TCS Daily

That Other Cultural War Grinds On

By Neil Hrab - November 11, 2005 12:00 AM

Movie buffs living in Iran got some bad news last month. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his ultra-religious cronies declared a jihad against movies containing "secular, feminist, liberal or nihilist ideas." It will be a few years before certified feminist and nihilist gems such as The Dukes of Hazzard make it past Tehran's censors.

If Iran's tyrants want to limit freedom of choice when it comes to movies within their country's borders, that's one thing. Instead of being content to hassle only domestic consumers, however, they want to export their heavy-handed philosophy around the world.  

President Ahmadinejad's government supports an international treaty enshrining the right of all states to shape the entertainment options available to consumers -- in the name of "cultural diversity." The treaty recently won overwhelming support at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Only the US and Israel voted against it.  

An anonymous Western diplomat quoted in an Australian paper described the treaty as a barely-concealed swipe at the United States. He called it an "anti-globalization attack on so-called American hegemony and cultural imperialism."  

You don't have to be an America-hating religious fundamentalist to support the cultural protectionism treaty. You can just as well be a smug, espresso-sipping Western post-modernist. France, the UK and Canada are all members of the International Network on Cultural Policy (INCP), an alliance of governments that promoted the cultural protectionism treaty. To join the INCP, you need to share the network's fear of Hollywood's global market share. Iran is an INCP member, of course.  

The UNESCO vote on the treaty took place on Oct. 20 -- the same day that the news of the Iranian film ban started to circulate. The timing of the Iranian ban couldn't have been better for critics of the UNESCO cultural diversity treaty, as it put developments into a larger context.  

UNESCO believes its work to promote cultural diversity is helping the fight against what it terms "inward looking fundamentalism." By lending its name to those who want to use talk of "diversity" to limit consumer access to foreign movies, UNESCO may instead be inadvertently strengthening those forms of fundamentalism it wants to discourage.  

As Louise Oliver, the US ambassador to UNESCO, said on Oct. 20:   

    "This [treaty] as now drafted [...] could be used by states to justify 
    policies that could be used or abused to control the cultural lives of 
    their citizens -- policies that a state might use to control what its 
    citizens can see; what they can read; what they can listen to; and 
    what they can do."  

Amb. Oliver continued: "We believe -- in keeping with existing conventions -- that the world must affirm the right of all people to make these decisions for themselves."  

We can take this one step further. The more decisions people can make about the movies they watch, the music they listen to and the books they read, the weaker the forces of "inward looking fundamentalism" will become.  

The more barriers repressive governments can put up to thwart the free flow of information, the easier it is for "inward looking fundamentalism" to persist and survive. A treaty that helps such governments to claim that their limits on foreign movies are in keeping with global efforts to nurture cultural diversity provides a wonderful cover for censorship.  

So far, much of the commentary and coverage of the UNESCO vote has tended to focus on the possible economic effects of the treaty on the US film industry. Some wonder if the treaty's demand that trade in cultural good be exempted from future world trade talks will set back efforts to make global markets more free.  

Amb. Oliver's remarks give us cause to consider one additional important aspect of the debate over cultural diversity. By encouraging governments to treat movie theatre screens as if they were state property, the UNESCO cultural protectionism treaty strengthens those regimes that want to foist "inward looking fundamentalism" on their subjects.  

At this particular moment in history, UNESCO, of all organizations, should be working toward the exact opposite goal.  

Neil Hrab was the 2003 Warren T. Brookes Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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