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?