Diversity has taken on a whole new meaning outside America’s borders. Where once it meant embracing different cultures it now means protecting one’s culture from outside influences and ideas. Sound like the opposite of diversity? Sound like cultural homogeneity? No argument here.
So who is responsible for redefining diversity? Why, our old friends at the United Nations, of course. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is presently meeting at its headquarters in Paris to work on a final draft of something euphemistically called the Convention for the Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Contents and Artistic Expression. The alleged aim of the convention — besides throwing up absinthe and visiting the Paris peep shows — is to protect homegrown arts and culture. But its real purpose is to shield weak film, television and media industries from free-trade rules and outside competition, particularly from countries whose industries do these things well, like the U.S., Japan and Brazil.
Sometimes the language of the convention’s supporters sounds curiously like love letters exchanged between Osama bin Laden and a young ga-ga WTO protester: Globalization favors rich and powerful countries. We must therefore stop the U.S. in order to protect our cultural diversity. One online Turkish newspaper reports that UNESCO is simply trying to arrest “U.S. cultural imperialism.” The paper’s hardly objective reporter goes on to complain that the English language has taken over the Internet. So what language does the Turkish reporter’s story appear in? I’ll give you a hint. It wasn’t Turkish.
The U.N. has long been at odds with the U.S., which many of its member states see as a rich bully that prefers to go it alone. Similarly, recent Republican administrations have maintained strained relationships with the U.N., which they have regarded as antagonistic to American interests such as a missile defense system, the death penalty, the Second Amendment, global warming strategies, and the U.N. World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance’s insistence on equating Zionism with racism. Likewise, the U.S. has had a Who’s-Afraid-of-Virginia-Woolf relationship with the U.N.’s side project UNESCO. In fact, the U.S. quit UNESCO in 1984, frustrated at its years of mismanagement. The U.S. returned in 2003, only to face accusations of cultural imperialism.
BEHIND THIS TALK ABOUT protecting cultural diversity is UNESCO’s veiled attempt to undermine the free market and free trade via protectionism and quotas. For instance, if France succeeds in getting UNESCO to declare that films are something other than what they are, i.e., commodities, they can be excluded from WTO agreements that ban protectionism and tariffs. Without protectionism, it is rightly believed, no one will watch snoozy French films. That may very well be true, but shouldn’t this serve as an incentive for the French to make more viable films, maybe hire a few American directors to show them how it’s done?
Films, television, and pop music are, in the end, what this row is all about. France and its comrades at UNESCO do not get all worked up when some new T.C. Boyle novel shows up in translation in Left Bank bookstores. No one in Italy whines when Angels in America is produced at the Teatro di Roma. Films, television shows, and pop music however are big business. Yet UNESCO pretends that it is only the U.S. that treats cultural products as commodities to be exported like sportswear and Dog and Suds rootbeer.
The elephant in UNESCO’s boardroom is that the world’s population craves American popular culture. It’s not just that American films are better scripted, better filmed, and better produced, they are also generally more entertaining. More, they give an international audience a snapshot of life in a free, democratic America, a life many dream of having for themselves and their families. For many, exposure to American films becomes a factor in their decisions to immigrate here. True, some may get a skewed view of America based on certain films. Back in the early ’90s, many of my friends in Eastern Europe believed that America was similar to its depiction on the ghastly but popular television series Dynasty. I quickly disabused them of that notion, steering them toward films that more accurately depict middle and working class America.
CONTRARY TO WHAT SOME Euro-snobs believe, America has a lot to offer the world, and not just in its example of liberal democracy, its monetary aid, and its peace-keeping capabilities. America still boasts the world’s most vibrant culture. In recent times it has given the world George Gershwin and Charlie Parker, Robert Johnson and Hank Williams, Francis Ford Coppola and Frank Lloyd Wright, William Faulkner and Eugene O’Neil. America has been the haven where foreign artists from Jean Renoir to Czeslaw Milosz have come to seek refuge and freely express themselves and their artistic vision. Would other nations really be more diverse and better off if the U.S. kept these artists and their influences to itself?
There is no way around it. Some countries will excel in specific industries. Japan controls the animated film market because that’s what it does best. We may miss Porky Pig and Elmer Fudd, but that is no reason to punish the Japanese for being successful. I find it interesting that WTO protesters, so used to knocking things down, support raising new trade barriers that will only serve to separate cultures. Interesting, but not really surprising.
And speaking of Porky Pig, that’s all folks.