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Exporting American Culture


Washington. -- American popular culture -- from Madonna to the Super Bowl, from Stephen King to the Reader's Digest -- helped conquer communism and now, for better or worse, is overrunning the world.

Figures from the world of scholarship, entertainment and communications disagreed at a conference last week over whether the phenomenon -- "the Americanization of the world" -- was good or bad.

But in talks and papers presented at a conference of the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank, they generally agreed it was happening.

"National greatness is about influence," said writer Ben J. Wattenberg, who welcomed the increasing global dominance of American values. He said the reason the world remembers ancient Rome is not "because it had a positive merchandise balance of trade. We remember Rome because two millennia later we speak its language and follow its law."

Others participants deplored the export of music, movies and television shows that they said offered the dark, self-indulgent side of American civilization.

Former Judge Robert H. Bork said pop culture is both transmitting and trashing American values and he blamed those who shape popular culture.

"Those who seek a radical revision of America's politics, standards of merit and hierarchies of authority find it useful to attack through the culture," Mr. Bork said. They have no agenda other than "a nihilistic hatred of America as it exists today," he said.

Popular culture had its defenders, but its critics were more outspoken. William J. Bennett, former secretary of education, VTC and Walter Berns, a Georgetown University professor, said they would welcome censorship if it were possible to reestablish it. "In a better world we would require Madonna to clean up her act -- we used to do that until about 30 years ago," Mr. Berns said.

"American popular music, like American popular culture generally, has a wonderfully corrosive effect on all totalitarian and strongly authoritarian regimes," conservative scholar Irving Kristol said. "The spirit of this culture is profoundly individualist, almost anarchic in fact, and crosses the grain of all collectivist societies." He cited, as an example, the enormous popularity of blue jeans and the Voice of America's broadcasts of rock music in Yugoslavia before the fall of communism.

At the same time, Mr. Kristol argued that American pop culture -- "hedonistic," "destructive" and incapable of elevating -- debases its audiences and represents "a threat to this democracy" as well as to the new democracies of East Europe to which it is being sent.

Washington economist Stephen E. Siwek, ticked off evidence of the pervasiveness of American pop culture. He said in 1990, "Pretty Woman" was the No. 1 film in five European countries; U.S. television accounts for almost half of the 50 highest rated shows in Italy and Spain; CNN is seen in 122 countries; and Mary Higgins Clark, Danielle Steel and Stephen King recently made the best-seller list in France.

Pico Iyer, author of "Video Night in Katmandu," offered further evidence.

He said 300 million Chinese watch the Super Bowl on television and 49ers caps are de rigueur in Europe. Last year, he said, he watched the video "Jaws" in Tibet, listened to the Village People in Pyongyang, North Korea, and found a pirated version of "Coming to America" on sale in Bhutan -- "perhaps the most tightly closed country in the world."

Mike Feinsilber is a reporter for the Associated Press.

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