Today's date:
Winter 2008

Hollywood in the World

Aspenia Italia, Fall 2004

Nathan Gardels is editor of NPQ. This article orginally appeared in Aspen Italia, the journal of the Aspen Institute in Italy.

"Images rule dreams; dreams rule actions."

—Régis Debray, mediology

"Those who tell stories also rule society."


"Politics in an information age may ultimately be about whose story wins."

—Joe Nye, soft power

"The mass media make dictatorship impossible and democracy intolerable."

—Shimon Peres

"As the West continues through domination of the media to expand its cultural boundaries to encompass the world, only one civilization, Islam, will stand firm in its path. The more traditional a religious culture is in our age of the media, the greater the pressures upon it to yield."

—Akbar Ahmed, postmodernism and islam

"There is no tradition in Chinese history of satirizing the emperor. To do a Doonsebury cartoon is to commit sedition and treason."

—Lee Kuan Yew

Los Angeles — In the age of globalization we are no longer home alone. Migration brings other worlds into our own just as the global reach of the mass media transmits our world into the hearts and minds of others. Often incommensurate values are crammed together into the same cultural space. The resulting friction and clashes we see around us today are all about shaping the soul of the first global civilization in the making.

Only in a world where the likes of Salman Rushdie and the Iranian ayatollahs live side by side through the entwining tentacles of the globalizing media could a novel or cartoon from one culture sound a blasphemous note in pious ears across distant borders; only in such a world could an American movie stir Japanese ire by casting the red stars of rising China as geisha. Only in such a world could a Google word search provoke government censors in Beijing.

Unlike other moments in history, the key conflict today is not about armies or territories, but about culture. And if the front line today is cultural, then Hollywood plays a starring role. Through its vast media-industrial complex—which includes movies, music and the Internet—America has dominated the metaworld of images, icons and information. No empire in history, not Rome or Spain or Great Britain, possessed such a pervasive, globe-straddling, image-shaping asset. Harvard professor Joe Nye has famously labeled this as "soft power"—America's persuasive and attractive qualities quite separate from its military dominance.

America's soft power reached its height during the Cold War. That influence rested on its ideals realized in practice—personal freedom, equality under the law, social mobility and economic opportunity. In his seminal book, Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan recounts that Sukarno told a group of Hollywood executives in 1956 that he regarded them "as political radicals and revolutionaries who had greatly hastened political change in the East. What the Orient saw in a Hollywood movie was a world in which all the ordinary people had cars and electric stoves and refrigerators. So the Oriental regards himself as an ordinary person who has been deprived of the ordinary man's birthright."

The personal liberty also portrayed in Hollywood films, fashion and music was not only appealing, but a factor in bringing down repressive regimes.

The French philosopher and old pal of Che Guevara, Régis Debray, presciently concluded back before Gorbachev that "there is more power in blue jeans and rock and roll than the entire Red Army." Michael Eisner of Disney was not off base when he said in 1995 that "the Berlin Wall was destroyed not by force of arms, but by force of Western ideas. And what was the delivery system for those ideas? It has to be admitted that to an important degree it was American entertainment. Inherent in the best and worst of our movies and TV shows, books and records is a sense of individual freedom and the kind of life liberty can bring. It's in the films of Steven Spielberg; it's in the humor of Bill Cosby." Sydney Pollack, the director, was right on the mark when he said the global appeal of American film was the implicit theme in all its stories: In America, personal freedom allows individuals "to write their own narrative."

If American soft power today has lost some of its luster, it is not only because of Bush's misadventures in Iraq: It is because it has become a double message that both attracts and repulses. It remains a beacon of hope to the huddled masses who risk their lives to get here across the scorching desert from Mexico or in the holds of rusty cargo ships from China. There is still a belief in America as a vast geocultural therapy for history's wounded masses where the soil is taken out of the soul and becomes real estate, where the tribulations of historical societies are left behind and the individual becomes free to make his or her own future.

