Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Through a Screen Darkly

Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America's Image Abroad

Martha Bayles
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Through a Screen Darkly
    Book Description:

    What does the world admire most about America? Science, technology, higher education, consumer goods-but not, it seems, freedom and democracy. Indeed, these ideals are in global retreat, for reasons ranging from ill-conceived foreign policy to the financial crisis and the sophisticated propaganda of modern authoritarians. Another reason, explored for the first time in this pathbreaking book, is the distorted picture of freedom and democracy found in America's cultural exports.In interviews with thoughtful observers in eleven countries, Martha Bayles heard many objections to the violence and vulgarity pervading today's popular culture. But she also heard a deeper complaint: namely, that America no longer shares the best of itself. Tracing this change to the end of the Cold War, Bayles shows how public diplomacy was scaled back, and in-your-face entertainment became America's de facto ambassador.This book focuses on the present and recent past, but its perspective is deeply rooted in American history, culture, religion, and political thought. At its heart is an affirmation of a certain ethos-of hope for human freedom tempered with prudence about human nature-that is truly the aspect of America most admired by others. And its author's purpose is less to find fault than to help chart a positive path for the future.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-19931-4
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    The back streets of Jakarta were narrow and crowded, nearly impassable. My interpreter and I had taken the precaution of wearing head scarves, and we trusted our driver. But we still felt nervous, because the man we were going to meet, Muhammad Rizieq Syihab, was the leader of Indonesia’s most disruptive Islamist group, the FPI.¹ Founded in 1998 after the fall of the dictator Suharto, the FPI claims only a few thousand members in a nation of 237 million. But it seeks headlines by attacking nightclubs, cinemas, casinos, brothels, and restaurants that stay open during Ramadan. It also harasses minority...


    • Prologue to Part One: Cultural Export—and Pushback
      (pp. 21-27)

      Hoping to see a part of Shanghai not frequented by foreigners, I let the person I was meeting, a local video artist, choose the location. To my disappointment, she suggested the McDonald’s near Zhongshan Park. Arriving early, I bought a Coke and sat by a window covered with posters of American basketball stars, feeling annoyed by the thought that she was mistaking me for the type of American who travels the world eating Big Macs. Watching the chubby teenage boys at the next table scarf down a super-sized order of fries, I wondered whether American fast food was helping to...

    • 1 The American Way of Sex
      (pp. 28-46)

      Speaking at a conference in London in spring 2011, I suggested that it is one thing to defend the rights of women and quite another to advocate American-style sexual freedom, and that, in some parts of the world, it might be prudent to separate the two goals and concentrate on the first. This provoked vehement disagreement from a young woman in the audience, a US-educated Lebanese who insisted that the two goals were inseparable. When I asked her what she meant by sexual freedom, her reply was blunt: “To have sex with whomever I want, whenever I want.” To my...

    • 2 Empire of Special Effects
      (pp. 47-68)

      “He doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus.” Shakespeare’s line about Julius Caesar applies equally well to the American film industry. In some countries, notably China, the import of American films is restricted by law. In others, notably India, it is limited by audience preference for the domestic product. But in the most lucrative markets (Europe, Japan, Australia), Hollywood earns the lion’s share of the total box office. Foreign elites tend to blame this dominance on Washington’s aggressive trade policies. This is a valid point, but the main driver of American dominance is a unique, self-perpetuating cycle of gigantic...

    • 3 Television By The People, For The People?
      (pp. 69-87)

      On a pleasant spring day, the kind when the sea breeze tempers the desert heat in the United Arab Emirates, I was given a tour of the American University of Sharjah by Hisham El Shaarani, an engineering student about to graduate. Hisham was born in the tiny emirate of Sharjah and considered it home, but as the son of Egyptian immigrants he could never be a citizen. He and his family belong permanently to the majority (80 percent) population of noncitizen expats.

      As we strolled the immaculate campus, with its shimmering mosque and pristine if understocked library, I asked Hisham...

    • 4 From Pop Idol to Vox Populi
      (pp. 88-110)

      The most popular TV format in the world is the amateur singing contest, currently sold as a format by the British company Fremantle Media. The format consists of open auditions held throughout a country or region, followed by a tournament-style competition in which singers are eliminated by both a panel of no-nonsense music industry professionals and the viewing public, voting by text message. Created in 2001 by the UK entrepreneur Simon Fuller and dubbedPop Idolin Britain, the format is now sold in over forty markets worldwide, including the United States, whereAmerican Idol(Fox) has consistently topped the...


