Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad, by Martha Bayles, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014, ISBN-13: 978-0300123388, 336 pp., $30.00 (Hardcover), $14.99 (Kindle)
Professor Martha Bayles of Boston College has written the freshest and most original treatment of U.S. Public Diplomacy in many years. Practitioners and advocates for Public Diplomacy may not shout “huzzah” on every page, but her book can open a robust professional debate — about programs, concepts and premises, and the characteristics of American society — more effectively than many acres of arid policy blather.
She opens her book with a question every Public Diplomacy officer will recognize. In the Foreign Service, I spoke to many individuals who had just returned from their first visits to the United States — a returning Fulbright scholar or an International Visitor, perhaps. I asked, “before you made your trip, you already knew a great deal about the U.S. from your studies, from the news, and from television and films. I’m guessing that some of the impressions you had before the trip proved accurate, but others did not. What about the United States was different from your expectation?”
Ninety percent of the returnees gave similar answers. They told me they were surprised by the calm and safety of American cities and neighborhoods. They didn’t witness any gunfights or car chases. The Americans they met were solid, welcoming, honest, and genuine. Many were religious. This was not the impression of America they had gained from the movies.
Discussing why so many people have “fun house mirror” views of the United States, then, is the framework for the first half of Through a Screen Darkly. Drawing on her long experience as a student, teacher, and critic of popular culture, art, television, and film, Professor Bayles examines how American culture is presented to other societies.
She spoke with dozens of foreign thinkers in locations as distant as Cairo, Mumbai, Jakarta, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, and Beijing. She logged hundreds of hours watching Latin American and Bollywood films and foreign television fare. This immersion gave her a sympathetic ear for the social and religious environments where the rest of the world lives, helping her look at foreigners not as Americans think they ought to be, but as they are. I am confident American readers will gain many new insights from Professor Bayles’s conversations.
Foreign Service Officers frequently serve their careers in one region of the world. This China and East Asia hand found her discussions of popular culture in the Middle East and Latin America quite revealing, helping me sharpen my thinking about larger trends I had seen from only one region. Her views of how other cultures adapt new cultural formats (“idol” television shows, for instance), deal with new values, and push back against American popular culture fascinate and inform.
In her view, it is now the entertainment industry, not Public Diplomacy that communicates American society and values. In these portrayals, “the American way of sex,” “American raunch,” video game violence, and “24” make stronger impressions than “the American ethos,” “the religion of progress,” and the values of creative freedom without censorship. It is this distance between American culture as Americans know it, in context, and how it is projected and perceived abroad that prompted the replies by returned visitors to my question.
The second half of Through a Screen Darkly addresses another vital question: why is U.S. public diplomacy “moribund”? Here, conversations with Public Diplomacy practitioners (myself included) helped inform her conclusions.
In her view, Public Diplomacy failed to “relaunch” after the end of the U.S. Information Agency. Public Diplomacy was taken over by “advocacy.” And “letting the entertainment industry take over the job of communicating America’s policies, ideals, and culture” was a “mistake.”
Here she includes valuable chapters on Washington’s ties to Hollywood, U.S. international broadcasting, military strategic communication, the Peace Corps, “gospel tourism,” and “the social media are not the message.” In each case, specialists may wish her discussion was more extended, or challenge her thinking, but she rightly integrates these disparate elements as part of a comprehensive narrative. She adds more. In her view, the “official stance of the U.S. government toward faith-saturated societies” is “relentlessly secular,” and she sounds cautionary notes about “the gender agenda.”
In a book that covers so much ground, some readers will wish she had written more on this or that, and others looking at the same trends will have drawn different conclusions. Her book has already generated some sharp words. The critical attacks I have seen, however, say less about the issues and more about the rise of incivility. This is an honest book, honestly offered.
It’s also a book to stimulate the professional conversation and debate that Public Diplomacy needs in a new century. From her conversations with foreign opinion leaders I learned a great deal about foreign perceptions. Her fresh take on “the American ethos” deserves close reading. She offers recommendations: “Stop using public diplomacy as a synonym for advocacy.” “Evaluate.” “Organize public diplomacy along regional rather than country lines.” There are others for broadcasting, high culture, popular culture, the “military-entertainment complex” (keep an eye on it), entertainment industry compromises to gain access to the Chinese market, Internet freedom, and popular music (use it to “engage,” not just “entertain”). My personal favorite is: “Restore autonomy to Public Diplomacy officers in the field.”
Let me pause on one more recommendation by Professor Bayles: “Recruit ‘purple’ public diplomacy teams made up of blue-state and red-state officers, train them together, and require them to serve in the field.” This, on its face, could never be operationalized in the Foreign Service personnel system, but as usual it prompts some thinking.
Earlier in the book, Professor Bayles commented that in the 1980s, “both sides in the culture war tried to shape the content of public diplomacy.” I had sensed this at the time, but Professor Bayles has brought it into clearer focus for me. Her recommendation on personnel aimed, then, at helping Public Diplomacy find a way to bridge the sides in the continuing culture war. “When Americans are divided on an issue, our public diplomats should try to explain that division, while also affirming our country’s basic principles… [for instance] the respect for the will of the majority, weighed against protection for minority rights.” This advice — “explain” — is always sound.
Thinking through this need to bridge the culture war, one could imagine sending out speakers in pairs — one liberal, one conservative — who would debate issues and demonstrate the dialog that must lie at the heart of democracy. In my own experience, Chinese academics were positively thrilled when American panelists at American studies conferences went head to head on an issue.
This or other proposals to emphasize debate and dialog runs counter, however, to a trend in Public Diplomacy practice since 1999 — that speakers under U.S. auspices should endorse administration views and initiatives. It’s hard to imagine Public Diplomacy sponsoring a red-blue duo of speakers on climate change when an administration principal recently labeled opponents as members of a “flat earth society.” A “purple” Public Diplomacy to bridge the culture war and polarization may be a bridge too far.
Since 9/11 there have been dozens of studies that asked, “What ails U.S. Public Diplomacy?” Most were turgid, wordy, bureaucratic, and lifeless, proclaiming new insights that were too often warmed-over conventional wisdom. Professor Bayles has given us a much different book. It merits wide readership — and wide professional discussion.