But in the global media age, the age in which MTV has gone where the CIA could never penetrate, America is also a satellite signal that inflames the pious and mobilizes the militant. To some, America is the city on the hill. To others it is the very residence of evil. To some it is a dream. To others it is a target.

During the modern age, Western liberalism assumed its universality, that all humanity shared its definition of the good life. As such, it has lacked a political theory of how to deal with other civilizations that would not accept, or had the clout to reject, the secular and libertarian premises so thoroughly reflected in its media. The casting together of contesting mentalities in one global neighborhood has foiled that assumption forever.

We in the West have laughed at God from the time of Voltaire right up to Larry David and Family Guy. The weekly American red state audiences for Desperate Housewives may mysteriously morph into megachurch congregations on Sunday, but now that the churches are empty and the mosques are full in Europe that freedom of satire is being challenged from Copenhagen all the way to Kabul.

In his 1993 book, Postmodernism and Islam, Akbar Ahmed laid out the challenge in Muslim eyes long before the Danish cartoon controversy.

For Ahmed, Hollywood films, CNN and MTV have been the "stormtroopers" of the West. "The age of the media in Muslim society has dawned," he wrote. "Muslims need to face up to the fact that there is no escape now, no retreat, no hiding place, from the demon. The more traditional a religious culture in our age of the media, the greater the pressure upon it to yield. Beneath layers of nuance, the collision between the global civilization emanating from the West and Islam is a straight-out fight between two approaches to the world, two philosophies. One is based on secular materialism, the other in faith; one has rejected belief altogether; the other has placed it at the center of its worldview.

"Muslim parents," Ahmed continued, "blanch at the Western media because of the universality, power and pervasiveness of their subversive images, and because of their malignity and hostility toward Islam....the videos that accompany pop songs produce ever more bizarre images from Madonna masturbating to Michael Jackson transmogrifying into a panther."

As far as many Muslims are concerned, the choice is either to submit to God (which is what Islam means: submission) or submit to the cynicism and irony of the culture of disbelief that comes along with globalization. Under this relentless assault, the purity of the past can no longer be guaranteed. For them it seems like systemic blackmail: either you go with the flow or get left in the dust.

In reviewing the illusions of neoconservatives that led to the debacle of preemptive war in Iraq, Francis Fukyama, the famed author of The End of History and the Last Man, has called for a demilitarization of America's approach to the long struggle against jihadist terrorism and the use of more "soft power" to win over the hearts and minds of moderate Muslims. But, unfortunately, he laments, America's biggest soft-power weapon, Hollywood, only plays a negative role. "It is perceived as the purveyor of the kind of secular, materialistic, permissive culture," according to Fukuyama, "that is not very popular in many parts of the world, especially the Islamic world."

The Muslim world has begun to resist. Noting all those satellite dishes on balconies and building tops across the Arab world, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was right when he said in February that the US was losing the battle for hearts and minds where viewers are now getting more and more news from local channels such as Al Jazeera. When Akbar Ahmed wrote his media reflections over a decade ago, there were only the Western media. Now the story is different. "The most popular big-feature film now showing in Istanbul," Ahmed recently reported, "is called The Valley of the Wolves—Iraq about a Muslim Rambo who sets out on a mission of revenge against Americans in Iraq who are shown as looting and raping sadists. It captures the sentiments of ordinary Muslims throughout the region. There are strong doses of anti-Semitism in it as well."

We in the West have also laughed at authority for a long time, including in iconic films such as The Great Dictator. Now that Asia is returning as a major player we are hearing other voices on the main stage. "There is no tradition in Chinese history of satirizing the emperor," Singapore's authoritarian father figure Lee Kuan Yew said once by way of explaining Deng Xiaoping's crackdown on the Tiananmen students. "To do a Doonsebury cartoon is to commit sedition and treason."

One can readily find Harry Potter or Star Wars in Chinese theaters. Even pirated copies of Brokeback Mountain can be found. But a Chinese version of Jon Stewart's Daily Show is nowhere to be seen.

