Today's date:
Winter 2008

Lost Luster

International Herald Tribune, 2006

Nathan Gardels is editor of NPQ and Global Services at Tribune Media Services International. Mike Medavoy, chairman and chief executive of Phoenix Pictures, has been involved in the production of scores of films, including Apocalypse Now, Platoon and the soon to be released All the King's Men.

Los Angeles — The publication of cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed in a Danish daily earlier this year inflamed the pious and mobilized the militant across the Muslim world.

The American casting of Chinese actresses in Memoirs of a Geisha stirred the considerable ire of Japanese nationalists when it was released.

At a recent Rolling Stones concert in Shanghai, the Chinese government prohibited the aging rockers from singing "Let's Spend the Night Together."

Indonesian Muslim activists are in an uproar over the launch of a local version of Playboy magazine—even though there is no nudity.

These are but the latest episodes of a clash that is a result of the globalized media crowding cultures with incommensurate values into the same public square.

They suggest that, unlike past moments in history, the main conflict today is less about armies and territories than about the cultural flows of the global information economy.

The core of that system is America's media-industrial complex, including Hollywood entertainment. If culture is on the front line of global affairs, then Hollywood, as much as the Pentagon or Silicon Valley, has a starring role.

The reasons for Hollywood's power, which projects America's way of life to others as well as to ourselves, are clear.

Long before celluloid and pixels were invented, Plato understood that "those who tell the stories also rule." Philosophers tell us that images rule dreams, and dreams rule actions. And if music sets the mood for the multitudes, the warblings of Sinatra and Madonna are surely the Muzak of the world order.

This vast influence of American culture in the world is what Harvard professor Joseph Nye has called "soft power."

Now, however, we are witnessing a mounting resistance, particularly from Asia and the Muslim world, to the American media's libertarian and secular messages.

There is also resistance to the mere fact of America's overwhelming cultural dominance. Josef Joffe, the publisher-editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, has put it directly: "Between Vietnam and Iraq, America's cultural presence has expanded into ubiquity, and so has resentment of America. Soft power does not necessarily increase the world's love for America. It is still power, and it still makes enemies."

If, as Nye has said, politics in the information age is about whose story wins, America's story, which has won for so long, is losing its universal appeal.

Fewer and fewer are buying into the American narrative. Needless to say, that has big implications for America's storyteller—Hollywood—as well.

America's soft power is losing its luster for several reasons.

Though projected through movies and music, that power has been based fundamentally on ideals more or less realized in practice—individual freedom, the rule of law, social and economic opportunity.

In foreign policy it has meant the defense of human rights, the just use of force against fascism and the containment of Soviet power.

Certainly the unilateral invasion and occupation of Iraq has fueled intense anger at America, eroding the natural sympathy after 9/11.

But perhaps more disturbing to those who once held up America as a model has been not only Guantánamo, the Abu Ghraib prison abuse and the Haditha massacre but the White House defense of torture, its dismissal of the key aspects of the Geneva protocols on treatment of prisoners of war and the government wiretapping of its own citizens.

The Katrina catastrophe in New Orleans not only exposed anew unsolved racial issues but revealed to a shocked world the burgeoning inequality that has crept back into American society as the welfare state has withered.

The rise of the Christian right has made many, in Europe in particular, doubt whether a majority still shares America's founding commitment to the secular principles of the Enlightenment.

Seized by the marketing machine, Hollywood entertainment has, with ever fewer exceptions, hewn to the blockbuster formula of action, violence, sex and special effects. A masterful drama like Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" would be impossible to make in Hollywood today.

In a recent Gallup Poll of 8,000 women in Muslim countries, the overwhelming majority cited "attachment to spiritual and moral values" as the best aspect of their own societies while the most common answer to the question about what they admired least in the West was "moral decay, promiscuity and pornography" that pollsters called "the Hollywood image."

This is also the view of many parents in the United States, no doubt including those who swell the megachurch congregations on Sunday morning and then mysteriously morph into the audience for Desperate Housewives on Sunday night.

Too often Hollywood has also succumbed to a Ramboesque parochial populism that displays naïveté, ignorance and arrogance in its portrayal of the rest of the world.

In short, what once gilded the American experience in the eyes of much of the world now tarnishes it.

Finally, the new civilizational confidence that comes along with growing prosperity, notably in Asia, means audiences increasingly want to be entertained by their own myths and stories, not those from America.

The digital distribution revolution, which is shifting power from the producer to the consumer, will hasten this trend.

To some, of course, America's image remains appealing, even a magnet for migration across scorching deserts or in the holds of rusty cargo ships.

But to others it incites hatred, if not terrorism against the Great Satan; to most it is a mixed picture that elicits a bit of love and loathing.

Iranian or Chinese teens, as is commonly cited, may embrace American pop culture but patriotically reject US policies.

Movies, like politics, are a communal experience. In a democracy, the voting booth and the box office share the same public.

Political scientists have long understood that in modern America the media, including movies and pop music, constitute the "public square." With globalization, that is now true for the world as a whole.

To recapture its winning story in this new global politics of culture, to recover its waning soft power, America has to once again close the gap between its ideals and their practical realization at home and abroad, starting with changing our policies and getting out of Iraq.

And America's storytellers need—as some indeed have—to stop seeing the world as a crowd of "extras" with turbans, burkas, slanted eyes or sombreros but no depth of character or central role.

Since globalization has moved us all into the same neighborhood, a sense of propriety with respect to the cultural norms of others would seem a wise idea.

For an industry whose future relies on the global market, that is an economic as well as moral imperative.

The John Wayne-era assumption that America alone can write the script for the whole world has been forever foiled, both in Washington and Hollywood.