The Elephant in the Public Diplomacy Living Room

An Interview with Martha Bayles

By Julieanna Luo

Martha Bayles, the author of Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music and Through A Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad, writes extensively on the media and cultural policy. Her works have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Boston Globe, Weekly Standard, and many other publications.

Bayles visited Kenyon last week on behalf of the Center for the Study of American Democracy. In her speech, “How Not to Defend Free Speech,” she spoke about how an unconditional and uncompromising stance on free speech can be overly simplistic, wrong, and even dangerous in the world today. I was fortunate enough to sit down with Bayles to talk about her latest book, in which she tries to chart a positive path for the future of US public diplomacy.

I opened Bayles’ latest book and immediately thought — what does the world admire most about America? My immediate answer was the opportunity to pursue higher education. It turns out my instincts weren’t far off. In Through a Screen Darkly Bayles writes that most non-American’s want “science, technology, higher education, consumer goods—but not, it seems, freedom and democracy.”

Through a Screen Darkly includes interviews which can be characterized by their objections to the violence and vulgarity pervading American popular culture. The main complaint: America no longer shares the best of itself to the world. The thoughtful analysis and profound conclusions in Hole in Our Soul led to rave reviews. American Diplomacy praised “the freshest and most original treatment of U.S. Public Diplomacy in many years.

TKO: In your latest book, Through A Screen Darkly, a foreign visitor is surprised that American society and culture are so different than what she had seen in the movies and on television. Could you briefly introduce the idea behind the book? Could you explain more about the meaning of seeing “ourselves as others see us, diplomatically”?

Bayles: The first half of the book is about how I think of our popular culture gives a distorted picture of life in the United States, and gives a distorted picture of American institutions, particularly political institutions. As Americans we see it as entertainment; we laugh, we are offended, we watch or not, then we go back to our own life. To describe the image of America presented in pop culture, and the way I arrived at this is by traveling around the world and I talking with people in India, China and the Middle East. I went to Turkey, to Indonesia, and I spent a lot of time in Europe. I asked what people were drawn to, what they like about American culture, but also what they thought, and I learnt a lot.

The first chapter is the American way of sex — put it up front, thought it would sell books (she said laughing). How young people are depicted, and all the misconceptions people actually have: for example a lot of people don’t understand how attached Americans are to their families because so much of our entertainment just shows how children are alone. I think in the eyes of a lot of people, it does not even seem human because they don’t have any ties to their families.

The second half  is mainly about US history of public diplomacy, which is the term used instead of propaganda and publicity. I think there is a real difference between how the United States practice public diplomacy or should practice public diplomacy, and what is called propaganda. There is the degree of truthfulness and willingness to talk about problems in your country. I think public diplomacy is a craft, a set of skills and it takes a certain kind of people to do it right, and America used to do it quite well during the cold war, all around the world, but not anymore.

TKO: In your interview with Public Diplomacy Council, you noted that “I’m not the only one to see our ubiquitous popular culture as the elephant in the Public Diplomacy living room.” Can you explain more about it?

Bayles: I think the U.S. is overconfident about its attractive culture. We are living on our capital, instead of living on our interest, we are spending down our advantage. Americans are overconfident about how long our cultural hegemony will last. We don’t see any part of our culture that’s unattractive because we have a huge country to think about. I don’t think any other country is mounting any challenge now.

And, I’m not the only one to see our ubiquitous popular culture as the elephant in the Public Diplomacy living room. I have interviewed many diplomats, both at home and abroad,who  echoed this comment. According to one USIA veteran: “Popular culture is part of the landscape that the Foreign Service and State Department have to deal with, but nobody’s thinking about it.” Ever since 9/11, there has been a debate about why we can’t communicate with the world the way we used to, and look at China, they have all these Confucius houses, all these media…these channels…They are committed to telling their stories. People in D.C. ask why aren’t we doing that?

I think the U.S. is overconfident about its attractive culture. We are living on our capital, instead of living on our interest, we are spending down our advantage. Americans are overconfident about how long our cultural hegemony will last. –Martha Bayles

We are not doing a good job representing our government, our traditions, our institutions, our political values. They debate not what the private sectors have done. The government after the Cold War, none of the presidents we had, since the end of the Cold War was very committed to this. Americans tend to think the private sectors can do it better than government, and they would look at some countries and say well the government is doing everything…some have, most private institutions might be organized under the law but they have no ties to the government. We tend to think that the private sectors can do everything better. The small associations tend to fill the vacuum, but a lot of places in the world are frustrated that the US does not talk to them and US government is not really present, even though you have this NGO and that NGO, but the government does not do a lot, does not say what it’s doing, its value, its purpose, its policies, and the embassy is kind of heavily guarded and the Americans don’t come out and talk to people. There is a case that the government should be out there doing it well, and doing it right.

TKO: I know that in 2006 you were a Fulbright Lecturer at Poland’s Marie Curie Sklodowska University, Catholic University, and Warsaw University. How did the experience influence your view on public diplomacy? Did it change your view on western cultural tradition?

Bayles: Most people I was friends with are on the pro-American scale, but through them I met a lot of people whose attitude was “I can have dinner with you, but I don’t like your country”. There is a lot of anti-Americanism. No culture in history has had as big of an impact on as America has had on China. I think the Europeans, because of the history of colonialism, have more of a history of learning about other country out of self-interest, but Europeans who go abroad tend to know better what they’re doing, instead American tend to be trained less and know less. There is no substitute for living in another country and Americans don’t do it enough, and that’s a big problem of public dipolomacy. Not enough Americans can speak the language the country they go to, and we had USIA (United States Information Agency) and it existed from the 1950s to 1999, but it was terminated because the Cold War ended and America had won and it did not need to communicate with the rest of the world anymore. The people who worked for USIA, and people who staff those offices you can be sure they speak the languages, and they do a lot of outreach cultural programs and their people are well-trained. For America, because that particular agency was closed, now it’s up to the state department, and we don’t have enough people. Some of the best people to do this kind of work would be soldiers, because as they have worked in the places they have got to know them well, but they don’t tend to get recruited because they did not go to elite college.

To put it simply, America has some work to do when it comes to our overseas image. Bayles believes that this work can be done by talking about our culture, society, and politics more. For example, when protests began in Ferguson, Missouri the government should be out there talking to people about race, about history, and about how to handle the issues and move forward. We have to start presenting a fuller picture, a more complete narrative. Otherwise our image abroad will continue to fall and our cultural capital will be gone before we know it.

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