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May 30, 2006

taking back the culture

(Seattle) Here's a speech for a presidential candidate in '08:

"American popular culture is hurting us. It subjects our children to explicit sexuality and violence. It's relentlessly consumerist and materialist. It tells the rest of the world that we are a nation obsessed with violence, sex, and consumer goods, lacking spiritual depth. Our movies and music are popular, but people in other countries regard them as low pleasures.

"How did we let this happen to us? Have we not produced twelve Nobel laureates in literature, the world's greatest research universities, inspiring religious and political leaders, and major movements in all the arts? Are we not the home to global religious denominations and the birthplace of the environmental movement? Why do we let media companies and celebrities define us?

"Censorship is not the answer. Broadcast media can be regulated to a degree, but most communications have already moved to cable, DVD, and the Internet. The courts--rightly, in my opinion--will block most efforts to regulate the content of these media.

"Censorship empowers the government to make decisions, and politicians can abuse that power. Besides, we don't need to be babysat.

"We do need to control our own culture. We can do that, to a degree, through our own decisions. For example, we can turn off the TV. At the grassroots level, people can act together to change their media consumption--for instance, by scheduling community events for prime time, so that kids have alternatives.

"But the government also has a role.

"First, the United States must stop carrying Hollywood's water. Other countries want to limit the amount of US media that's shown on their broadcast channels. Our government fights tooth and nail to remove those limits. That stance may create a few jobs in Hollywood, but it also floods foreign countries with media that depicts us in a bad light. The US was defeated, 158-1, in a recent UNESCO vote on preserving cultural diversity. We need to drop that position until our media companies make products that serve us better.

"More important, people need help in creating alternative media that are more responsible, that reflect their best values. In public schools, we should teach all kids to make digital media: websites, movies, audio segments. Students will be supervised, so their products won't be profane or violent or sexually explicit. The idea is to teach them how to make--and appreciate--responsible media. A public school teacher cannot lead a class in making religious videos. But students can use the skills and habits of media-creation that they learn in schools in other venues, including their religious communities.

"Finally, we need to create a new model for public broadcasting. PBS, NPR, and the rest of the public system was created after Newton Minow observed that television had become a "vast wasteland." He said that in 1961; the situation is worse today. But the public system is obsolete. Most people won't give money to sustain programs on one channel out of 80 or 95. Public broadcasting increasingly relies on corporate sponsorship: advertising by another name. And it has become a political football, because people are offended when their taxes support opinions that they dislike. With Jefferson, they believe that 'to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.'

"In the future, public broadcasting should support a diverse range of voluntary citizens and groups to make high-quality content. It should supply facilities, broadcast spectrum, training, quality-control, and archives of raw material. Public broadcasters should not monopolize channels, but should empower citizens to produce their own media.

"Nowadays, whenever politicians want to make something sound important, they connect it to national security. Well, the way we present ourselves to the world really is a national-security issue, for today the great struggle is for the respect of a global population. But even if al-Qaeda and other enemies went away, it would still be crucial to take control of our own media. We are not a self-governing and free people if we allow a few corporations to define our fundamental character."

[Note: There is much talk right now about where the Democrats should place themselves on a left-right ideological spectrum. But there are many critical issues that don't fit anywhere along that line. Taking a hard line against corporate media is an example of a position that is neither to the left nor the right of the Democrats' current mainstream; it takes us off in a different direction entirely. Republicans, too, ought to consider a positive response to cultural pollution.]

Posted by peterlevine at May 30, 2006 11:14 AM


With regards to the "limit the amount of American media shown in foreign countries" argument--why is censorship OK if foreign countries do it, but not OK for the U.S.? I see that you make a distinction between broadcast media and non-broadcast ("Other countries want to limit the amount of US media that's shown on their broadcast channels"), but in reality, I don't think that's the only restriction foreign countries are considering. I know, e.g., that both France and China have attempted to limit the number of Hollywood films screened in those countries. Clearly, restricting American content on non-broadcast media is wrong, correct? If not, why is America not permitted to do this, when foreign countries are?

Posted by: Meelar [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 30, 2006 12:46 PM

Your question is excellent, and I don't have a definitive answer. But I'm tempted to say that freedom of expression (understood as a lack of legal restrictions on consumers) needs to be balanced against the ability of a nation to create its own culture freely. In the US, there is no need for a tradeoff. Censorship would do no good; it violates the explicit text of our Constitution; and we have an alternative--creating better media. In a small foreign country, the issue may be more difficult. In any case, it's their decision, not ours.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 30, 2006 02:11 PM

Even if we accept your argument that nations have a right to create their own culture, that doesn't necessarily mean that U.S. govt should stop pressing for looser restrictions on trade in IP. How many of these restrictions are being pushed by small nations with delicate culture? How many are being pushed by France or China, which are large markets that can certainly hold their own in any cultural marketplace of ideas? Your argument applies well to Gabon; not so well to the large markets where the bulk of U.S. cultural exports actually end up. I'm not convinced that the bulk of these laws are anything more than protectionism for Bollywood and its ilk.

Posted by: Meelar [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 30, 2006 04:41 PM

I'll bet you're right about the merits of the laws in countries like France and China. Still, why should our representatives in the US government spend their time trying to open those markets? I can think of a lot worse human rights violations than a French law that reduces the number of cinemas that can show "The Da Vinci Code." If we push to open global markets, that will affect Gabon as well as France and China. And it may do us damage, since as a lot of our pop culture gives us a bad name. On the other side of the ledger, there may be a small economic benefit for the USA if we open up all foreign markets to our movies and music. But I'd have to be persuaded that the result would be more jobs in the US, not just higher corporate profit margins.

I don't have a lot riding on this issue. I'm more interested in opportunities to create alternative media. However, I had a political motive for the proposal. I think it could do a Democrat (in particular) a lot of good to pick a fight with Hollywood. The export issue seems a legitimate issue to fight over.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 31, 2006 01:08 AM

I think that your candidate is overselling the promise of citizen/consumer created content. YouTube is funny and worthwhile, but it's not replacing Jim Lehrer anytime soon. I think we must support alternative media, but that said, I think that we need to think about ways to solve the problem that mass media seems to give us individually what we want but some how misses on what we want collectively as a society.

Posted by: Michael Weiksner [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 1, 2006 02:48 PM

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