I missed Martha Bayles’s essay “How the World Perceives the New American Dream” when it first came out last fall. It is a useful sketch of the main themes discussed and researched in her 2014 book Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad.
Having just written an essay reflecting on classic Hollywood’s self-assigned mission in the 1935-ish to 1963-ish window to try serve American cultural health, and by extension, to give the world that was consuming its films a positive and less-sensationalistic sense of what our culture was about, the tid-bit I find most interesting is the Bollywood-not-Hollywood attitude of Nigerians towards today’s films:
This summer I was in Nigeria, meeting with Hausa-speaking journalists, when over lunch the subject of movies came up. One young man, recently returned from covering the ravages of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in the country’s northeast, said that he and his wife disliked Hollywood movies because they were “too immoral.” Most Nigerians, Christians as well as Muslims, prefer Bollywood films, he told me, because they are about topics tradition-minded people can relate to, such as generational conflict over arranged marriage.
Yes, it does us little good, whether we want to fight against the current global trend of Democracy in Retreat, or whether we want to more seriously try to fight the spreading attraction of Islamist politics, when our current television and film producers are turning out the ultra-cynical, the porny, and as Bayles most astutely notices in her must-read analyses of the astounding popularity of Friends and Sex in the City abroad, the obsessed-with-extended-adolescence. The perceptions of what democratic culture finally amounts to conveyed by these shows, and similar media products, aide the efforts of those who preach Islamism, the anti-democratic “China-model” for development, etc.
I provide more extended reflections on Bayles’s book in my epic essay “Globally-Conscious Americanism that Ain’t Globalist.” That essay is your Ellisonian, Tocquevillian, McWilliams-ian, Manentian, and Jeff Sessions-praising antidote to the dumb slogans/proposals in favor of “globalist education,” on one hand, while keeping you from the temptation to run to Trumpian inward-Americanism on the other.
To make up another label on the spot, I suppose you could say Bayles and I are for rooted interculturalism, and that part of that means there’s no getting around all Americans’ civic and cultural responsibility for what Americanism comes to mean, not just for ourselves, but for the world.