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PURITANS OR PORNOGRAPHERS?
Feb 23rd 2006
The schizophrenia at the heart of anti-Americanism
DURING George Bush's first term, public diplomacy might have been
summed up in the phrase "Never apologise, never explain". This time
round Mr Bush is going for a more emollient approach. Condoleezza Rice
is putting much more effort into diplomacy of all varieties, public and
private, than Colin Powell did (for one thing, she's less allergic to
aeroplanes); the administration's two leading bovver-boys, Dick Cheney
and Donald Rumsfeld, have shot themselves in the feet; and Mr Bush has
signalled his commitment to improving America's image abroad by putting
his trusted confidante, Karen Hughes, in charge of America's public
But will this renewed emphasis on soft power make any difference? There
are lots of reasons for scepticism. One is that huge power inevitably
provokes huge suspicion. A second is that America's policy in Iraq has
solidified that opposition into a global phenomenon. But consider a
third, advanced by Peter Berger, one of America's best-known
sociologists, at a Washington, DC, seminar (organised with James
Hunter, the academic who invented the term "culture wars"). Foreigners,
argues Mr Berger, have oddly confused views of America as a land of
"Puritans and pornographers"--and that confusion makes fighting
anti-Americanism extremely difficult.
"Puritans and pornographers" is a caricature, of course. But provided
you adopt a broad definition of both Puritanism and pornography--with
Puritanism standing for religion and pornography standing for popular
culture--it is not an absurd one. America is a strikingly effective
producer of popular culture. It not only makes more of it than any
other country; it also produces more in-your-face culture--loud
mouthed, libidinous and impossible to ignore. Yet it also stands out
from other developed countries when it comes to resisting
secularisation. America is the only modern country where most people
belong to a religious organisation and where some 90% believe in God.
Arguably, America's religiosity and its popular culture spring from the
same commitment to free markets. Its churches, no less than its film
studios, have thrived precisely because they have never been shackled
to the state and thus have to compete for customers. But whatever their
common roots, pornography and Puritanism produce very different sorts
For many Euro-secularists, America's religiosity is its least
attractive characteristic. They can't believe that any modern person
can be religious unless they are either stupid (Britain's PRIVATE EYE
dubs George Bush the leader of the "Latter Day Morons") or insane (a
former German chancellor was known to accuse Mr Bush of "hearing
voices"). The Pew Research Centre's survey of global attitudes last
year discovered that most French and Dutch, as well as pluralities of
Britons and Germans, think America is too religious.
Yet many cultural conservatives dislike America for exactly the
opposite reason--because it is a battering ram for popular culture. A
few Muslims worry that America is a "Crusader state", engaged in a
religious war with Islam (a worry not helped by the suggestion after
September 11th from one conservative pundit, Ann Coulter: "We should
invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to
Christianity"). But most Muslims, and quite a number of traditional
Europeans, worry far more about America's version of Mammon than about
its version of God.
In some parts of the Muslim world, majorities admit to enjoying
American films and music (though in Pakistan only 4% admit to such
cravings). But majorities also tell Pew's researchers that they are
worried about American values and lifestyles. This plays on two
deep-seated worries about American popular culture: that it is hard to
filter so that you just get the good bits (download Bob Dylan on to
your son's iPod, and Snoop Dogg soon pops up as well) and that popular
culture spawns social change. Children end up hanging around at the
mall or at McDonald's rather than coming home for dinner.
CULTURE WARS GO GLOBAL
What makes the "pornography" and the Puritanism so hard to take for
foreigners is that America is so aggressive at exporting both of them.
With pop culture, this is well documented. The perennial tedium of the
Oscars ceremony won't prevent millions of people from watching it. But
America is also a world-beater when it comes to exporting religion.
Pentecostalism, which started off at a Bible college in Topeka, Kansas,
in 1901, is now the world's fastest-growing religion, with 500m
followers. There are more than 140,000 American missionaries around the
world and American-style mega-churches are beginning to appear in
Europe. Meanwhile, in Congress, evangelicals are taking the lead in
shaping American policy on aid and human rights.
One way of looking at this is that Mr Hunter's culture wars are now
going global. That is partly because the battles between pornographers
and Puritans in America rivet outsiders: who could not fail to be
interested in the Kansas attorney-general who wants to be informed
whenever there is "compelling evidence" of sexual interaction involving
teenagers in his state? But there is also a deeper reason: many other
countries are having to grapple with the problems America has.
This may be most obvious in the developing world, where traditional
societies will inevitably have to endure their own version of America's
culture wars as they get richer. But secular Europe has also recently
discovered that it has not "outgrown" religious conflict--whether it be
Christians complaining about the blasphemous BBC or the continent's
ever larger and more assertive Muslim population complaining about
cartoons. As in so many other aspects of anti-Americanism, the
schizophrenic fury against pornographers and Puritans is a twisted
compliment; America is once again leading the way.
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