Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad
By Martha Bayles
Yale University Press, 336 pages

Sayyid Qutb, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, was radicalized not on the dangerous streets of New York or in the whorehouses of New Orleans but on the dance floor of a church social. In Colorado. In the 1940s.

“The dance floor was illuminated with red, blue, yellow, and a few white lights,” he wrote. “It intensified (convulsed) to the tunes of the gramophone and was full of bounding feet and seductive legs. Arms circled waists, lips met lips, chests met chests, and the atmosphere was full of passion.” If the traditionally minded were that fired up by something as tame as a church dance, wonders the critic Martha Bayles, how can we expect them to react when the American Entertainment-Industrial complex beams MTV and HBO and The Wolf of Wall Street directly into their homes?

In Through a Screen Darkly, Bayles makes a pair of related arguments. The first is that American popular culture, broadly speaking, is out of step with traditional societies in China, India, and the Arab world. It’s not the radicals that American culture is pushing away, but those who are family-oriented and inclined toward modesty. These aren’t neo-Qutbs so much as everyday people living in a culture that doesn’t value freedom of speech and expression in the way Americans do. They are comfortable with some level of censorship by the government if that censorship keeps showy displays of American decadence out of their households and away from their movie theaters.

Bayles’s second argument is that the end of the Cold War and the rise of deregulation led the U.S. government to cede to private companies the role of presenting America’s image abroad. As satellite dishes spread throughout the Third World and lucrative film markets opened up abroad, the idea of “America” that was streamed out to these new frontiers was filtered through the lens of an institution far more interested in making money and shocking the bourgeoisie than in positively portraying American ideals or the lives of normal Americans.

Bayles marshals data and anecdata to make her case. It’s clear from her research that America has something of an image problem. “American filmmakers today have more freedom than that enjoyed by any of their predecessors, not to mention peers in other countries,” she writes. “When they use that freedom to make films which flout social norms still respected in most of the world, many foreigners—not just ministers of culture but also ordinary men and women—raise objections. Those objections deserve a better response than they’ve been getting.”

The producers of American pop culture are abrogating their responsibility to serve as a good role model to the rest of the world, Bayles argues. The proliferation of trash TV—The Jerry Springer Show, The Real World—is all well and good in America: Some level of filth is the price we pay for free expression. Authoritarians in China and Russia have seized on America’s race to the bottom, giving their people the filth without allowing them to enjoy the benefits of in-depth reporting that speaks truth to power.

To fill that gap, Bayles suggests, the federal government should beef up its role in the dissemination of news in foreign lands. Pump money into Voice of America–style radio broadcasts and Internet news programs in order to give those who live under unfree regimes a fighting chance to read or watch or listen to something their government does not approve of. In addition to focusing on bringing people the news, Bayles wants these organizations to get back to their original mission: reporting the news, yes, but also “conveying a ‘full and fair picture of American life’?” and “advocating for U.S. government policy.”

The expansion of such broadcasts—and Bayles’s general annoyance at current efforts to attract audiences overseas by aping less-serious models adopted in the United States, such as The Daily Show and other satirical news programs or celebrity fluff like Access Hollywood—seems to be a rather unobjectionable, and relatively cheap, way to win hearts and minds abroad. But will it be enough to trump the trash spewing forth from America into overseas markets?

Bayles is in something of a bind. She clearly shares the disgust she believes the rest of the world has for American popular culture but understands that there’s not a great deal to be done about it. She acknowledges that the genie is out of the bottle, noting that Americans have a far more “libertarian” approach than elsewhere in the world. “Popular culture…is sometimes censored in authoritarian regimes with the support of the public,” she writes, emphasis and the whiff of wistfulness hers. Americans have no interest in promoting censorship of the American media to keep hausfraus in India from getting upset.

Additionally, if it is high culture we need to send abroad in order to improve the image of America, one can’t help but wonder who, particularly, Bayles thinks should be in these  cultural delegations. Perhaps Tracy Letts, who won the Pulitzer Prize for August: Osage County, the story of an incest-filled Middle American family in which everyone hates each other and staggers around in a drug- and booze-addled haze? Perhaps Pulitzer winner Jonathan Franzen, whose eye discerns an America fraught with ennui and empty marriages and sundry sad sacks? We may have to go further back: One specific suggestion Bayles makes involves sending theater troupes overseas to perform plays by William Shakespeare, hardly an American writer.

It’s hard to think of a political constituency that won’t be annoyed with Bayles. Conservatives and libertarians will be perturbed by her appreciation for the so-called Fairness Doctrine and her general angst about deregulation. Liberals, meanwhile, will rage against her description of anti-American college professors as useful idiots for authoritarian regimes. Neoconservatives will not be thrilled by her apparent disdain for the war on terror and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is something to please every side as well. Those on the right will probably join Bayles in condemning movie studios that put profit ahead of all else, bending to Chinese demands for censorship. Those on the left will join Bayles in condemning those same studios for getting into bed with the American armed forces and producing “entertainment-propaganda” (her phrase) such as the pro-military movie Act of Valor.

And herein lies the problem facing any effort to jump-start public diplomacy, one that Bayles mentions time and again but for which she has no real answer. The cultural warfare that has wracked American society for the past six decades has made it extremely difficult to settle on an idea of what it even means to be American or what face we should present to the world. And on the few issues around which Americans are unified, we are deeply out of sync with the cultures that Bayles wants to win over. She notes early on that a full 86 percent of the American public rejects even self-censorship by television stations and movie studios, saying instead that parents should be in charge of what their children watch. How do we reconcile that belief with an ethic abroad that not only tolerates official censorship by the government but also actively approves of it? 

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