[Paleopsych] NYT: A Global Culture War Pits Protectionists Against Free Traders

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The New York Times > Arts > Essay: A Global Culture War Pits
Protectionists Against Free Traders

A Global Culture War Pits Protectionists Against Free Traders


    PARIS, Feb. 4 - The idea of promoting cultural diversity around the
    world seems reasonable enough. It recognizes that everyone profits
    from the free flow of ideas, words and images. It encourages
    preservation of, say, indigenous traditions and minority languages. It
    treats the cultures of rich and poor countries as equal. And most
    topically, it offers an antidote to cultural homogeneity.

    Try turning this seemingly straightforward idea into an international
    treaty, though, and things soon become complicated. Since October
    2003, Unesco's 190 members have been working on what is provisionally
    called the Convention on the Protection of the Diversity of Cultural
    Contents and Artistic Expression. It is intended to be approved by
    consensus this fall, but don't count on it. There is still no
    agreement on its final name.

    But that is a minor issue compared with more fundamental differences.
    Led by France and Canada, a majority of countries are asserting the
    right of governments to safeguard, promote and even protect their
    cultures from outside competition. Opposing them, a smaller group led
    by the United States argues that cultural diversity can best flourish
    in the freedom of the globalized economy.

    A bid to break the deadlock is now under way at the Paris headquarters
    of Unesco, where delegates and experts are wrestling with hundreds of
    proposed amendments to the first draft. Yet the more they advance
    toward concrete definitions, some delegates say, the less likely they
    are to reach consensus.

    The reason is simple: Behind the idealistic screen of cultural
    diversity, weighty economic and political issues are at stake.

    The story began with the last global trade liberalization around a
    decade ago when France obtained what became known as the cultural
    exception, which effectively authorized the protection of culture.
    Now, France and Canada want to go further: by enshrining cultural
    diversity in a legally binding Unesco convention, they hope to shield
    culture from the free-trade rules of the Geneva-based World Trade

    Why France and Canada? Both view cultural independence as an essential
    part of their political identity. They have also long resisted the
    imperial reach of American popular culture, notably Hollywood, by
    using fiscal incentives, taxes, subsidies and quotas to protect their
    movie, music, publishing and other cultural industries. And under the
    kind of convention they favor, they would continue doing so without
    the risk of being challenged.

    So is this another example of anti-Americanism at work? The Motion
    Picture Association of America, Hollywood's main lobby, has long
    complained about the protection of the French film industry. But
    because of that help, France has Europe's only thriving movie
    industry: Hollywood accounts for about 65 percent of the French box
    office, compared with 90 percent elsewhere in Europe. Now Denmark,
    Germany, Britain and Spain are also looking to help their film

    Certainly, as the world's largest exporter of movies, television
    programs and other audio-visual products, the United States believes
    it will suffer from further restrictions on cultural exchanges. When
    the United States ended a 19-year boycott of Unesco in late 2003,
    however, plans for a convention were already advanced. Rather than
    announcing its return to the organization by being obstructionist, it
    decided to defend its position in negotiations.

    The first draft of the convention, presented by 15 cultural experts
    last summer, tried to please everyone by endorsing "the free flow of
    ideas by word and image" and by noting that cultural goods and
    services "must not be treated as ordinary merchandise or consumer
    goods." The battle was then joined in November when governments
    presented their responses, many of which are now proposed amendments
    to the draft.

    The American response was unambiguous. While supporting the principle
    of cultural diversity, it warned that "controlling cultural or
    artistic expressions is not consistent with respect for human rights
    or the free flow of information." It further noted, "Mounting trade
    barriers, including efforts to prevent the free flow of investment and
    knowledge, is not a valid way to promote cultural liberty or diversity
    since such measures reduce choices."

    Louise V. Oliver, the United States Ambassador to Unesco, explained:
    "We support 'protect' as in nurture, not 'protect' as in barriers.
    That said, 'protect' remains a highly loaded concept in this cultural
    diversity context and, for that reason, remains a sensitive issue. If
    the convention promotes cultural diversity, we are in favor. We're not
    in favor of anything that prevents the free and open exchange of

    Supporters of the convention focused instead on the word "freedom,"
    arguing that freedom of choice means availability of choice, which in
    turn requires active promotion - and protection - of cultural
    diversity. Canada suggested that the red-flag word "globalization" be
    described as a "challenge" rather than as a "threat." But it firmly
    reasserted its right to preserve and promote any cultural activity
    that it defined as domestic.

    The French position was backed by the European Commission, which
    negotiates on behalf of the 25-nation European Union on trade matters.
    Just as it supported the "cultural exception" a decade ago, the
    commission endorsed the view that trade disputes involving culture
    should in future be ruled by the Unesco convention, not the W.T.O.

    The battle lines are becoming clearer. France and Canada have the
    support of China and African countries as well as much of Latin
    America, although Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela want freedom to export
    their popular television soap operas. Support for the American free
    trade view comes from other countries with commercial interests to
    defend: Japan because of its animated-movie industry and India because
    of Bollywood, its film powerhouse.

    But inevitably, the spotlight is on the United States. "The American
    objective is to have no convention," a Latin American diplomat said,
    speaking on the condition of anonymity, "but if there is flexibility,
    it will have no choice but to accept it." French officials are less
    sanguine. They say that, by using amendments to forestall an agreement
    in the fall, Washington hopes that the entire debate will become
    muddied next year by negotiations in the next global trade round.

    "I expect the usual American approach," said Garry Neil, executive
    director of the International Network for Cultural Diversity, an
    Ottawa-based nongovernmental lobby. "They'll take a hard line, weaken
    the text as much as possible and then not sign it." Certainly, if the
    United States finds the final draft unacceptable, it can break the
    consensus tradition and demand a vote. And even if approved by
    consensus, the United States Senate would probably not ratify it.

    Does this matter?

    Probably not to France, Canada and a few other cultural nationalists.
    As long as a convention is adopted and goes into effect, they will
    claim ample authority to protect their culture. But a more interesting
    question is whether such a convention will help sustain cultural
    diversity in countries too poor to do so themselves. That, after all,
    was one of the proclaimed purposes of this entire exercise. At the
    moment, it risks being forgotten.

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