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French Have a Word for It, But They'd Be Wrong

May 14, 2000|John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge | John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, who write for the Economist, are the authors of "A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalization."

WASHINGTON — You can already hear the sneer of derision as Paris prepares to welcome "Gladiator." France, the home of the first (civilized) movie industry, of Jean Renoir and Francois Truffaut, of lyrical titles like "Les Enfants du Paradis," has long given up trying to compete with Hollywood. Instead, the rive gauche takes a perverse delight in its rival'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, 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 four mop-topped Liverpudlians visited these 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 firm. In theater, Broadway blockbusters regularly emerge from London's West End. American sports have failed pathetically abroad: Even cricket can claim more adherents globally than baseball (thanks to Ted Hayes' evangelism, it is now played in South-Central Los Angeles). In fashion, Europe is still dominant. Wander down Rodeo Drive 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. At certain times of the day, the most popular TV station in several U.S. cities is broadcast 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 Paltrowised 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 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 offices reflect that.

However, 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.

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