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Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America's Image Abroad

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Why it is a mistake to let commercial entertainment serve as America's de facto ambassador to the world What does the world admire most about America? Science, technology, higher education, consumer goods—but not, it seems, freedom and democracy. Indeed, these ideals are in global retreat, for reasons ranging from ill-conceived foreign policy to the financial crisis and th Why it is a mistake to let commercial entertainment serve as America's de facto ambassador to the world What does the world admire most about America? Science, technology, higher education, consumer goods—but not, it seems, freedom and democracy. Indeed, these ideals are in global retreat, for reasons ranging from ill-conceived foreign policy to the financial crisis and the sophisticated propaganda of modern authoritarians. Another reason, explored for the first time in this pathbreaking book, is the distorted picture of freedom and democracy found in America's cultural exports. In interviews with thoughtful observers in eleven countries, Martha Bayles heard many objections to the violence and vulgarity pervading today's popular culture. But she also heard a deeper complaint: namely, that America no longer shares the best of itself. Tracing this change to the end of the Cold War, Bayles shows how public diplomacy was scaled back, and in-your-face entertainment became America's de facto ambassador. This book focuses on the present and recent past, but its perspective is deeply rooted in American history, culture, religion, and political thought. At its heart is an affirmation of a certain ethos—of hope for human freedom tempered with prudence about human nature—that is truly the aspect of America most admired by others. And its author’s purpose is less to find fault than to help chart a positive path for the future.


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Why it is a mistake to let commercial entertainment serve as America's de facto ambassador to the world What does the world admire most about America? Science, technology, higher education, consumer goods—but not, it seems, freedom and democracy. Indeed, these ideals are in global retreat, for reasons ranging from ill-conceived foreign policy to the financial crisis and th Why it is a mistake to let commercial entertainment serve as America's de facto ambassador to the world What does the world admire most about America? Science, technology, higher education, consumer goods—but not, it seems, freedom and democracy. Indeed, these ideals are in global retreat, for reasons ranging from ill-conceived foreign policy to the financial crisis and the sophisticated propaganda of modern authoritarians. Another reason, explored for the first time in this pathbreaking book, is the distorted picture of freedom and democracy found in America's cultural exports. In interviews with thoughtful observers in eleven countries, Martha Bayles heard many objections to the violence and vulgarity pervading today's popular culture. But she also heard a deeper complaint: namely, that America no longer shares the best of itself. Tracing this change to the end of the Cold War, Bayles shows how public diplomacy was scaled back, and in-your-face entertainment became America's de facto ambassador. This book focuses on the present and recent past, but its perspective is deeply rooted in American history, culture, religion, and political thought. At its heart is an affirmation of a certain ethos—of hope for human freedom tempered with prudence about human nature—that is truly the aspect of America most admired by others. And its author’s purpose is less to find fault than to help chart a positive path for the future.

46 review for Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America's Image Abroad

