When you hear the term “cultural policy,” do you have a sudden and irresistible urge to leave the room? Please give me five minutes to tell you why you should care instead.
Unesco (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is an essential agency of international cooperation. Through it, nations agree to honor each other’s landmarks and holy places, set standards for international educational and scientific collaborations, carry out all kinds of worthy research, and seek ways to promote the guarantee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”
For over a year, Unesco member states have been working on a “convention on the protection of the diversity of cultural contents and artistic expressions,” a kind of treaty that covers many things, including the highly controversial question of whether market considerations take precedence over cultural ones. For example, many nations have passed “domestic content regulations,” mandating that a certain percentage of radio and TV broadcast programming, and sometimes a certain proportion of films shown in theaters, must originate in their own country. Some countries have a tariff on imported media or another such revenue stream to support domestic film subsidy and promotion. They do such things to protect and nurture some sort of domestic broadcast or film production apparatus against the onslaught of American commercial media product. (If you think “onslaught” is an exaggeration, consider this: excepting France, which has a substantial film industry, Hollywood films account for 90% of film box office throughout Europe. If the market were allowed to control things without any intervention of this kind, the total would be close to 100%, because no small country’s film industry can compete with the massive economies of scale underpinning distribution of Hollywood product.)
Such policies have economic benefits, creating and preserving jobs in the media sector in those countries and boosting domestic revenues so that all box-office and media dollars don’t flow one way, out of the country and into Hollywood. They have cultural benefits, because without them, most of the world would never have a chance to tell its story on the big or little screen: the small film industries that have garnered reputations for innovation and interest (e.g., New Zealand’s, Belgium’s, Korea’s, Senegal’s) would barely exist without public policies to protect them. Crucially, they have political benefits: people who cannot use the media of our times to tell their stories will be without voice, subject to the whims and distortions of those who can.
In 1983, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the U.S. withdrew from Unesco to protest the fact that other member nations wanted to preserve or develop their own capacity to use audio-visual media — that they had the audacity to balk at a media menu of “I Love Lucy” and \The Terminator\, all-Hollywood, all the time. Reagan’s people painted a distorted picture of Unesco as a playground for corrupt officials from the developing world, living it up at U.S. taxpayers’ expense; and of Unesco’s policies as appalling infringements on Hollywood’s God-given right to an unrestricted free market (which is to say, to profit from every TV set and movie screen on the planet). The withdrawal of the US Unesco dues crippled the organization: its African leaders were quickly tossed out in favor of middle-of-the-road Europeans, and with the old leaders went the agency’s former program of cultural democracy and media reform.
In 2003, the Bush administration must have decided that twenty years of penance were enough, because the U.S. rejoined the agency — as it happened, just in time to reprise an oldie but goodie from the 80s: other countries’ idea of cultural rights is nothing more than a wicked restraint on the U.S. right to make money. The convention on cultural diversity was already in train when the U.S. rejoined Unesco, so our delegation couldn’t block the conversation altogether. But the general expectation is that the Americans will do everything possible to delay, dilute, and subvert the convention, and then, as has happened so many times before, refuse to sign even the limp version that survives that battering. Nevertheless, other nations persist in the effort, because even a limp declaration in support of cultural diversity is better than nothing.
This issue, which despite its importance is not going to make the front page or the 6 o’clock news, has all the characteristics we have unfortunately come to associate with the Bush administration. Hypocrisy: while we have many import tariffs and limitations on goods ranging from foodstuffs to steel (and have become notorious for barring the entry of international artists and scholars to the U.S.), the U.S. ambassador to Unesco pontificates about free trade and free markets to justify this self-serving position. Greed: here, as in the dismantling of Social Security, the official U.S. assertion is that the right to profit matters more than any other human cultural, political or economic right. Indifference: what does it say about our nation that our official policy is not to care what the rest of the world thinks?
Bring the issue down to the level of the dinner party to grasp its essence. One guest at the table bellows constantly, making it almost impossible for anyone else to get a word in edgewise. What’s more, the obnoxious guest’s topics of conversation are very limited. He either talks about himself, or characterizes the other guests as primitive, fanatical, or depraved. When you take him aside to suggest he back off a little to make room for others to speak for themselves, he punches you in the nose, then returns to the table to denounce you as an enemy of free speech.
Now do you care, at least a little? The American Unesco ambassador is far-right activist Louise V. Oliver, former president GOPAC, the controversial political action committee founded by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and spouse of Reagan’s Federal Trade Commission chair (just in case you had any doubt that the Bush adminstration views Unesco entirely as a marketing question). The U.S. Commission for Unesco has quite a few congressional spouses in its membership (a sure sign the administration does not take a particular appointment seriously), but it also includes representatives from most of the major professional arts, scientific and academic organizations. Perhaps you know someone on the list. Now that you know what is being done in our name, you might like to give them a call.