The Culture Blockade

The Culture Blockade

The Bush Administration seems to be gunning to make history as the first great unilateralist government of the twenty-first century.


The Bush Administration seems to be gunning to make history as the first great unilateralist government of the twenty-first century. But if the notion of going it alone appeals to the American public, it’s partly because America routinely practices a less-noticed cultural unilateralism: If a work of art wasn’t made in America, chances are Americans will never know about it.


§ Approximately 92 percent of the US music market in the year 2000 consisted of music from domestic acts. That makes America the most insular music market in the world except for Pakistan. The inward listening trend survives even though most of the big labels–Sony, Universal and BMG–are now controlled by non-US companies.

§ This summer the bestseller lists in both France and Argentina included novels from the American author Paul Auster. (The top spot on France’s list, however, was captured by our own Mary Higgins Clark.) Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections made the bestseller lists in Italy and Germany. English-language authors J.K. Rowling, Jean Auel, Stephen King and John Grisham were all represented on Germany’s, Italy’s and Spain’s bestseller lists. And in Poland, the late suspense writer Robert Ludlum hit No. 1.

Yet try finding a book on the New York Times bestseller list that wasn’t originally written in English. OK, a few times a year one crops up, usually at the lower end of the nonfiction list. But the point holds: The rest of the world reads what Americans write, but rarely vice versa. If you don’t believe this, ask yourself: How many top-selling, living French, Russian or Japanese novelists can you name?

§ Theoretically, cable television represents one of the most diverse forms of American communication. But during one of the most news-heavy periods of recent memory, has a single American cable operator decided to run the Qatar-based Al Jazeera, even for a few hours a day? Why aren’t the cable news channels following the lead of satellite-channel WorldLink TV, which provides a daily digest of what is broadcast on Arab networks? That’s a decision made for reasons that have nothing to do with popularity; it’s hard to imagine that a condensed Al Jazeera would get lower ratings than the Golf Channel.

Of course, cultural taste is cyclical. There’s been, for example, a complete absence of British acts on the US music charts this year (for the first time in forty years). That vacuum derives partly from the current British vogue of prepackaged groups who manufacture an audience by appearing on Pop Idol or other television programs little seen outside Britain. Still, the overall trend is clear. The strongest recent performance from non-US cultural works has been in cinema: 2002 has been a promising year for non-American filmmakers. Yet it’s indisputable that foreign cinema occupies a smaller portion of American intellectual life today than it did in the 1960s and ’70s. Despite a recent renaissance in European cinema (especially in France), fewer than 15 percent of the films made in France and Italy make it to US screens. As filmmaker David Lynch said during this year’s Cannes festival: “If Fellini made 8 1/2 today, I’m not sure that it would be distributed in America.”

Even this year’s relatively successful hits from overseas, like Amélie, Monsoon Wedding and Y Tu Mamá También, don’t begin to compare to the supremacy of Star Wars or Spiderman abroad.

Americans tend to rationalize such discrepancies by saying: “Well, consumers have a choice; if they want to buy these books, etc., they can find them.” But that’s a naïve view: Marketing plays an essential role in determining hits versus also-rans. For example, record labels pay at least $200,000 per song to get music on the playlists of the major radio chains (and sometimes up to $1 million per song). It is self-evident that smaller, non-US labels lack the resources to compete on that level. Similarly, even if a small, nonconglomerate American publisher is willing to go to the expense of translating a work by a non-American writer, promotion dollars are scarce, review space at a premium and, without a guarantee of profitability, book orders are difficult to secure. This is what André Schiffrin and others have referred to as “market censorship.”

Moreover, the US market remains just as structurally protectionist as many of those it criticizes. The United States may preach the virtues of a free information market, but it rarely practices it. It’s still illegal, for example, for a non-US citizen to own a US radio or TV license. Foreign film producers face massive distribution hurdles to get their products on American screens or television. CDs imported from Europe are still subject to a 1.8 percent tariff, and from certain other nations one as high as 30 percent.

And as with any trade war, protectionism on one side breeds retaliation on the other. The steady encroachment of US culture into European markets makes the French, for example, push all the harder to maintain their government film subsidies.

All of which makes recent debate about piracy and unwarranted digital distribution seem beside the point. Movie and record executives can drone on incessantly about the billions they lose to unauthorized copies. But those words ring hollow in countries that have little hope of exporting culture to the world’s largest media market. It’s far from clear that the American culture industry wants to compete on a level playing field–any more than the steel industry does. Closing off borders to terrorists is one thing; closing off borders to the world’s culture is quite another.

Ad Policy