for private initiative and limited government. But the result is a cacophony that can be confusing, even insulting to others. What’s needed is a more focused and authoritative voice.

To find that focus and authority, we need to do two things. The first is to find some common ground upon which to stand while speaking to others in the name of America. This cannot wait until we resolve our cultural and political differences, because those differences will never be adequately resolved. Indeed, the genius of our institutions and way of life is precisely that they recognize this fact, and make it possible for us to live together in spite of it. If America is still admired as a city upon a hill, it is not because other powerful regimes and global elites see it as an arsenal of hard power or an engine of material progress, but because ordinary men and women look up to it as a fragile but lasting experiment in setting the better angels of our nature against the worse.

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