Despite the well-meaning denials of political leaders who want to build bridges instead of create polarization, we are indeed witnessing a clash of civilizations precisely because globalization crowds us all into the same public square.

Though the differences between theocratic and republican ideas of governance or the equal rights of women are certainly irreconcilable, perhaps the clash is not exactly as Sam Huntington posited it in his famous essay in Foreign Affairs. At a deeper level, it may not be only a clash between Christianity and Islam or Confucian Asia, but rather between the Pope and Madonna, that is between conservative culture and religion on the one hand and the faithlessness, extreme personal liberty and consumer materialism of the postmodern West that so colors the entertainment industry on the other.

In his encyclical, The Splendor of Truth, Pope John Paul II condemned the value relativism of the consumer democracies in the same vein in which he often decried Hollywood's impiety. The new Pope, Benedict, has similarly condemned the "dictatorship of relativism" of the American-led global culture he sees as based primarily on "egoism" and "desire." This discomfort with postmodern culture, even within America, was revealed in the "faith gap" that emerged in the last presidential election, a phenomenon that defies the Iranian mullah's description of America as the Great Satan and mystifies our secular European cousins who regard us as wackily religious.

And it is not only the religious right. Otherwise pragmatic Americans speeding toward the future are increasingly looking to traditional religion for moral and ethical guidance, particularly as they commit to their mutation in the new age of biotechnology. This is not surprising: new advances in science seem to have resurrected the religious imagination by raising anew all the profound questions of origins and destiny.

Leon Kass, the chairman of President Bush's Council on Bioethics, for example, has returned to a study of the book of Genesis for answers about bioethics in the 21st century. In his book, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, he sees genetic engineering as our contemporary equivalent to the limitless hubris of the Tower of Babel, which God struck down.

It is worth noting that even in Europe the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, the very voice of secular reason, has arrived at a similar conclusion about the role of religion. In a conversation with Cardinal Ratzinger before he became the Pope, Habermas asked whether "modern democracies of necessity must draw from moral—especially religious—sources that they cannot themselves produce." He concludes that liberal democracies must leave a wide-open space for religious expression and religious forms of life, particularly when confronting issues at the frontiers of science. Habermas hopes that a new ethos for liberal political culture will emerge from secularized citizens seeking guidance from the very religious heritage they once thought they could abandon without consequence.

In a new book, A Time of Transitions, Habermas is even clearer, saying that "the West's Judeo-Christian heritage is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights and democracy—the benchmarks of Western civilization. To this day we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter." Habermas goes on to contest the "unbridled subjectivity" which he sees as clashing with "what is really absolute; that is... the unconditional right of every creature to be respected in its bodiliness and recognized in its otherness as an 'image of God.'"*

THE CHALLENGE OF POSITIVE FREEDOM | This Pope vs. Madonna clash, which comes as globalization shifts into high gear, is becoming more pronounced as American culture has moved along the liberal scale from "negative" to "positive" freedom, to put a twist on the famous essay by Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty. For Berlin, negative freedom is "freedom from"—freedom from interference and tyranny. Positive freedom is "freedom to"—the freedom to do what one will in his or her zone of non-interference, the freedom of individual self-realization.

The proliferation of political democracy since the end of the Cold War suggests there is an historical consensus around the world ideologically, if not yet fully in practice, in favor of "freedom from." Despite efforts at censorship, even in China the personal space of non-interference continues to grow. This is the "end of history" argument. That is what George Bush is pushing for in the Middle East. That is what the Iraqi Shiite majority voted for after the US invasion. It is what Hamas voted for. But their vision of "freedom to" could not be further from that of secular Westerners.

