Barack and Slumdog Millionaire
Nathan Gardels and Mike Medavoy are co-authors of American Idol After Iraq: Competing for Hearts and Minds in the Global Media Age.
Los Angeles—When Babel, a tale of far-flung fates linked by the threads of globalization, won the Golden Globe for Best Drama in 2007 as well as earned seven Oscar nominations, its Mexican director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inárritu, voiced the hope that such recognition meant Hollywood was entering a new era.
"In the global age," he said, "films must show the point of view of others, with respect and compassion, not as caricature."
That is exactly what Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire has done so splendidly, despite the misplaced rumblings of some Indian critics that it is "poverty porn." And, true to Gonzalez Inárritu's hopes, this love story about class and social mobility on the dark side of shining India garnered a stunning eight Oscars, including one for Best Picture.
Echoing a similar sentiment, President Barack Obama pledged in his first TV interview—with the Arab satellite channel Al Arabiya—that America under his watch would "listen with respect and not dictate" to the world. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has further announced that this country will no longer just throw around its military might, but will pursue a "smart power" approach by tempering the use of hard weaponry with the "soft power" of persuasion and cultural attraction. Or, as Madame Secretary's husband Bill has put it, America will now lead through the power of example instead of the example of power.
Here lies the connection between Hollywood and Washington as America seeks to refurbish its luster so tarnished during the George W. Bush years.
Though the Connecticut Avenue think tanks might like to believe otherwise, the fact is that, for good and for ill, most Americans see the world—and the world looks at America—as much through the prism of our mass culture as through the formal institutions of our foreign policy. Through the Internet, we are all exposed to each other.
Unlike most countries, we are seen not only for what we are and what we do, but through the images we project globally through pop music, TV shows and Hollywood films. The warblings of Sinatra, Madonna and Metallica have been the Muzak of the globalizing world order. The soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful still has viewers in 82 countries. Films such as Batman Lives and the The Simpsons Movie dominate silver screens across the planet.
From the outside looking in, this Hollywood prism is a double-edged sword. Back in 1986, Régis Debray, the old pal of Fidel and Che Guevara, presciently remarked that "there is more power in rock music, videos, blue jeans, fast food, news networks and TV satellites than the entire Red Army" because they carried the vibes of freedom across the Iron Curtain. Thanks to satellite technology, Oprah has become a subversive presence on the TV screens of shuttered Saudi wives. Yet, the spread of "entertainment values"—where anything-goes-for-market-share—has made many in the Muslim world wary of Hollywood. Her experiences trying to bridge the gap between traditional Islamic societies and the permissive West have led Queen Rania of Jordan to quip that American women are often seen in the Muslim world as "desperate housewives seeking sex in the city."
Looking out from inside is a similar story. Since less than ten percent of the famously insular and post-textual American public travels abroad annually, we get most of our impressions (and misconceptions) about the world beyond our borders from the image media, particularly from Hollywood films such as the Mission: Impossible, James Bond or, God forbid, the Rambo series.
If politics in the information age is about whose story wins, then, given this reality, America's storytellers—Hollywood—have a starring role in defining America's presence globally. For that reason, they ought to to be recruited for the new "smart power" campaign, which must be twofold—projecting America abroad and projecting knowledge of others to ourselves at home.
The most important image to project abroad is that America is a plural, cosmopolitan society that works; a society in which each individual can write his or her own narrative despite race, creed or gender. Barack Obama, of course, is the poster child for this American idea. A film such as Crash shows our pluralism with all the attendant frictions.
We should, however, toot our horn globally with a good dose of humility. After all, Britney Spears, with her celebrity meltdowns, and Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain, with his scandalous bonuses, are also poster children for our way of life. To avoid hubris, we best remember the famous dictum of Reinhold Niebuhr that, for all our good qualities, Americans are not "tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection."
Perhaps more important, traditional public and cultural diplomacy, which is aimed at persuading foreign publics of America's merits, should be inverted. In the global age, Americans have become inextricably tethered to others of whom we often have little understanding. As we move into the future, Americans not only need to develop a cosmopolitan capacity for empathy and understanding of those with whom we share this shrinking planet, but also we need to be educated to embrace the rules of engagement for globalization which require forging common guidelines of the game.
If there is any singularly poignant lesson from the disastrous course America took after 9/11, it is that any alternative such as "smart power" must be sustained by informed public support at home. Every shortcoming, misadventure, misstep or outright catastrophe of American foreign policy can be traced back to the insularity of the democratic public of the world's superpower. The cultural knowledge gap in our time is every bit as much a threat to national security as any military gap during the Cold War.
Imaginative knowledge, whether literature or cinema, is key to closing this gap. "Literature, " Salman Rushdie has said, "can take away that part of fear which is based on not knowing things." Similarly, Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, says, "The news media is supposed to serve one aspect of our needs—information. The other aspect must be satisfied elsewhere through imaginative knowledge. Part of the reason people liked my book was because they could experience through reading it what a young girl experienced in a country called an Islamic Republic. And they realized that her desires and aspirations were not very different from their own." Marjane Satrapi's 2007 film Persepolis is a fine example of cinematic insight into others. So, of course, is Slumdog Millionaire.
Clearly, one important component of America's "smart power" strategy must thus involve the storytellers who so influence the world's image of America and America's image of the world—Hollywood's producers, writers and filmmakers. They themselves must be educated to adopt a globalized mentality, whether through their own efforts or prompting by the State Department.
In this way, Hollywood could become more than the purveyor of amusing distractions in hard times. It could be part of the "deep coalition" to help make the world safe for interdependence, which must be America's global strategy as it moves into an era where it will not always be on top.
In what Fareed Zakaria calls the coming "post-American" era, we will have to compete for hearts and minds just as Chinese epics such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon vie for the silver screen and Mexican, Brazilian and South Korean soaps challenge Days of Our Lives on the global boob tube. The "rise of the rest" wrought by globalization and the spread of technology has changed the equation. The John Wayne-era assumption that America could write the script for the whole world is over, both in Washington and Hollywood.