The Culture Blockade: Is It Protectionism, Unilateralism or Good Old Provincialism?

Article excerpt

The Bush Administration seems to be gunning to make history as the first great unilateralist government of the twenty-first century. But if the notion of going it alone appeals to the American public, it's partly because America routinely practices a less-noticed cultural unilateralism: If a work of art wasn't made in America, chances are Americans will never know about it. Consider:

Approximately 92 percent of the US music market in the year 2000 consisted of music from domestic acts. That makes America the most insular music market in the world except for Pakistan. The inward listening trend survives even though most of the big labels--Sony, Universal and BMG--are now controlled by non-US companies.

This summer the bestseller lists in both France and Argentina included novels from the American author Paul Auster. (The top spot on France's list, however, was captured by our own Mary Higgins Clark.) Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections made the bestseller lists in Italy and Germany. English-language authors J.K. Rowling, Jean Auel, Stephen King and John Grisham were all represented on Germany's, Italy's and Spain's bestseller lists. And in Poland, the late suspense writer Robert Ludlum hit No. 1.

Yet try finding a book on the New York Times bestseller list that wasn't originally written in English. OK, a few times a year one crops up, usually at the lower end of the nonfiction list. But the point holds: The rest of the world reads what Americans write, but rarely vice versa. If you don't believe this, ask yourself: How many top-selling, living French, Russian or Japanese novelists can you name?

Theoretically, cable television represents one of the most diverse forms of American communication. But during one of the most news-heavy periods of recent memory, has a single American cable operator decided to run the Qatar-based Al Jazeera, even for a few hours a day? Why aren't the cable news channels following the lead of satellite-channel WorldLink TV, which provides a daily digest of what is broadcast on Arab networks? That's a decision made for reasons that have nothing to do with popularity; it's hard to imagine that a condensed Al Jazeera would get lower ratings than the Golf Channel.

Of course, cultural taste is cyclical. There's been, for example, a complete absence of British acts on the US music charts this year (for the first time in forty years). That vacuum derives partly from the current British vogue of prepackaged groups who manufacture an audience by appearing on Pop Idol or other television programs little seen outside Britain. Still, the overall trend is clear. The strongest recent performance from non-US cultural works has been in cinema: 2002 has been a promising year for non-American filmmakers. Yet it's indisputable that foreign cinema occupies a smaller portion of American intellectual life today than it did in the 1960s and '70s. Despite a recent renaissance in European cinema (especially in France), fewer than 15 percent of the films made in France and Italy make it to US screens. …