How to protect culture

The last column I didn’t write for Entertainment Weekly, when I was editor, was killed by the corporate editors when I dared to speak heresy in Time Warner (it was merely one more straw in a bail of issues I had with them). The Berlin Wall had just fallen; Eastern Europe was opening up to free expression, and I dared say that I understood the efforts by local governments to encourage local culture. The corporate boss positively sputtered. How could I say that and say it there? This was no longer Time Inc., the house that Luce built. This was suddenly Time Warner, the house that hype built, which exported culture like Japan exports soy sauce. Talk about crossing the company line!

I was not in favor of restricting imported culture; I am never in favor of restricting speech. I just said that I understood when nations wanted to find ways to encourage and support their own creation of culture.

Well, UNESCO just passed a pact that does allow or encourage nations to restrict the import and distribution of imported culture: “The convention authorizes each member country to take “all appropriate measures” to protect and preserve cultural contents from serious threat.” The United States objected. So do I, for three reasons:

First, I am against restricting speech not only within a nation but, of course, across nations. If you believe in free speech here, then you believe in it everywhere. And if you abhor government controls on speech for one reason, then you’d better opposed them for other reasons. It’s one matter to give local artists grants to help them produce and share their art. It’s another matter to prevent artists from elsewhere in the world to speak freely. UNESCO may try to say that a Will Ferrell movie isn’t art … and, well, they’d be right but that’s not the point. The point is, who’s to say what can be seen and can’t?

Second, it’s quota think: You become undesirable because of what you are and whether that’s based on race or gender or nationality or citizenship, I call that bigotry.

Third, in this age of borderless communications, when anyone can become a star anywhere in the world , and why are we putting up borders? The point should be to do just the opposite, to encourage more exchange and more understanding. Instead, they portray American artists as dastardly only because they are American. Is Madonna a tool of the American power machine or just a tool?

  • Noel Guinane

    I agree. May not like or agree with aspects of what freedom produces, but we don’t have to buy it, read it, watch it, or listen to it. Banning what we don’t approve of goes against the principle of freedom. I bet it’s only going to make what they ban more attractive.

    I wonder if the pact is partly a reaction to American foreign policy in the same way the UN is pitching for a governing role over the Internet, taking it out of ICANN’s hands. Bureaucrats despise being pushed aside, and are finding fertile grounds for pushing back.

  • Jorge

    Sharing cultures is like sharing ideas. The blending of cultures has produced the way we celebrate life.
    In creating celebrations the best path to an elevated positive culture is to throw out the bad and promote the good like a proofreader looking for mistakes. We need to live out our culture in a positive forgiving caring way.

  • Easycure

    Madonna is definitely a tool.

    And culture is what the people make it, not what the government says it is. They can’t control it with rules, as much as they try.

  • Angelos

    This is mostly a bunch of protectionist nonsense.

    They can restrict all the Hollywood movies they want (and hell, 98% of them suck anyway, so I wouldn’t argue), but that won’t help improve local output.

    If they were serious I’d rather see them subsidize arts more, give more promising filmamkers scholarships to NYU, or stipended internships in Hollywood.

    The main reason other countries’ movies suck is technique. I’ve seen a lot of Greek movies that could have been so much better, but you keep getting jarred out of the story by noticible errors. These countryies need their own versions of Hollywood and Bollywood. Not importing “Dumb and Dumberer” won’t do ANYTHING to improve their own condition.

  • Rance

    Actually, Japan is an importer of soy sauce. If you check the label you will see that Kikkoman’s Soy Sauce is manufactured in southern Wisconsin.

  • Michael Zimmer

    “Actually, Japan is an importer of soy sauce. If you check the label you will see that Kikkoman’s Soy Sauce is manufactured in southern Wisconsin.”

    You’re assuming that Japanese actually use Kikkoman rather than a local variety.

  • Robert Feinman

    Canada has done this for decades. There are rules about a certain percentage of “Canadian content” in broadcast media. This has allowed for some less economical local channels to exist.

