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
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. …