By contrast, the positive freedoms of the West projected through the media are often seen as threatening from within the conservative cultures we must live with side by side under globalization. Especially since the 1960s in the West, the key issue has no longer been the absence of tolerance, but what to do with so much freedom. The issue has been not which limits to erase, but where to draw the boundaries. As the Oxford philosopher John Gray, like Isaiah Berlin before him, has pointed out in his book Two Faces of Liberalism, this "freedom to" definition of the "good life" is necessarily a plural undertaking over which there can be no universal consensus in a diverse world.

The secular neutrality of our modus vivendi—what the Catholic writer George Wiegel calls "the naked public square"—can be seen as indifference to values, even nihilism. For many in Islam, this is the disbelief of the infidels. For many in conservative Asia, it is an invitation to disorder and moral chaos. How can such a divergence of worldviews not clash when considering any host of "freedom to" issues such as whether to favor the Muse of Irreverence over respect for the Prophet, bless gay marriage, sanction cloning or adopt an anything-goes policy for the Internet?

Given the reality of the double American message in one global cultural space with Hollywood at its core, what responsibilities does the media-industrial complex have?

Should Hollywood show restraint on the front lines of the culture battlefield? Should it "spiritually educate" by disciplining itself against self-righteousness and refusing to see its own community or cause as the universal value? Or, like the Danish cartoonists, should it insist on its duty to "contaminate" instead of censor as the essential foundation of a cosmopolitan civilization?

These are difficult questions for a liberal society feeling its way into the future. One thing is certain, though: In a world of hybrid cultures, there is room for everything but the dream of purity. As Paul Berman insightfully notes in his essay, Terror and Liberalism, the yearning for purity is what lay at the root of all fundamentalism—whether based in race, class or religion. It is the impetus of obscurantism, of the impulse to close off instead of open up, to exclude instead of embrace. In short, it is the opposite of everything liberal civilization stands for.

Like the 9/11 attacks, this is what the decapitation of Danny Pearl was about: It was more than the murder of a Jew. It was a striking out in a dark, windowless room on the grimy outskirts of Karachi at the impure cosmopolitanism of the American-led liberal civilization. On this point, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy is right: "In the recent history of humanity, the hatred of America has been one of the main structural links between the three totalitarianisms—fascism, communism and Islamism."

What Now? | Two key issues arise from this current state of the politics of global culture.

First, in the "long war" to win over the hearts and minds of the agitated Muslim ummah, any US effort at public diplomacy that ignores the impact of Hollywood and the media-industrial complex on the world is clueless. Karen Hughes is just no match for the Britneys, Jessicas or Angelinas of pop culture. Official US policy has to recognize something the rest of the world has long known: America's mass cultural presence globally transcends its traditional military and diplomatic institutions. Any effort to win over Muslims to Western ideas has to take into account the negative as well as positive impact of American culture.

Is it simply naive to lump it all together as a "product of freedom" that any sane person would indiscriminately embrace, as if the Bill of Rights or The Sound of Music and the misogynist lyrics that rap on about "bitches," "ho's" and "motherfuckas" ought to be somehow equal in the sights of the rest of the world?

Second, since the first successes of silent film, it has been assumed that the stories generated by American culture had the most universal appeal because we are a nation of immigrants, and thus our entertainment easily speaks most dramatically to the dreams and experiences of audiences everywhere.

However, as democracy, free markets and technology spread to all in what Tom Friedman calls this "flat" earth, isn't globalization forging one vast global hybrid culture which will look very much like a multicultural immigrant America? In that case, won't everyone's tales be as universally appealing as America's?

Ryszard Kapuscinski, the literary journalist who reported from the Third World for decades in books such as Shah of Shahs and The Emperor, has long regarded America as "a premonition" of the culturally plural, polycentric civilization globalization will create in the 21st century. For Kapuscinski, America culturally approximates the idea of "la raza cosmica"—the Cosmic Race—first propounded by José Vasconcellos, the Mexican minister of education at the time of the revolution. And where America has gone, the world will follow.

What then happens to Hollywood's privileged perch? If the whole world becomes like America, then must Hollywood tell the stories of the whole world?