    It has also provided employment to local people as material creators and behind the scenes staff. Since almost all Canadians get cable TV, they are not precluded from watching just about any US channel they wish, and most do.

    But, there is an interesting independent Canadian film industry that even gets some of its products released in the US (on DVD). This wouldn’t exist otherwise.

    The same restrictions exist on magazines like Time. So they add a few pages of Canadian news as an insert, or re-edit for the local market. Without the rules they wouldn’t spend the money.

    As long as foreign material isn’t censored I think it can be a useful step when done properly.

  • http://ruthcalvo ruth

    Of course, in Japan, Spam is also considered a delicacy.

    The UN move to ‘globalize’ the internet governing body is one that has some grounding in reason, but the UN isn’t the proper authority after its recent episodes of police sexual abuse of minors in Africa and its Iraq oil-for-food scandals. Too much background in inappropriate management.

    A more appropriate agency should be created which would represent international aspects of the internet – something like the World Bank or World Wildlife Foundation, of an international flavor but without the UN’s baggage.

  • Noel Guinane

    I think the Internet has worked really well in ICANN’s hands and would not like to see any NGO or intergovernmental body get their bureaucratic hooks into it.

    If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  • Nova A

    The question in my mind is this pact toothless, or a pretext for eventual governmental censoring of content across the internet? “To to protect and preserve cultural contents from serious threat” is highly subject to interpretation—and abuse.

    Within the last 3 years, we’ve had the widespread adoption of blogs and news centralization services such as Google News. It’s now possible to rapidly cross-compare news reports and discuss contradictions in “blog salons”. Governments which sponsor programming are losing control on what information people receive and how they receive it.

    Just as with ICANN, this appears to be a power play with both commercial and informational control implications. Hopefully, as it currently frames its arguments according to imports and export, such a pact can be overriden by the WTO.

  • http://na gary

    If god didn’t intend for some entity to decide what we can see and not see, why did he give us the Catholic church.

    Yours for the restraint, maybe the suppression, of naughty stuff, cultural, artistic, titilating or whatever.

    Protected by true beliefs in Iowa

  • Patricia

    What is culture anyway? In all the years that non-US countries have been supporting their “national” film culture, no one has come up yet with a working definition.

    Not to worry. The EU constitution took how long to write and was some 800 pages? This will take decades to decide, and Hollywood will have positioned itself to conform to their guidelines by then.

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  • Glyn

    France has its own cinema culture, because it imposes quotas on American films and encourages French films to be shown. In contrast, Britain no longer has a cinema culture because its cinema chains are American owned and the US owners put pressure on them to show their worldwide American blockbusters rather than local films. I have no idea what the situation is in Canada but would be interested to know.

  • Glyn

    “Sharing of cultures”, which is a phrase used above, is like the phrase “globalization” – it’s a euphenism for “Americanization” because it only works one way. Whatever happened to globalization when the Chinese tried to buy an American oil company (exploiting Asian oilfields) – it was prevented by the US government.

    This is all a one-way street in America’s favo(u)r unless weaker countries try to protect themselves.

  • Glyn

    Ah, I’ve just read Robert Feineman’s comment above about the Canadian film industry. Let’s assume that both countries produce movies of equal quality, but according to Robert the only way to see Canadian movies in the US is on DVD.

    Like I said, a one-way-street.

  • Scott Ferguson

    Interesting side note: The building I work in is in Jersey City. Outside the front door is the PATH subway stop, and a pier out into the Hudson River, with the most beautiful view of lower Manhattan available anywhere.

    They’re shooting a movie on location at the pier. I was told that the movie was being made by an Indian movie company for Indian distribution.

    Preserving culture?

  • Patricia

    Define what constitutes a pure, non-American, film culture. Written, directed, filmed, acted in, orchestrated by some or all on set who are not American, never seen or read American stories or translations of foreign stories/film, or films spoken in non-English language–all or none of these, or what?

  • Hunter McDaniel

    So Britain doesn’t have a film industry anymore? What was Bend It Like Beckham? Love, Actually? Does the fact that Renee Zollwegger (American) stars in Bridget Jones Diary (from a British novel) pollute it and make it American? Is there a one-drop rule for culture?

