Ed Driscoll

The Mullahs And Rupert Murdoch

Back in May, P.J. O’Rourke wrote that maybe America should become isolationist again:

And the best thing about Americans recusing ourselves from global entanglements is that we will be loved again. Imagine a world where American manners and mores set the standard almost everywhere, where American fashions, American ideas and American lifestyles are universally sought out and copied. A world where people avidly listen to American music, eagerly watch American TV and movies, and try to imitate Americans in every way. Imagine a world where the U.S.A. is so admired that people by the millions want nothing more than to come to America and recuse themselves from global entanglements.

As I wrote back then, “Hey–It could happen!”

Along similar lines, Suzanne Fields has an update from the Middle East:

In “Jihad vs. McWorld,” Benjamin Barber blames the United States for the export of low-culture packages – including pop music, videos, movies and fast food, suggesting that they contribute to the “holy struggle” of them-against-us, even abetting terrorism. The Islamists, he says, feel they’re being “colonized” by the secular materialists and polluted by imported cultural trash.

Such simplistic analysis overlooks the way our popular culture can work in mysterious ways beneath the vulgar appeal to the senses. In a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, Charles Paul Freund, senior editor of Reason magazine, describes how our popular culture in its different guises is a conduit for liberal values, driving dynamic competition in strange and unlikely places.

When McDonald’s opened a restaurant in Istanbul, an ethnologist set out to document how hamburger franchises would damage traditional Turkish cuisine. Instead she discovered that the lowly American burger spurred a renaissance of traditional dishes in the Turkish marketplace.

Even more important, American popular culture can work to encourage young men and women to have confidence in their own potential despite obstacles thrown up by their political systems. Until recently, political satire was rare in the Arab world because it distracted from pan-Arab aims, but today, Freund says, “corruption, hypocrisy and even legitimacy of the Arab political leadership are regularly under attack in a variety of comedy programs.”

One weekly television program on an Emirates-based network is something of a knockoff of “Saturday Night Live.” A Syrian television comic, described as a fusion of Woody Allen and Groucho Marx, satirizes the Baathist Party, the Syrian public’s complicity in its own problems and the cynical Arab exploitation of Palestinian refugees. “Superstar,” based on “American Idol,” draws contestants from several Arab countries with the audience determining the winner. This year a Libyan beat out a Palestinian in the final round. He didn’t have to sing “I hate Israel,” popular in certain Middle Eastern circles, to win.

Authoritarian systems wield powerful tools of oppression through censorship, but popular culture has a way of circulating from the bottom up, appealing to intuitive drives and personal dreams that can keep dictators off guard. The mullahs have to compete with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox television hits. The Taliban, for all of its ferocious hostility to popular culture, still couldn’t control young men from getting Leonardo DiCaprio haircuts in Kabul.

Freund argues that even vulgar music videos can appeal to an independent spirit, loosening the moorings of dictatorial power and the sheep-like conformity of groupthink. This enrages some and pleases others, but a singer who wants to be a superstar won’t wear a bomb around his waist. American popular culture is the culture of life, vulgar as it can be, and not death.

Or as somebody once said, “Democracy, whisky–and sexy!”