The Academy vs. the Ayatollahs

It is not surprising that the cultural adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called upon Academy members visiting Tehran to apologize for the "insults and libels" Hollywood has cast upon the Islamic Republic. These aspersions included the unflattering depiction of ancient (ironically, pre-Islamic) Persia in the film "300" as well as, more lately, Mickey Rourke stomping […]

Last Updated: March 10, 2009 @ 9:10 PM

It is not surprising that the cultural adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called upon Academy members visiting Tehran to apologize for the "insults and libels" Hollywood has cast upon the Islamic Republic.

These aspersions included the unflattering depiction of ancient (ironically, pre-Islamic) Persia in the film "300" as well as, more lately, Mickey Rourke stomping on the Iranian flag in "The Wrestler."

Though the call for an apology is a far cry from the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for insulting the Prophet in "The Satanic Verses," it is nonetheless indicative of how the conflicts of the future are going to be as much about the abundant cultural flows of the global information economy as about the scarcity of resources. This is because contending values have been crowded into a common public square created by freer trade, the spread of technology and the planetary reach of the media.

Only in such a world could a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed in an obscure Danish daily newspaper inflame the pious and mobilize the militant across the vast and distant stretches of the Islamic world. Only in such a world would the Vatican launch an all out assault on the "Da Vinci Code" movie to convince audiences that popular fiction is not the same as eternal truth.

This global public square is the new space of power where images compete
and ideas are contested; it is where hearts and minds are won or lost and legitimacy is established. It is a space both of friction and fusion
where the cosmopolitan commons of the 21st century is being forged.

Though facing intense challenges, the core of the global information economy today remains America’s media-industrial complex, including Hollywood entertainment. If culture is on the front line of world affairs in the times to come, then Hollywood, as much as Silicon Valley, the Pentagon or the U.S. State Department, has a starring role.

From this perspective, the Academy delegation should be applauded for going to Iran as "soft power" diplomats trying to improve relations with this ancient nation on the brink of becoming a nuclear menace.

Though the Washington think tanks might like to believe otherwise, the fact is that, for good and for ill, most Americans see the world — and the world looks at America — as much through the prism of our mass culture as through the formal institutions of our foreign policy.

The warblings of Sinatra, Madonna and Metallica have been the Muzak of the globalizing world order. “The Bold and the Beautiful” still has viewers in 82 countries. Films like “Batman Lives” and “The Simpsons” dominate silver screens across the planet.  From the outside looking in, this Hollywood prism is a double-edged sword.

Back in 1986, Regis Debray, the old pal of Fidel and Che Guevara, presciently remarked that "there is more power in rock music, videos, blue jeans, fast food, news networks and TV satellites than the entire Red Army" because they carried the vibes of freedom across the Iron Curtain.

Thanks to satellite technology, Oprah has become a subversive presence on the TV screens of shuttered Saudi wives. Yet, the spread of "entertainment values" where anything-goes-for-market-share has made many in the Muslim world wary of Hollywood, especially the Iranian leaders. Her experiences trying to bridge the gap between traditional Islamic societies and the permissive West have led Queen Rania of Jordan to quip that American women are often seen in the Muslim world as "desperate housewives seeking sex in the city."

Looking out from inside is a similar story. Since less than 10 percent of the famously insular and post-textual American public travels abroad annually, we get most of our impressions (and misconceptions) about the world beyond our borders from the image media, particularly from Hollywood films like the ”Mission: Impossible,” James Bond or, God forbid, the Rambo series.

If politics in the information age is about whose story wins, then America’s storytellers – Hollywood — ought to to be recruited for the Obama-Clinton "smart power" campaign, which must be two-fold — projecting America abroad and projecting knowledge of others to ourselves at home.

The most important image to project abroad is that America is a plural, cosmopolitan society that works; a society in which each individual can write their own narrative despite race, creed or gender. Barack Obama, of course, is the poster child for this American idea.

A film like “Crash” shows our pluralism with all the attendant frictions. Perhaps more important, traditional public and cultural diplomacy, which is aimed at persuading foreign publics of America’s merits, should be inverted. In the global age, Americans have become inextricably tethered to others of whom we often have little understanding.

As we move into the future, Americans not only need to develop a cosmopolitan capacity for empathy and understanding of those with whom we share this shrinking planet; we need to be educated to embrace the rules of engagement for globalization which require forging common and fair rules of the game.

If there is any singularly poignant lesson from the disastrous course America took after 9/11, it is that any alternative like "smart power" must be sustained by informed public support at home. Every shortcoming, misadventure, misstep or outright catastrophe of American foreign policy can be traced back to the insularity of the democratic public of the world’s superpower.

The cultural knowledge gap in our time is every bit as much a threat to national security as any military gap during the Cold War.

Imaginative knowledge, whether literature or cinema, is key to closing this gap. “Literature," Salman Rushdie has said, "can take away that part of fear which is based on not knowing things." Similarly, Azar Nafisi, author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” says, "The news media is supposed to serve one aspect of our needs — information. The other aspect must be satisfied elsewhere through imaginative knowledge. Part of the reason people liked my book was because they could experience through reading it what a young girl experienced in a country called and Islamic Republic. And they realized that her desires and aspirations were not very different from their own."

Marjane Satrapi’s 2007 film “Persepolis” is a fine example of cinematic insight into others. So, of course, is “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Clearly, one important component of America’s "smart power" strategy must thus involve the storytellers themselves who so influence the world’s image of America and America’s image of the world — Hollywood’s producers, writers and filmmakers. They themselves must be educated to adopt a globalized mentality, whether through their own efforts or prompting by the State Department.

In this way, Hollywood could become more than the purveyor of amusing distractions in hard times. It could be part of the "deep coalition" to help make the world safe for interdependence, which must be America’s global strategy as it moves into an era where it will not always be on top.

In what Fareed Zakaria calls the coming "post-American" era, we will have to compete for hearts and minds just as Chinese epics like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” vie for the silver screen and Mexican, Brazilian and South Korean soaps challenge “Days of Our Lives” on the global boob tube.

The "rise of the rest" wrought by globalization and the spread of technology has changed the equation. The John Wayne-era assumption that America could write the script for the whole world is over, both in Washington and Hollywood.
 

Mike Medavoy and Nathan Gardels are co-authors of “American Idol After Iraq: Competing for Hearts and Minds in the Global Media Age."