Saturday, December 31, 2005

Culture: People Need to be Protected from Free Choice

Via Eminent Domain:

. . . an example of how cultural elites use the U.N. to protect themselves from competition:

The U.N. blocks the only invasion where they really do welcome us with flowers.

Tim Cavanaugh

Revealed preference, like love, dare not speak its name. In October the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization voted 148 to 2 to pass a Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, giving participant countries unspecified authority to “take all appropriate measures to protect and preserve cultural expressions” — widely interpreted to mean protection from U.S. movies and television.

Israel and the United States alone voted against, four countries abstained, and the minister of culture from France (which, with Canada, co-sponsored the initiative) bragged that “we are no longer the black sheep” in the fight against “cultural invasion.” The United Kingdom’s delegate called the vote against American culture “a great day for UNESCO,” saying the two countries had “agreed to disagree.”

But we must use the word countries advisedly. At the same moment France’s culture apparatchik voted to keep Hollywood out, his countrymen were voting very differently with their euros: They made Dreamworks’ Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit the top French film two weeks running. Among France’s other hits of 2005: Bewitched, Fantastic Four, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Star Wars: Episode III. . . .

And France’s partner in cultural protection? Canadians this year doffed their toques to American fare such as Doom, Flightplan, Four Brothers, and Wedding Crashers. U.K. audiences liked all the above plus The Longest Yard, The Dukes of Hazard, and The Ring Two.

This is not to engage in national chest-thumping—irrelevant given that every major Hollywood release is to some extent an international co-production. . . . (The UNESCO plan has more sinister implications as well: The U.S. argues that dictators could use the Convention to keep subversive content away from their populations.)

[. . .]

Canadians, harder pressed for a simple national identity, haven’t sold a distinctive cultural product abroad since Bob and Doug McKenzie, the beer-and-bacon-loving yahoos on SCTV. Tellingly, the McKenzie brothers were designed by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas to spoof broadcasting regulations requiring quotas of identifiably Canadian content. (After decades of such rules, U.S.-made shows this season occupy all of the top-10 spots in the Canuck ratings.) The McKenzies became multimedia hits on both sides of the 49th parallel; inspired Wayne and Garth, Bill and Ted, and countless avatars of two-doofus comedy; and show up in guest spots nearly three decades after they were created. Thus, the only time content regulation, from the U.N. or any other source, produced a positive result was when somebody made fun of it.

The rhetoric of the U.N. types somehow suggests that the peoples of the world are having their cultures protected from the American steamroller.

The reality, quite obviously, is that the highbrow elites, the nationalist culture-vultures and the parochial cultural interest groups in nations that can’t compete in world markets are behind this hustle.

Genuinely indigenous cultural forms can certainly do well in a free market. In the U.S. Cajun music has never achieved widespread popularity, but it faces no risk of extinction either. Likewise, Bluegrass and the Blues have been genuinely indigenous forms of music (although Bluegress was highly commercial from the start, but also certainly regional). Yet both remain commercially viable and vital, in addition to having had an immense influence on more “mainstream” musical forms.

Mainstream American culture does not crush such cultural forms, it adopts and coopts them, while leaving the “pure” forms as viable “niche” products.

But the cultural elites supporting the U.N. action are not trying to protect genuinely indigenous cultural forms. They are trying to protect their own power and their own profits.


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