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Paris, Friday, May 19, 2000

The Cultural Guards Have Got It Wrong


By John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge
LONDON - You can already hear the sneer of derision as Paris preparesto welcome ''Gladiator.'' France, the home of the first (civilized) movie industry, of Jean Renoir and François Truffaut, of lyrical titles like ''Les Enfants du Paradis,'' has long given up trying to compete with Hollywood.

Instead, French intellectuals take a perverse delight in Hollywood's excess: The gore of ''Gladiators,'' no less than the warbling of Britney Spears, will be chalked up as another mark against globalization, that great American conspiracy to dumb down the world.

Gallic sour grapes about Tinseltown are nothing new. The most interesting thing in this debate about globalization and culture is that most of educated America agrees with the basic premise: America is swamping the world with pap. Disney is apologized for wherever Henry James is appreciated; McDonald's is regretted wherever brie is served. The current issue of Harper's magazine, the parish newsletter of cultured America, has several rants against globalization. On Wall Street, you can find plenty of people prepared to defend free trade and open markets but few who are equally unembarrassed by ''Baywatch'' and ''The Jerry Springer Show.''

This disdain may be justified in terms of specific movies, singers or, indeed, burgers. But in general it is not only wrong but dangerous, because it helps justify the backlash against globalization.

Begin with the myth that American culture is trampling all before it. In pop music, ever since the Beatles visited U.S. shores, Britain has given the United States more than a run for its money; now Latin America, Germany, France and even Iceland are invading the Billboard 100. In publishing, Random House is now a German company. In theater, Broadway blockbusters regularly emerge from London's West End. In fashion, Europe is still dominant. Wander down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, California, or gaze at American children fighting over (Japanese) Pokemon cards, and you might wonder whether Washington, not Paris, needs a culture ministry.

The only areas in which the United States really does seem to reign supreme are Hollywood's province: television and film. With the former, this supremacy is much exaggerated. When Europe deregulated its television industry, the new channels swelled with American pap; now, however, all of Europe's top shows are home-grown. And, once again, the traffic is two-way - ''Who Wants to Be a Millionaire'' is a British import to the United States. At certain times of the day, the most popular TV station in several U.S. cities broadcasts in Spanish.

With films, the charge is justified: The box office in nearly every country is dominated by Hollywood. But just how American is Hollywood? Among the big studios, only Paramount, Disney, Warner Bros. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer can claim to be all-American in terms of ownership. Hollywood, unlike its subsidized European competitors, has never particularly cared about the nationality of its talent: From Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock to Arnold Schwarzenegger and (in his Paltrow-

ized incarnation) William Shakespeare, imports have ruled the roost. What is so American about ''Gladiator,'' a film directed by a Briton, Ridley Scott, and with a bevy of non-American stars, led by Russell Crowe, who was born in New Zealand?

If ''planetized entertainment,'' as Michael Eisner once dubbed it, is distinctly less American than either the French or Mr. Eisner like to think, it is also less dumb than many people claim. The backdrop for a discussion about globalization and culture does not have to be the Spice Girls; it can also be the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

To begin with, quality even tells - at least a little - at the dumbest end of the market. As Hollywood knows to its cost, a big budget does not guarantee success. ''Titanic'' and ''Gladiator'' may not be ''Citizen Kane,'' but they are still better than ''Soldier'' and ''Godzilla,'' and their box office receipts reflect that.

Even if you accept that globalization has made Sylvester Stallone rather better known (and considerably richer) than his thespian talents might warrant, that is still only half the story. Globalization - particularly the Internet - is also making it easier for more esoteric fare to find an audience. Put together all the Michael Tippet fans in one country, and you do not have a market; but globally you do. In the United States, most of the barometers of high culture - opera companies, symphony orchestras, book buying - are increasing.

Far from gaining from insulation, art depends for its vitality on the ability of people to reach beyond their own societies. The greatest cultural movements - most obviously the Renaissance and the Enlightenment - involved the promiscuous mixing of cultures. From Sparta to Singapore, most cultural deserts have been produced by officials trying to preserve their cultures from corruption at the hands of aliens. Goethe made the point well in 1827, in respect to German nationalism and literature:

''We Germans are very likely to fall too easily into this pedantic conceit, when we do not look beyond the narrow circle that surrounds us. I therefore look about me in foreign nations, and advise everyone to do the same. National literature is now rather an unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.''

Globalization is not just preparing the ground for the triumph of American culture and mass-produced trash. It is also opening people's minds to an unprecedented range of ideas and influences. English fiction, for example, has been reinvented by ''colonial'' imports, from Salman Rushdie to Zadie Smith.

The United States will always have a strong influence on the world's popular culture, thanks to its huge domestic market and genius for marketing.

But it is wrong to think that, given a free choice, people anywhere will automatically prefer global pap to local genius. France's cultural bureaucrats have less to fear from ''Gladiator'' than they think - especially as the film is actually quite good.

Mr. Micklethwait and Mr. Wooldridge write for The Economist magazine. They contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.