Wednesday, January 28, 2004

PBS REPUBLICANS. At OpinionJournal, Naomi Schaeffer reports on the State Department's CultureConnect program, which sends "cultural ambassadors" like Frank McCourt and some Sinatra interpreter of whom Ms. Schaeffer seems enamored to places like Iraq (and Venezuela!) for the old hearts-and-minds gig. "'It gives us a vehicle for people of good will to connect,' says Patricia S. Harrison, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs," blah blah blahs Schaeffer.

Of course, the venue being what it is, Schaeffer must have thought her chances of publication would improve if she stuck this in:
But there is another sense in which it is important to send artists like [opera singer Denyce] Graves and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis (another of the program's ambassadors) to Muslim countries. Though one hesitates to say there is anything reasonable in the impression that these young people have of America as the Great Satan, it is certainly true that the parts of American culture that get through to these countries are often crude, sexually explicit and lowbrow. Ms. Graves notes, "I see what's being imported in terms of American culture, and it's not a fair representation of who we are. I have cringed at what people think is American, but if you don't have a chance to visit, all you have is what's being said to you."
What she's talking about, of course, is the stuff most Americans really attend to: hip-hop, action movies, etc.

That's interesting. American pop culture is famously influential and profitable around the world. Foreigners willingly seek it out. Where they are prevented from experiencing it by mullahs, dictators, or poor TV transmission, they will even go underground to have it. Remember the black market rock concerts of the old Soviet Union?

These people aren't going to all that trouble for a PBS special. No, they want a big glassful of the same Moloko Plus we lucky Americans live on. Junk culture is what other people "think is American" because it is -- certainly more so than the grand opera Ms. Graves has been sent to "ambassador" to the underserved.

To get around this glaring anomaly, Schaeffer implies that the rowdy, bad stuff everyone listens to and watches is actually a elite invasion of culture, rather than the thing itself:
Indeed, one needn't go as far as Pakistan to find religious people who see American culture as a potentially destructive influence. Plenty of religious communities in the U.S. are disgusted with offensive rap lyrics or installation art like the elephant-dung painting of the Virgin Mary.
Yeah, that's what's sweeping the country, folks: Mobb Deep and Chris Ofili. Nice try, but it's what CultureConnect is selling that's the elitist alternative stuff, of the sort seen during Public Television fundraisers. Opera? Jazz? You see them selling out the Meadowlands? No, you see them in the boxed sets that come with the tote bag.

What makes this doubly weird is that, in and among the like-minded screeds against our goldurned culture that run tiresomely off the conservative conveyer belts, we have of late heard many gloats about "South Park Republicanism," an alleged conservative Great Awakening fueled by smutty, irreverant humor.

This may reflect a genuine divergence of opinion, but with this as with most discordant notes issuing from the Mighty Wurlitzer, I think it's more about having it both ways. For in the view of dedicated propagandists, what's the point of having a culture at all if you can't use it to stroke friends and flail enemies simultaneously?

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