  1. 5 out of 5

    Miles

    Beyond the one year I spent living and working Japan, I'm not very familiar with how American culture is disseminated and interpreted abroad. So when I first heard about this book on Tom Ashbrook's "On Point," it seemed like the perfect introduction to an interesting topic about which I know very little. Bayles' interview sparked a lively discussion between Ashbrook and his audience, and I realized while listening that it might behoove a lot of Americans, myself included, to learn more about how Beyond the one year I spent living and working Japan, I'm not very familiar with how American culture is disseminated and interpreted abroad. So when I first heard about this book on Tom Ashbrook's "On Point," it seemed like the perfect introduction to an interesting topic about which I know very little. Bayles' interview sparked a lively discussion between Ashbrook and his audience, and I realized while listening that it might behoove a lot of Americans, myself included, to learn more about how our media portrays American life and culture abroad. And while I definitely feel more informed about this issue after finishing Through a Screen Darkly, I also found myself wrestling with many of Bayles' assertions. Her central argument is that private media companies, which currently are almost entirely responsible for sharing American media with the rest of the world, do not do a good job of portraying American life as it actually exists. Instead, our increasingly lewd, violent, and boundary-pushing pop culture helps perpetuate the notion that Americans are dangerous, narcissistic hedonists who don't care about anything other than money, sex, and power. Bayles argues that this problem ought to be remedied by adopting a more cautious and intentional approach to sharing American media abroad, one that involves collaboration between the public and private sectors. I don't entirely disagree with this assessment or Bayles' suggested solutions, but what made this book frustrating for me was that I kept coming back to one simple thought: if America adopted more civil foreign policies, and began using our military and economic power to aid instead of intimidate and manipulate foreign nations, no one would care about the more offensive elements of our pop culture. Bayles dances around this point but never takes it up directly, and my repeated annoyance with this approach marred somewhat my experience of what is otherwise a generally intelligent and informative book. Before analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of this text, I'd first like to identify a few of my own shortcomings and biases. As mentioned above, I'm not very informed about this topic, so some of my criticisms could result from inadequate foundational knowledge of the international relationships and patterns Bayles addresses here. Bayles' style felt quite desultory to me, and I often had trouble following when she quickly jumped between topics, some of which felt unrelated to what came before. I also don't consume a lot of American pop art, so I'm perhaps not in a very good position to understand just how damaging the worst portraits of American culture can be when interpreted through a foreign lens. Additionally, my favorite American art tends to contain a lot of violence, sex, drugs, and the other "negative" features that Bayles identifies as contributing America's unsavory image. As such, I want to defend that art because I think there are very particular and important reasons why American art has progressed in that direction in recent decades, and I think it has everything to do with revealing and seeking to ameliorate our own domestic problems and almost nothing to do with what people in foreign countries think of us. And while I'd never considered this in the past, Bayles' book helped me realize that my views on the media are quite libertarian; I'm extremely uncomfortable with allowing the government to control or exercise undue influence over how American media gets distributed, either domestically or internationally. Parts of this book are genuinely informative and insightful. Bayles provides an excellent history of the means by which America has shared its culture with the world, spanning from the birth of Hollywood to the advent of international radio broadcasting (conspicuously, she does not include a chapter on how the Internet has changed the face of global media). I was also fascinated to learn about the deficit of quality journalism in foreign nations, especially in authoritarian regimes that exert strong controls over the flow of information to the general population. I can understand why many countries look to Western nations with long traditions of independent journalism as a credible news source. The whole concept of "public diplomacy" is new to me, and I'm definitely grateful to now possess a basic understanding of the function and background of this concept in American history. Bayles demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the idea, and offers an especially intelligent appraisal of the difficulty in using American media to "advocate" for American foreign policies. She acknowledges the dangerous tension between the government's desire to promote consumption of America's best art and the potential for abuse that inevitably arises when we make rules about how and why certain cultural artifacts should be chosen for foreign distribution while others are identified as "inappropriate" for foreign markets. She also admits that governmental regulations of this ilk may very well place unfair limits on the private sector, as well as clear a potential space for an American propaganda machine to lay down roots. To her credit, Bayles makes a great effort to strike a reasonable balance when prescribing actions to address a very difficult subject. When it comes to cultural diplomacy, I genuinely like the idea of using government funding to send celebrated artistic offerings around the world (provided it doesn't come with a mandate to openly advocate for American foreign policies). It seems right to me that we should want people in other countries to think well of us, and that