    If we need to protectionism for culture, what’s magic about national boundaries – why not make sure states and counties have their own distinct culture?

  • Andres B

    Jeff: I was ready to disagree with you from word one this time (wink wink, that’s what UNESCO is trying to do, right?). But you’re right.

    Governments should empower the “local” art production, so the product can be made available within and across the borders. Restricting and isolating as a means to protect culture is not only dangerous, it generates cultural decay.

    Glyn: USA is a VERY special case. First of all, it’s one of the countries most culturally/nationally/racially mixed all over the world. That creates a unique environment for the development of new and varied art and culture expressions. Second, don’t reduce USA’s cultural production just to what Hollywood regurgitates, there are tons of writers, musicians, etc that are excellent and are part of USA’s cultural export.

    I’m not all in favor of USA taking over the world’s cultural supply, but I have to reckon that in many cases it’s all the culture you can get in some places.

    Hunter: Renee Z. can pollute whatever movie she wants to appear in (well, I guess I don’t like her very much).

    Folks: please take a look at a map and stop using “America” to refer to USA. I’m from Argentina. I live in Mexico. From there to here there’s a huge and beautiful continent you’re missing. It’s called America. Don’t believe what the Hollywood meme says, America goes beyond the Rio Bravo. Just an appropriate reminder, I guess.

  • Patricia


    Interesting artictle today about Mexico becoming “Maruch Nation.” Call Unesco, cultural hegemony alert! :)

  • Patricia


  • HA

    This pact is rich with ironies.

    First, the goal of the UNESCO pact is not cultural diversity, but rather cultural apartheid.

    Secondly, the US objected in order to protect Hollywood which increasingly produces films that are at best neutered of an American viewpoint, and at worse adopt an anti-American viewpoint in order to appeal to a global audience.

    BTW, for those who brought up Canada, here’s a link to the National Film Board of Canada web site.

    I imagine that those who set up the NFB back in 1939 are spinning in their graves as the NFB becomes an instrument for suppression of Canada’s traditional British heritage in favor of the official multicultural policy adopted during the Trudeau administration.

  • Tish G

    I can see where a particular country might want to protect itself from something like an ever-encroaching juggernaut of the American film industry. First, actors, theatrical styles, and storytelling of a particular region could be lost if inundated with poorly made product from, say, Hollywood. Then, the White Folk end up dominating the cinema of other countries, thus dumbing-down the populace to their own unique heritage and, yes, culture.

    Look at it this way: even in America, the experiences that are put on the screen are mostly of white, upper class folks. Movies like 2003’s “Something’s Gotta Give” shows a post-middle age romance–among the wealthy. 2004’s “Spanglish” is a family story about a family with enough disposable dough to hire maids.

    Yeah, as if that’s reality.

    The other reality depicted in American cinema is the gangsta reality–all Italians are mobsters; all blacks are street thugs; Latinos are non-existent or comedic. There is no diversity of culture or of life experience even in American cinema.

    No wonder other countries hate us.

    The idea that exchange can be a good thing (the way we envision it anyway) is kind of a new idea. In theological circles, many faiths still do not encourage their adherents to learn anything about other faiths–that goes for low church to high church protestants, catholics, etc. You name the faith and I’m sure you can easily find the tenet that says “don’t mix with the folks who worship a false god.”

    So, when the underlying ideas about a culture, which we cultural-relativist Americans don’t like to admit have a theological component, it becomes easy to see why there is a fear about exchanging ideas. Underneath it all there is a fear of losing the guiding principles that have kept a country or A People going for centuries, and of having them being reduced to being nothing more than servants to a bunch of rich, a-theistic, a-moral White Folks.

    I can’t really blame them, but I’m not sure that the UNESCO pact is the right move.

