Attending a conference of public diplomacy professionals and academics last week at the U.S. State Department, a particular comment made by a participant during one of the main sessions struck me. He described the positive outcome of a recent YES Program exchange from Indonesia (if memory serves) with the students describing to him their delight in learning that Americans are not as violent, profane and promiscuous as they have been led to believe from U.S. television and movie exports to their country. Given the small scale of the YES Program (hundreds of secondary students each year) competing with the Hollywood juggernaut, he came to the unavoidable, pessimistic conclusion cribbed from Walt Kelly: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
The most depressing aspect of this observation was not that he was necessarily right but that it passed without comment or rebuttal from the audience made up of diplomats, academics, policy-makers and students of public diplomacy. That is, his opinion — that American culture is a political weakness and strategic liability — has become the fixed, conventional wisdom of the governing class.
This is as dangerous and backwards as it is also plainly wrong. The obvious shame and embarrassment many of our diplomats, scholars and others share about our culture — which hundreds of millions of real people consume and enjoy around the world without coercion — demonstrate an elitism that blinds them to what is in fact a strategic asset. And it keeps them from recognizing and harnessing an extraordinary delivery vehicle for American culture, values and democracy, a mechanism feared and repressed by regimes we stand against.
A glance at the Pew Global Attitudes Project demonstrates, at the very least, profound diversity of opinion about the United States, Americans, American culture, and American values. These opinions do not always appear to jibe, but they are not uniformly low. The pleasure that people get from American film and television is remarkably high, and even in those countries that suggest fewer enjoy our movies and shows, they include a solid minority — suggesting a cultural debate is fermenting there.
These numbers are worth examining in detail. Like all public opinion, they are dynamic and subject to the particular socio-political environment in which they are taken. Pakistan, for example, is directly affected by the neighboring war in Afghanistan, U.S. drone strikes, and American rapprochement with India. Opinion towards the United States in Turkey has taken a bad hit since the war with Iraq and is only slowly recovering. Israel feels strong cultural affinity for the United States as an ally. And so on.
But the larger frustration I felt, as I kept my arm aloft trying to rebut during the session last week, was the point that Hollywood is a platform and megaphone, arguably the largest and loudest in the world. Holding it at a contemptuous distance ignores the potential of working with the Dream Factory to tell stories we want to share with the world. As I have written in my book, when Hollywood authentically captures or broadcasts a foreign culture to international audiences, that faithfulness redounds to our benefit. Why shouldn’t we try to influence how that is done? The Pentagon does.
During the conference last week, participants of all stripes lauded the Jazz Ambassadors and jazz broadcasts via Voice of America during the Cold War over and over again. Did they think America jazz represented this promiscuous, profane, and violent culture? Of course not. But the countries to which those broadcasts and programs were aimed certainly did. Which is why they claimed then that jazz was as poisonous as chemical weapons. Or, more recently, that Disneyland was as radioactive as Chernobyl.