Popular Culture's Spread in a Post-Cold-War World

Article excerpt

POPULAR culture. Is it a positive force in the United States and in the world at large, or is it destructive and demeaning? Is it fundamentally American or essentially universal, appealing to youth everywhere? Is it "culture" at all, as the term has traditionally been used?

Scholars, writers, and think tankers who make a living pondering such questions have no handy answers. Many of them, however, share a belief that the spread of popular culture - whether defined broadly to include books, newscasts, and social values or narrowly as mass-appeal entertainment - is a factor that can't be ignored in the formation of a new, post-cold-war world.

Economist Stephen E. Siwek has studied the reach of what he calls the US mass-culture sector. In 1990, he finds, major American studios earned $1.7 billion from film rentals in overseas markets, up from $620 million in 1985. Japan and Germany are the leading customers. Add to this $2.4 billion from videocassette sales and rentals and $2.3 billion from television sales abroad. American writers such as Alexandra Ripley ("Scarlet") and Stephen King lead the bestseller lists in France, Germany, and other countries.

"As the data makes clear," writes Mr. Siwek, "US mass culture exports are substantial, and growing. Indeed, for better or worse, it is an almost one-way street from the United States to the rest of the world."

Whether "for better or worse" was one issue dealt with by the participants in a conference held earlier this month by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington-based research center. The organizer of the gathering, Ben J. Wattenberg, a writer and AEI senior fellow has little doubt how that issue should be resolved: "Today, only the American democratic culture has legs. Only Americans have the sense of mission - and gall - to engage in global cultural advocacy.... We run the most potent cultural imperium in history."

In Mr. Wattenberg's view, that's all to the good. He sees a substantial convergence between the pop culture being conveyed and the best in American political and social values - values like individual initiative, upward mobility, and patriotism.

Others have their doubts. Walter Berns is an AEI fellow and a professor at Georgetown University. He views rock music, Hollywood films, and other popular entertainment exported by the US as corrupting influences that damage the societies receiving them and tarnish America's image. …