we should take reasonable steps to improve America's standing in the international community. However, Bayles failed to convince me that many of her positions were entirely relevant to this matter. Because she wants to focus on how American media is received in other countries, she spends no time contemplating the reasons why American pop culture has moved in a decidedly grim and haughty direction, one that doesn't seem to reflect traditional American values or our current lifestyles (this in itself is a potentially contentious assertion). I think this question is definitely relevant, and Bayles' failure to explore it is a significant shortcoming. It's clear that the quality of life for middle and lower class Americans has been declining steadily since the early 1970s. More than ever, Americans are struggling to get by in a world that seems increasingly interested in expanding the already existing privileges of the few instead of sharing our nation's good fortune with all members of society. American workers are ever more disheartened as wages stagnate, benefits evaporate, and competition for decent jobs stiffens. In light of these developments, it's no surprise to me that there has been a notable shift in our media toward portraits of American life that are violent, desperate, and uncompromising. Even if these adjectives may not apply to the average American, I think it's fair to say that they comprise a dominant thread in our psychological experience as Americans. In my estimation, our most depraved media is the hyperbolic result of an underlying social decay, of a general malaise that Americans feel in our hearts. When we consume such media, we are searching for identity, for answers about why this nagging wound won't heal properly. Our worst (and best) art is representative of our greater struggle to discover if America can in fact stop tearing out its own throat long enough to realize that that its pain is self-inflicted. And while I'm in no way convinced of how this conflict will play out, nor of the role that art may or may not play in that process, I believe strongly that, for better or worse, Americans are desperately trying to tell our story. So, in light of this trend, my question to Bayles would be this: why should I give a shit what foreigners think? I'm not naive enough to ignore the fact that there are many reasonable answers to that question, but none of them moves me enough to want to give the government (or anyone else) the power to influence how American media is shared with anyone, anywhere. I think this perspective only makes sense within the larger context of America's deplorable behavior in the international community. I perhaps did Bayles a disservice by reading her book in tandem with Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, a brilliant and painful recounting of America's recent history of exploiting international financial crises by stepping in to "promote freedom," effectively forcing governments to privatize communally owned resources, slash spending on social programs and deregulate markets so multinational corporations can expand their economic dominance. In light of this harsh reality, it's hard to buy the argument that people hate Americans because our pop music is crude or our reality shows are degrading to human dignity. I think it's much more likely that people hate us because their cousin was obliterated in a US drone strike. To be fair, Bayles isn't entirely unaware of this argument. But she also doesn't address it with the seriousness I think it deserves. A good example of this is her lamentation that we didn't properly train Americans to act as "cultural ambassadors" to the population of Iraq. Bayles suggests that such individuals would have been able to better explain and advocate for the American occupation, completely ignoring the greater reality that there was no good reason for us to be there. If a soldier rolls into town and starts meddling with your society under trumped-up pretenses, it doesn't matter how culturally sensitive that soldier might be––you're still going to hate his guts. There is a whiff of American exceptionalism here; at its worst moments, Bayles' perspective amounts to the same argument republicans made after being trounced in the 2012 presidential election: "It wasn't our policies that were the problem, but the message." Does Bayles truly think that things would be significantly different in Iraq or Afghanistan if our unjustifiable behaviors were accompanied by cultural ambassadors or "Muslim-friendly" media? Additionally, if America truly behaved the way we like to think we do in our dealings with foreign nations––with intelligence and integrity––it wouldn't matter how outlandish our media was. People would shrug and say, "You know, those Americans are crazy, but when it comes down to it, they're all right." If we truly were the good guys around the world, our cultural offerings would be viewed by others as exactly what they are: expressions of artistic taste and cultural questioning, not literal representations of American life. But because we act like reckless jerks, people are willing to believe that we are in fact reckless jerks. And while I agree with Bayles that I wish our media weren't there to reinforce the message, I still think she is missing the greater point that our sometimes off-putting art is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our lousy reputation with other cultures. For all my ranting, I ultimately think Bayles has written a worthwhile book that provides excellent food for thought. Some books are useful simply for drawing my attention to an issue, even if I don't agree with everything the author has to say. For the scope of her project, Bayles has done an admirable job, and I don't think it's necessarily her fault that she left out parts of the discussion that I consider important. However, it remains my view that, even if we put all of Bayles' suggestions into practice, it wouldn't make a jot of difference as long as America continues to cultivate its international reputation as a callous, aggressive bully.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Gabriel Schoenfeld