  • hey

    just like any protectionism, this is all about protecting an entrenched elite.

    contrary to what r. feinman says, time’s split run is actually an exception. the government generally bans “split runs” (aka slightly customized editions of international publications) so as to increase the market for canadian magazines. canada mainly uses the tax code, by only allowing advertising deductions for ads in canadian owned magazines.

    its industrial policy for leftists. why making locals pay more for things that they don’t like and making it harder for companies to reach audiences is a good thing is never explained. it’s all about “telling our stories to ourselves”. sounds alot like blogging, but the cultural nationalists hate, hate, hate blogging and bloggers.

    look at canadian state tv. no one watches it. no one. except for saturday night hockey. most popular announcer is hated by cultural elite cause he isn’t pc and is a blue collar populist, with inappropriate ideas about hockey, culture, language, politics, and economics. the brass, leftists intelligentsia all, along with everyone not involved in producing it, want Don Cherry (former Bruins coach) fired, and have tried to do it on several occasions. He is also responsible for a significant chunk of the entire networks revenues!

    this isn’t about culture. it’s about leftist hate for america, for popular culture, for the great unwashed. there is only one legitimate way of funding “culture”: by getting private parties to pay for it. Ticket sales, sponsorships, whatever. If someone actually likes it enough to pay for it, culture is self sustaining. Canadian films and tv suck, no one watches it, but all the leftists making huge salaries get to extort money from the public so that they can fuel their cocaine addled rants against common people, common tastes, and common attitudes towards economics and taxes.

    hollywood politics are bad enough, but state funded hollywood politics are just all that much more vile and disgusting.

    one more reason to salute the Reason masthead: Free Markets. Free People!

  • model_1066

    Glyn, your ignorant comment about how big, bad America won’t let the Chinese buy one of our oil companies just had to be commented on. First of all, this thread is about a cultural asset, not a vital economic and strategic asset – why do you think China wanted Unocal so bad? Secondly, if you want to moan about fairness, do you think that the Chinese would let the US gov’t. buy a Chinese company? Foreign individuals are not even permitted to be a majority stockholder.

    If you are stupid enough to hate a country because it makes some bad movies, then you are probably better off being a servant to the rich. Last time I checked, people in the US weren’t being forced to go to the movies, even bad ones. Movies that suck don’t get watched much – that’s why we have the phrase ‘box office flop’. Sometimes movies that suck really bad get cult status. Why do you think so many people watched ‘The Blair Witch Project’, which was made for about 50K? People pay for what they want to see, so how does that make them ‘servants’?

    Explain to me why movies need ‘diversity’…especially the ‘life experience’ mumbo-jumbo. People watch movies to be entertained, nothing else. There is nothing phonier or more demeaning than diversity that is coerced. I suppose soon somebody will be whining about the lack of racial diversity in the Iditarod or economic diversity in Polo.

    this is precious:

    “So, when the underlying ideas about a culture, which we cultural-relativist Americans don’t like to admit have a theological component, it becomes easy to see why there is a fear about exchanging ideas.”

    Three words: THEO VAN GOGH. It’s pretty easy to see who is against theological diversity, and it ain’t the people making the movies.

    You almost sound like spokesman for the ACLU – they’re all about eliminating theological components and promoting cultural relativism. Who gave you the idea that many faiths discourage learning about others – some do, but what does that have to do with movies?

    The only fear is exchanging 8 bucks without the freedom to see a movie that is NOT bastardized in order to be deemed sufficiently politically correct, racially inclusive, gender neutral or culturally sensitive so a noisy few can feel better about their opinions of diversity and culture.

  • Deirdre’ Straughan

    Whatever happened to trackback? Anyway, I had been thinking about “cultural hegemony” for months, and finally finished my own article yesterday, with a nod to Jeff.

  • Jo

    Actually – you are all wrong. The only way to save and preserve culture is to ensure it can continue naturally without interruption from other sources (such as the big bad media) which if you don’t think is controlled by the government – you’re an idiot. Everyone has become completely brainwashed into thinking that to save culture and save humanity that everything must melt together when the exact opposite is true. Cultures rise and fall, as well they should – instead of building up on top of a lie that is America.