This essay is based on American Idol After Iraq: Competing for Hearts and Minds in the Global Media Age by Nathan Gardels and Mike Medavoy, published this month by Wiley-Blackwell.
The conflicts of the future are going to be as much about the abundant cultural flows of the global information economy as about the scarcity of oil and water. This is because competing values have been crowded into a common public square created by freer trade, the spread of technology and the planetary reach of media.
Only in such a world could a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad in an obscure Danish daily newspaper inflame the pious and mobilize the militant across the vast and distant stretches of the Islamic world. Only in such a world would bloodied Tibetan monks be censored out of Chinese TV news reports, just to show up on YouTube, or would a CNN pundit in New York be sued by a Beijing schoolteacher for calling Chinese “thugs” and their exports “junk.” Only in such a world would the Vatican launch an all-out assault on the film The Da Vinci Code to convince audiences that popular fiction is not the same as eternal truth.
This global public square is the new space of power where images compete and ideas are contested; it is where hearts and minds are won or lost and legitimacy is established. It is a space both of friction and fusion, where the cosmopolitan commons of the twenty-first century is being forged.
Though facing intense challenges, the core of the global information economy today remains America’s media-industrial complex, including Hollywood entertainment–broadly defined as the commercial and professional production of American popular culture for mass distribution. If culture is on the front line of world affairs in the times to come, then Hollywood, as much as Silicon Valley, the Pentagon or the US State Department, has a starring role.
The reasons for Hollywood’s power over the last 100 years are clear. Long before celluloid or pixels, Plato understood that those who tell the stories also rule. And if music sets the mood for the multitudes, the warblings of Sinatra, Madonna and Metallica have certainly been the muzak of the American-led world order.
Above all, as philosophers have told us, images–the currency of Hollywood–rule dreams and dreams rule actions. That is because most people construct the worldview that informs what they do on an emotional basis rather than a rational one. They buy into a narrative not so much through the considered weighing of ideas as on what image they want to be a part of or associated with. What people identify with, or don’t, depends on the dignity, recognition and status those images–“that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,” in the famous words of Ezra Pound–confer in their culture. In short, a person’s vision of “the good life” is largely determined by what works for them metaphorically.
It is why Saddam Hussein regularly played the Sinatra tune “My Way” at his birthday parties, and it is why we associate a moment of carefree, dancing joy with “Singin’ in the Rain.” It is why a middle-aged man buys a Porsche and why a teenager desperately desires a pair of Pumas. Sometimes the symbol can be more generic, as when blue jeans spread worldwide after the 1960s made a ready-to-wear statement about nonconformity and informal lifestyle. Apprehending the world by what works metaphorically is why the Camorra gang from Sicily mimics Hollywood films in its actual lifestyle, with women bodyguards wearing yellow tracksuits like Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. It is why the villa of one of the Camorra’s top bosses was modeled down to the last detail on the mansion of Tony Montana in Brian De Palma’s Scarface. More profoundly, adopting a worldview by what works metaphorically is also why humiliated youths in Gaza, feeling righteous and empowered, cheered the Al Qaeda takedown of the Twin Towers on 9/11. It’s why Mexico’s demographics experts credit the daytime soaps with helping reduce the population explosion in that thoroughly Catholic nation.