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Thursday, April 7th, 2005


Weapons of Mass Distraction: Soft Power and American Empire

by Matthew Fraser

Spread Thin

A review by Benjamin Healy

In Weapons of Mass Distraction, Canadian journalist Matthew Fraser attempts to gauge the foreign policy implications of America's pop-culture exports. Asserting that "soft power" derived from culture amounts to a "key strategic resource in U.S. foreign policy," Fraser offers historical background on the spread of American movies, TV shows, music, and food throughout the world; and he makes the case that western political values are being spread along with them.

The rise of American global brands is a worthy story, but despite a few diverting cross-cultural anecdotes that pop up here and there, Fraser's analysis is thin and his conclusions unsurprising. For example, in explicating Thomas Friedman's "Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention," the idea that no two countries with McDonald's franchises will go to war with one another, Fraser adds an underwhelming post-9/11 corollary: None of the members of the Axis of Evil had a McDonald's either, nor did Afghanistan under the Taliban. Proceeding in an often similarly superficial manner as he maps the implications of the global spread of Hollywood and MTV, Fraser doesn't argue so much as narrate. And the larger conclusions he attempts to draw about America's role in the world tend to be, on the one hand, poorly supported and, on the other, about as pedestrian as the title of his book.

Which is not to say that he doesn't have some useful points to make. In taking on some of the shriller critics of "Coca-colonization" -- the usual cast of Frankfurt School killjoys and contemptible Frenchmen -- Fraser points out, rightly, that critiques of American cultural imperialism generally underestimate foreign consumers' ability to digest and assimilate the cultural products they are confronted with, and that foreign governments' protests on behalf of cultural sovereignty often double as smokescreens for self-interested protectionism. Still, while Fraser manages to score some points on this front, his arguments would be far more convincing if he weren't such an enthusiastic shill for the lumbering megabrands he sees as the sine qua non of democratic self-determination and if he didn't restrict his disapproving use of the term "elites" to those foreigners wary of American cultural influence; the label apparently doesn't apply to plucky little mom-and-pops like Disney and Viacom.

But the central problem with Weapons of Mass Distraction is that Fraser never proves his main assertion: It may well be true that the popularity of American pop culture abroad is a causal factor in the spread of democratic values, but Fraser makes little effort to seal his case. He neglects to analyze in depth the allegedly democratic character of any of the cultural products he alludes to, instead taking the transformative power of American culture largely for granted. At best, Fraser is vague about the mechanics of persuasion, evincing optimism about Britney Spears songs airing on Radio Sawa, an American station aimed at the Middle East, because pop music "inspires feelings, stirs emotions, mobilizes beliefs, and even calls to action." At worst, Fraser misinterprets his own evidence, crowing at one point that Jiang Zemin liked Titanic so much that he recommended it to the whole Politburo -- a fact Fraser thinks would have Mao spinning in his grave -- only to reveal in a later chapter that Chinese leaders were charmed less by Leonardo DiCaprio's swashbuckling individualism than the movie's tragic cross-class love story, which they viewed approvingly as a "critique of the inequalities engendered by capitalism."

Although Fraser concludes his book by positing "more MTV, McDonald's, Microsoft, Madonna, and Mickey Mouse" as the only hope for global stability, perhaps the true "distraction" alluded to in Fraser's never-elaborated-upon title is that American companies are sending forth their commodities from a position not nearly as strong as might first appear. Fraser notes in passing that more than half of Hollywood's revenues now come from foreign markets and that Coke gets 80 percent of its profits from overseas. These statistics hint at creeping interdependence; in other words, the export of American culture is not necessarily the powerful one-way street Fraser would have us believe. Which is why it seems unlikely that the spread of democracy will be as simple as the question of whether you can someday buy a Big Mac in Basra.

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