Here’s a story you probably missed. In Paris on Oct. 20, the commissars of UNESCO—the United Nations Educational, Social, and Cultural Organization—agreed to a treaty to protect what they called “cultural diversity.”
In short, it’s a treaty for cultural protectionism, allowing countries to staunch the flow of American popular culture through their media systems. It’s an attempt by France (surprise!) and other America-tweaking countries to create a broad exception for “culture” in the free trade/globalization debate. Culture is not a commodity, say the French, but we will impose tariffs and import quotas on Hollywood’s alleged non-commodities all the same.
The UNESCO vote was, as usual, a tad lopsided: 148 to 2, the two pariahs being America and Israel. (Four countries abstained.) French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres boasted, “We are no longer the black sheep on this issue. Europe is united on this. It shares the values we have defended.”
Hollywood is not happy, and for good reason. Dan Glickman, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, warned, “No one should use this convention to close their borders to a whole host of products.” He worried: “What’s to stop a country saying that it’ll only take 20 percent of U.S. films, or taxing our films, but not its own?” Unsurprisingly, the MPAA’s take was only economic, which is a bit ironic, since most of the MPAA’s press releases vent their protest against (SET ITAL) too much (END ITAL) American entertainment content in foreign countries—when it’s pirated and Hollywood doesn’t get paid.
What I want to know is: Where’s the outrage when the international cultural police try to censor Hollywood’s exports? Why isn’t UNESCO trashed as a group of uptight, artistic freedom-hating busybodies? When the American people try to question Hollywood’s nightly imports into our movie theaters and television sets, the cosmopolitan elites scream about censorship and religious fanaticism. But when the censor is French, all the outrage goes out the window.
This treaty is explicit about the need for content regulation of entertainment. Article 6 says nations can take “regulatory measures” to promote cultural “diversity,” and in Article 8, nations may identify “situations where cultural expressions … are at risk of extinction” and take “all appropriate measures” to preserve them. So Iran can tremble at the cultural threat of “Baywatch” and no Hollywood-loving libertine can be found to mock this? Frank Rich, call your office.
You had to go outside the United States to catch some of the outrage. The Vancouver Sun editorialized: “Canada and France championed the treaty, whose effect is to ensure that cultural products (yes, those foul movies and music videos the United States exports to eager consumers around the world) aren’t covered under free-trade agreements and can be subsidized, tariffed, regulated and generally mauled in any way governments choose.”
From Tinseltown, the Los Angeles Times did write an editorial suggesting France and Canada were “ardent advocates” protecting their own media industries from “the onslaught of tasteless American media,” and predicted that any limitation on the availability of “American slasher films and teen road-trip movies” was destined to fail, since those products will make their way into many countries via bootlegged DVDs or the Internet. But there was not one syllable wasted on French-baiting or UNESCO-bashing.
From Minneapolis, conservative columnist James Lileks did opine that promoting willy-nilly American cultural exports was a bit iffy. “Do we really want to defend the right of American record companies to export Li’l Kim diatribes against all the B-word rapperettes who set her up?” He then asked this great question: “Doesn’t it bother anyone that China has entire factories devoted to pumping out pirated copies of ‘Scarface,’ because the global demand for rags-to-twitches cocaine opera is so insatiable?”
It’s a terrific point. It certainly is embarrassing traveling to a foreign country and watching American re-runs pouring out of their TV sets. Hollywood produces America’s most powerful cultural export, and much of it is garbage. But for a country like France to object is an exercise in sheer hypocrisy. Turn on French TV at night and you get completely uncensored pornography.
This international movement for cultural “diversity” is not opposed to American media violence and vulgarity, per se—just to America’s dominant influence and commercialism in general.
So where’s the outrage? The silence from the pundits and philosophers, so quick to defend on purely economic grounds (“The market wants it!”) the filth on American TV, has demonstrated that national outrage over Hollywood “censorship” is conditional. It depends on who is advocating some limits. If it’s foreigners inveighing against American capitalist excess, there’s no controversy. If it’s Americans standing up for traditional values, it’s World War III. It’s a fascinating double standard.