    • Prologue to Part Two: The Lesson of Odysseus
      (pp. 113-121)

      When I’m teaching Homer’sOdysseyto college freshmen, one of the concepts I try to get across issophrosune,an ancient Greek word meaning shrewdness, gutsiness, persistence, and grace. Mostly it means knowing what to do in any given situation. Not just in the sense of following the rules; anyone can do that. Sophrosune means doing the right thing, the smart thing, without consciously applying the rules. Above all, it means alertness: the capacity to read the situation, fathom the other guy’s motives, grasp the moral imperative at work, and act. The personification of sophrosune is Odysseus: “the great tactician,”...

    • 5 The Washington-Hollywood Pact
      (pp. 122-135)

      It was a lovefest. Lobbyists, actors, directors, film industry CEOs, Capitol Hill staff, members of Congress, and senators all gathered in Washington in 2007 to celebrate what Michael Lynton, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, called “America’s most wanted export.”¹ Hosted by the MPAA,² the meeting was kicked off by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), who won applause by saying, “No matter where we go, movies create love for us!” Then, alluding to his younger days on the mean streets of Harlem, Rangel added, “One thing I learned was, don’t let anyone push you around. They’re pushing our country around,...

    • 6 “The World’s Worst Propagandists”
      (pp. 136-157)

      When Benjamin Franklin traveled to Paris in December 1776, his main task was to gain the support of King Louis XVI for the American side in the War of Independence. This he did by playing the balance-of-power game with as much guile as any European diplomat—or, to put it another way, with as muchsophrosuneas Odysseus. Among other maneuvers, Franklin leaked intelligence about France’s intentions to the British, sowing just enough suspicion between the two to advance his cause. Franklin also impressed the French nobility with his high degree of cultivation. Renowned for his scientific experiments, he was...

    • 7 US International Broadcasting
      (pp. 158-187)

      Beginning in the 1920s, the world’s governments turned to the new medium of radio as a way to influence public opinion in other countries. The Netherlands in 1927 was first, followed in the 1930s by the Soviet Union, fascist Italy, Britain (with the “Empire Service”), France, Nazi Germany, and imperial Japan. America was slow to enter the fray, owing to its tradition of press freedom, private ownership, and aversion to state-sponsored media. But in 1941 President Roosevelt became alarmed at the amount of Nazi propaganda flowing into Latin America and initiated anti-Nazi broadcasts into that region.

      Since then, the US...

    • 8 Bearers of Glad Tidings
      (pp. 188-209)

      A few years ago I went sightseeing in Washington with a friend, a German born after World War II who, like many of her countrymen, wrestles continually with the legacy of Nazism. On an earlier visit to Berlin, she had shown me the Topography of Terror, an exhibit about the Third Reich then located outdoors on the ruins of the headquarters buildings of the Gestapo and SS. Now, after a sweltering tour of the Washington Mall, we stopped at the Lincoln Memorial, where my friend asked me to read aloud the inscribed words of the Second Inaugural Address. Doing so,...

    • 9 “Freedom’s Just Another Word”
      (pp. 210-232)

      In 1886, when the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, it was a symbol of republican self-government, a gift from freedom-loving France to freedom-loving America that faced out toward a world dominated by monarchies and empires. By the early twentieth century, the Statue became a symbol of welcome to immigrants. A little later, when the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century upgraded their methods of coercion and control, it gained another layer of meaning as a symbol of resistance to that new and frightening form of tyranny. And throughout its history, the Statue has been neglected and mocked, closed and darkened,...

    • Conclusion
      (pp. 233-258)

      The world’s nation-states are creaking under the strain of global problems, but they are far from disintegrating. Rivals, notably China, are challenging America’s political and economic power, but they are far from challenging its cultural influence. Nor has any other country come close to assuming the mantle of world leadership that still rests uncomfortably on the shoulders of the United States. In short, America is not about to exit the world stage. Therefore, foreign opinion remains important to Americans. Indeed, in this era of globally connected media, it may be more important than ever.

      Why, then, does US public diplomacy...

  6. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 259-262)
  7. Notes
    (pp. 263-306)
  8. Index
    (pp. 307-325)