Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Cultural Exports and Cultural Obstacles

Yesterday I criticized the new article by James Fallows. To clarify: I know he is not saying we should use jazz broadcasts and Playboy to attract Muslims to our way of life. Those a just examples from the Cold War. I would like to know which cultural products Fallows thinks we should export to Muslim nations that they don't already get?

How about movies? Remember that the Egyptian government (one of the "tyrannies" that we "coddle" according to Fallows) banned the film 'The Matrix Reloaded'. Not because it was mediocre but because it dealt with "religious themes." Most films are allowed in Egypt but are edited to remove sex scenes and kissing. Another mediocre film, 'The Prince of Egypt', a cartoon version of Exodus, was also banned. owever most American films are not banned outright. It seems that most Muslim nations get most American films in some edited version. Yet Muslim still have a negative image of the United States. It looks like films don't attract many sympathizers. Maybe Fallows would prefer some other cultural export.

How about books? The Arab Human Development Report writes that "in the 1,000 years since the reign of the Caliph Mamoun, say the authors, the Arabs have translated as many books as Spain translates in one year." So there might be some opportunity for us to translate some books into Arabic as a way of winning friends and influencing people. Now, which books? Popular fiction like The Lord of the Rings, novels with elaborate Christian themes that are based on crusader epics? The Harry Potter novels, tales of childhood magic and sorcery? Probably not. How about The Da Vinci Code? My mom liked it. Too religious. Maybe something for half the Arab women who can read, like Bridget Jones novels or The Nannie Dairies? You can smell the objections from here.

You see where this is going. It's no wonder that Arab nation don't translate many, or any, books. What do they have to work with? Almost any example you can think of is objectionable for one or more reasons, from popular fiction like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Salem's Lot, L.A. Confidential and The Cider House Rules, to works like Lolita, Portny's Complaint and Quicksilver. If they forbid books with educated single women, magic, Christian religious themes, drug use, drinking, sex, abortion, and/or Jews, what does that leave us? From children's books to comic books to popular novels to Gravity's Rainbow and Eudora Welty, nearly every product of our cultural is soaked in the values and freedoms which we take for granted, values and freedoms which Islamists and their sympathizers find objectionable. I mean this book just begs to be banned.

Remember, Islamists attack even Arab Nobel Prize winners who offend them. Who thinks they are going to tolerate foreigners blaspheming Islam?
I think Fallows underestimates the obstacles to 'attracting' Muslims to our culture. This ain't the Cold War, pal. Attracting educated, literate Czecks and Poles, who were part of the Western tradition, was easy by comparison.
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