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How the world sees us

| Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
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What we consider best about ourselves and our nation isn't reflected much in the pop culture that America exports profitably. Martha Bayles' new book explores the often unflattering U.S. image that our movies, TV shows and music present to the world and its ramifications for U.S. interests.

“Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy and America's Image Abroad” (Yale University Press) draws on hundreds of interviews conducted in 11 countries. Its author, a reviewer and essayist who teaches humanities at Boston College, traces America's global image problem to the end of the Cold War.

With the Soviet Union gone, Washington no longer saw the need for Cold War-style “public diplomacy,” such as the goodwill tours it began sponsoring in the 1950s that featured jazz and classical music luminaries. And as a Weekly Standard review noted, the U.S. Information Agency was dismantled under legislation that the Clinton administration helped draft in 1999.

The resulting void in terms of shaping America's global image was filled quickly by the U.S. entertainment industry. And the result, Bayles contends, is that U.S. movies, TV shows and music too often portray to foreign audiences little about Americans' fundamental values and much about the coarse, violent, corrupt and vulgar sides of American life.

Yes, U.S. pop culture often sells well around the world. But it also often offends or puts off foreign audiences who see it as antithetical to their own values. Examples are TV's “Friends” and “Sex and the City,” shows that lead much of the world to think that Americans have few work, school or family responsibilities and spend most of their time seeking pleasure.

And it's not just purely fictional American pop culture that's problematic. Bayles notes that our so-called “reality” shows are popular worldwide and have been imitated in other countries including Russia, where the government encourages such programming. Such shows can make being spied on seem glamorous, which authoritarian regimes find useful.

U.S. pop culture that portrays America as godless, greedy, hedonistic and arrogant can even backfire for our national interests, giving anti-American elements abroad something to rail against. And Bayles is willing to entertain the notion that what the pop culture we export tells us about ourselves is as worrisome in its own way as what it tells foreign audiences about America.

THE U.S., TREASURES, CHINA & RUSSIA

“Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation's Treasures from the Nazis” by Robert M. Edsel (W.W. Norton & Co.) — Published last May but benefiting now from the buzz created by Hollywood's adaptation of the author's 2009 book “The Monuments Men,” this book concentrates on the U.S. military's first organized efforts to save treasures of European culture and art from Nazi looting and destruction, undertaken in preparation for the Allies' 1944 invasion of Italy. The focus is on what the publisher calls “two unlikely American heroes” — Deane Keller, who'd taught art at Yale, and Frederick Hartt, a fledgling art historian — and their assignment of preventing Nazi forces retreating northward from transporting looted art across the German border. Works by Michelangelo, Titian, Caravaggio and Botticelli are among the Roman antiquities, Renaissance masterpieces and Vatican holdings — worth billions of dollars combined, but priceless in a larger sense — they helped secure.

“The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China — and How America Can Win” by Geoff Dyer (Knopf) — The author, a Financial Times journalist who formerly headed that publication's Beijing bureau, sees U.S.-China relations as a high-stakes contest likely to dominate 21st-century geopolitics. Having risen to rival America economically, China increasingly flexes its muscles — at sea, through media aimed at influencing world opinion toward its own views, and in international currency and commodities markets. That worries China's neighbors, but China's internal environmental, demographic and economic problems are no guarantee that the U.S. will prevail. Dyer sees America's best hope as developing a shared, long-term economic agenda that will bind U.S. and Chinese interests, rather than encouraging China's neighbors to help contain it — which, as a Wall Street Journal review noted, could lead those nations to rely so much on U.S. security guarantees that they don't develop their own capabilities.

“The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century” by Angela Stent (Princeton University Press) — Interviews with senior U.S. and Russian officials and her own State Department service during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations inform this author's contention that President Obama's unsuccessful “reset” with Russia is hardly unique. In her view, every U.S. president since the Soviet Union's fall has had hopes for better relations with Russia that haven't been fulfilled — because each nation has more interests at odds than in common. She also explores the role played in U.S.-Russian relations by leaders' interpersonal dynamics, from Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton to Vladimir Putin and both Bush and Obama. She cautions against overemphasizing such interpersonal factors but acknowledges the value of leaders getting along with each other. And she offers ideas for better relations that look beyond both the Cold War past and the post-Cold War present.

Alan Wallace is a Trib Total Media editorial page writer (412-320-7983 or awallace@tribweb.com).

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