    It took me a while to turn to this book by my old friend Martha Bayles, and I am gently kicking myself for not reading it immediately when it came out because it takes up questions that I have been thinking about in connection with Russia and the culture war that Vladimir Putin has been waging against the United States. How has the American image abroad been manufactured? And how is the product of that manufacturing process marketed, consumed and received? Martha's book ranges widely over these It took me a while to turn to this book by my old friend Martha Bayles, and I am gently kicking myself for not reading it immediately when it came out because it takes up questions that I have been thinking about in connection with Russia and the culture war that Vladimir Putin has been waging against the United States. How has the American image abroad been manufactured? And how is the product of that manufacturing process marketed, consumed and received? Martha's book ranges widely over these questions and puts a wealth of research to use in deeply probing and historically informed analysis. Having now finished the book, I would say that it is indispensable to anyone interested in our country's relationship with the rest of the world.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Diane

    This book looks at American public diplomacy. The author argues that after the Cold War, the US government cut most of its public diplomacy and expected commercial entertainment from the US to take its place. The author argues that this hasn't served America's best interests, and gives some suggestions on how to improve. I agree with the author's overall point, but she doesn't do a good job of showing how American public diplomacy could do a better job, largely because she provides an incomplete This book looks at American public diplomacy. The author argues that after the Cold War, the US government cut most of its public diplomacy and expected commercial entertainment from the US to take its place. The author argues that this hasn't served America's best interests, and gives some suggestions on how to improve. I agree with the author's overall point, but she doesn't do a good job of showing how American public diplomacy could do a better job, largely because she provides an incomplete picture of what it was like during the Cold War. She also spends a lot of time talking about how people in more traditional countries dislike American entertainment and media, and also about how the American media/movie industry have changed their formats to appeal to more traditional audiences. I thought her point was overall confused by arguments like this.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Sam Schulman

    From my review in the Weekly Standard http://www.weeklystandard.com/article... Martha Bayles, one of the great unsung critics of the baby boom generation, has written a book that is unusual for her. This is a brisk, how-policy-has-gone-wrong-and-what-to-do-about-it book, which conceals in its pages something more: a brilliant and courageous meditation on the difficulty of communication between modern and traditional societies. These difficulties, in turn, suggest that the values we regard as univ From my review in the Weekly Standard http://www.weeklystandard.com/article... Martha Bayles, one of the great unsung critics of the baby boom generation, has written a book that is unusual for her. This is a brisk, how-policy-has-gone-wrong-and-what-to-do-about-it book, which conceals in its pages something more: a brilliant and courageous meditation on the difficulty of communication between modern and traditional societies. These difficulties, in turn, suggest that the values we regard as universally desirable may not be universal, or even desirable—and we certainly aren’t living by them. The argument is simply told. Public diplomacy is vital to American foreign policy. It wins us friends in the world, explains our ideals to skeptical foreign audiences, and shows that we are serious about those ideals. Ever since the United States entered World War I, we’ve conducted public diplomacy with varying levels of finesse, funding, and commitment. Unfortunately, funding and commitment withered away with the passing of the Soviet Union. The Clinton administration, in its first term, proposed cutting the budget for Radio Free Europe. In 1999, the United States Information Agency (USIA) was shuttered altogether by legislation designed by Senator Jesse Helms, Vice President Al Gore, future vice president Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The act distributed the functions of USIA, like fragments of Orpheus’ body, among lower-level officials. ....

  5. 5 out of 5

    Nene

    When she speaks about the social media, she makes some good points regarding the American stereotypes. But the problem with this book is that she discusses too many irrelevant things. She shouldn’t be talking about how good or bad the movies are, or how the French look down on people who like Soda. She should have gone straight to the point in the beginning. I could see a potential for this book, only if a lot of what’s between the introduction and the fourth chapter are taken out.

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    Meredith Baker

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