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Bayles, Martha. Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and Americas Image Abroad.

Bayles, Martha. Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and Americas Image Abroad. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 2014. 336pp. $30

This is a wonderful, wonderful book. It is very much more than even its title and subtitle suggest. And it's a great read even though it deals with subjects and policy debates about which most of us would rather not think because they're either upsetting, or too complicated, or both.

The first half of the book is devoted to the image of America that our low (and getting lower all the time) popular culture projects worldwide. When I embarked on reading it, I was intimidated by how much of our popular culture Martha Bayles proposed to cover in detail by focusing on (seemingly) so many individual products. I felt I already knew how vulgar and vile the movies and television shows we export are. When the author started in on Sex in the City, I thought, "Well, better her than me at least: somebody needs to know about this particular offense, but not me."

Then, I discovered that Bayles very cleverly combined her assessment of how that television program gives a debased view of America with the reactions of interviewees abroad. Every example (and there is a myriad of them in chapters "The American Way of Sex," "Empire of Special Effects," "Television by the People, for the People?," and "From Pop Idol to Vox Populi") proceeds in this way. While she means us to look at and understand the attraction of and "push back" against American pop culture from place to place abroad, she provides excellent analyses of the indigenous pop culture and non-American influences. This takes one into society and politics as much as culture, religion, taste, and inevitable interesting peculiarities. The outcome is a nearly complete global vision of popular culture that I don't believe can be found anywhere else. Of course, Bayles means to show the guiding influence of American pop culture.

In dealing with popular culture, Bayles is slyly operating in the way in which she will eventually commend that public (or culture) diplomats proceed. She holds that public diplomacy is made up of four activities: listening, advocacy, culture and exchange, and news reporting. These ought to be discrete from one another but given equal importance. Accordingly, a cultural officer ought to be able to tell foreigners how Americans really regard Sex in the City (no one takes the show as real or expressive of his or her attitude toward life); be able to explain how certain things fit (or don't fit) into the real American ethos (this is the advocacy part); know enough about the local culture to understand the "push back" that should always be sought; and, finally, tell the truth.

In addition to the foregoing, this book does several other things, and all of them excellently. Bayles is well versed in American political thought and history --enough to produce a fine essay on the American ethos that combines the historical, political, and cultural into what is really American. Again, this is an example of what every U.S. public diplomat should know and what those abroad might learn if public diplomacy were properly practiced.

The book is also a thorough history of U.S. public diplomacy, from the first master, Benjamin Franklin, through the shutting down of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) in 1999, to the present. While she believes the abolition of the USIA was a mistake, the book does not advocate its revival. This is because Bayles is clearly more concerned with the content of government-provided information about America since the early 1950s (which is a distressing history) than she is about the institutions.

On top of it all, Bayles treats most related subjects--for example, the experiment in "strategic communications" as a kind of public diplomacy inflicted on the Department of Defense after 9/11 (and terminated by Admiral Michael Mullen, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in 2011); the history of the tight relationship between Hollywood and Washington that secured the worldwide domination of American pop culture, while allowing its content to sink lower and lower; the troubled career of U.S. international broadcast; and the Internet and social media.

And yes, she deals also with the problem of U.S. promotion of democracy abroad. To quote from the last sentences of the book: "The premise of this book has been that a significant number, perhaps even a preponderance, of today's tiny battles are being fought not in the news media but in the mundane realm of popular culture. The wisdom of America is clear and straightforward: political liberty can be sustained only by self-governing individuals and prudently designed institutions. Yet when our fellow human beings look at America through the screen of our entertainment, what they see most darkly is a rejection of tradition, religion, family and every kind of institutional restraint, in favor of unseemly egotism and libertinism. Attracted and repulsed by this image, they might be forgiven for not appreciating the part about self-governance."
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Author:Jensen, Kenneth D.M.
Publication:Naval War College Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2015
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