Department of Bad Ideas

Maybe in any event the United States would have ended up isolated at UNESCO’s latest attempt to put global popular culture under the thumb of state sovereignities, but the Bush Administration’s earlier contempt for all multilateral processes hasn’t made it any easier to come out of a disastrous process like this one confident in our occupation of the moral high ground. Whatever leverage we might have had once is gone.

Which in this case is too bad, because the new convention on cultural diversity is more or less straight from the same playbook that brought us the truly excreable “New World Information Order” in the 1970s. The concern driving the new convention is “cultural imperialism”, the proposition that a globalized popular culture results in the homogenization of cultural life everywhere and the loss of local and national difference.

The claims embedded within that idea of “cultural imperialism” are far less obviously true than most of those (including UNESCO delegates) who reference the concept think. It’s not at all clear that increasing globalization of the circulation or dissemination of popular culture produces homogeneity or for that matter, Americanization. The same mechanisms that allow American television to travel to local markets around the world facilitate the movement of popular music throughout the African diaspora, from Africa to the Americas and back again, and from the diaspora out to other national cultures. You can find something rather like hip-hop everywhere you care to look these days, but when it gets to a new place, it’s never the same. It doesn’t homogenize: it re-localizes.

What the UNESCO convention is really about is not cultural imperialism, or homogeneity. It’s about whether the state or the market is the patron and source of popular culture. Many of the backers of the UNESCO convention in the developed world are speaking from a perspective in which it is taken for granted that the nation-state has a stake in promoting a sense of national identity and language usage through underwriting cultural work, and equally taken for granted that the role of the state is to extensively support but also control the arts. The two propositions walk side by side: promote national culture while also censoring, manipulating or controlling it. At its best, this tends to float a lot of mediocre crap into the public sphere that local publics have at best tepid loyalty to, hence the desperate desire to somehow fend off or keep out cultural work from market sources (American and otherwise) that entertains or engages those audiences to a far greater degree. At its worst, it allows the extensive bureaucratic management of cultural production.

Which is of course the source of the appeal of the new convention to many developing nations: it legitimizes their autocratic impulses in the domain of global culture, it authorizes regimes of control designed to keep threatening or subversive ideas out and stifle such ideas that might emerge from local contexts.

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