Here’s the good news and the bad news in a single sentence: Yesterday, UNESCO member states have a “Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions” and they did it over the strongest possible objections by the U.S. government.
The U.S. State Department called on National Endowment for the Arts Chair Dana Gioia to state its position at a Foreign Press Center briefing last month. Good choice: Gioia has singled himself out among poets in his unflagging defense of commerce over culture; it seems he’s never met a pro-corporate policy he didn’t like. When reporters questioned Gioia about the United States’ isolation in opposing this Convention, here’s how he replied: “Other nations have not necessarily thought through the implications of the document.”
There were two votes against the Convention, the U.S. and Israel, and four abstentions, Australia, Nicaragua, Honduras and Liberia.
From Gioia’s perspective, if the 148 nations voting yes had “thought through the implications,” they would have taken the official U.S. position: protecting cultural diversity in other countries’ cultural products could potentially have a disastrous effect on U.S. profits, restricting our mammoth cultural industries’ expressive rights (which is to say, their unlimited access to foreign markets). The U.S. government opposes all such regulation, including domestic content requirements (that at least a certain percentage of a country’s television programming or film exhibition must be produced in that country) and taxes and tariffs on imported product to support domestic cultural production.
When pressed for examples of harm the Convention might do, Gioia said this: that the Convention would give the “government of a country the right to protect its cultural diversity by prohibiting the importation of goods and services. So you could say that Snoop Dogg, you know, was a threat to the people of Finland and because of the fact that there’s an incredible hip-hop culture in Finland, and you know, it’s–I think the very fact that rap comes to these other countries and is immediately transformed because, you know, the linguistic features of these languages transform it.”
Those notorious enemies of free expression, France, Canada and the United Kingdom, were the Convention’s principal backers. The U.S. introduced 18 amendments designed to weaken the Convention and almost every one was defeated unanimously. The BBC quoted Britain’s UNESCO representative, Timothy Craddock, as saying that the convention is “clear, carefully balanced, consistent with the principles of international law and fundamental human rights.” France’s cultural minister, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, said this: “Hollywood movies account for 85 percent of movie tickets sold around the world. In the United States, only 1 percent of shown movies come from outside the United States.”
When the world has always been your oyster, it is hard to imagine how things would look from the perspective of a speck of grit embedded in the oyster’s belly. But try. Imagine for a moment that the tables were turned: at the local cineplex and on television, 85% of the programming we could see was from France. Would you object to a policy that required, say, 25% domestic U.S. content? Would you object to one that taxed British films to provide subsidy for a domestic French film industry? Or would you be perfectly happy that your kids knew more about life and culture in Paris and St. Tropez than about their own society and heritage cultures?
The draft Convention went through a lengthy process of deliberation and vetting. If you want to read it for yourself, click here. For now, though, let me share just one of many parts I really like. This is the Convention’s statement of objectives:
(a) to protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions;
(b) to create the conditions for cultures to flourish and to freely interact in a mutually beneficial manner;
(c) to encourage dialogue among cultures with a view to ensuring wider and balanced cultural exchanges in the world in favour of intercultural respect and a culture of peace;
(d) to foster interculturality in order to develop cultural interaction in the spirit of building bridges among peoples;
(e) to promote respect for the diversity of cultural expressions and raise awareness of its value at the local, national and international levels;
(f) to reaffirm the importance of the link between culture and development for all countries, particularly for developing countries and to support actions undertaken nationally and internationally to secure recognition of the true value of this link;
(g) to give recognition to the distinctive nature of cultural activities, goods and services as vehicles of identity, values and meaning;
(h) to reaffirm the sovereign rights of States to maintain, adopt and implement policies and measures that they deem appropriate for the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions on their territory;
(i) to strengthen international cooperation and solidarity in a spirit of partnership with a view, in particular, to enhancing the capacities of developing countries in order to protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions.
I would be proud to say that my own country believed in these aims. Too bad we have done everything possible to oppose and undermine them. And too good that the rest of world wouldn’t knuckle under for once. In 1983, Ronald Reagan withdrew the U.S. from UNESCO over just such issues as these, but then he, his friends and his family were Hollywood all the way. The U.S. re-entered UNESCO in the expectation that–the agency having suffered 19 years of dues withdrawal–UNESCO would toe the U.S. line. George Bush’s “base” is very different from Reagan’s–indeed, many Bush voters are critical of the giant consumer cultural industries, though their critique is not grounded in love of cultural diversity. It will be interesting to see whether Bush will punish UNESCO for its impudence and whether, given how deeply the Bush regime has discredited the U.S. in international fora, UNESCO will care.