• Slide1

    Popular culture as a fun-house mirror

    Many current films, TV shows, music lyrics, and video games present distorted images of American society that Americans may find amusing (or not), but that others often take as accurate portrayals.

  • Slide2

    America the lawless?

    Action films, crime series, horror movies, video games, and myriad other entertainment products depict American society as several orders of magnitude more dangerous than it is. Does this contribute to foreign perceptions of the United States as a rogue state where citizens wage war on one another against a backdrop of corrupt and failing institutions?

  • slide3

    They can watch, but they can’t vote

    Almost every country on earth has a version of American Idol, but in some undemocratic countries (notably China), the extreme popularity of a show called Super Girl led to a crackdown by the government. And today, Chinese viewers are forbidden to vote by text message for the winners. Instead, the winners are chosen by a state-approved studio audience. What does this say about the power of some US popular culture to promote democracy?

  • slide4

    Dancing to disco in Tehran

    In the 1970s the American counterculture of “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll” was a magnet for youth in many countries, especially in the Soviet bloc, where it had a remarkably subversive impact. But when this same hedonistic counterculture spread to Egypt, Iran, and other Middle Eastern countries, its impact was subversive in another way: it helped to stoke the flames of anti-Americanism and radical Islamism. This untold story is worth telling today.

  • slide5

    Keep America in the game

    The Voice of America and other government-sponsored international broadcasters still communicate—via radio, satellite TV, and the Internet—to audiences in scores of countries. Some say these efforts are obsolete in an era of global interconnectedness. But in fact, they are the only way for America to push back against the sophisticated propaganda of 21st-century authoritarian regimes.

What does the world admire most about America? Science, technology, higher education, consumer goods—but not, it seems, freedom and democracy.

Indeed, these ideals are in global retreat, for reasons ranging from ill-conceived foreign policy to the financial crisis and the sophisticated propaganda of modern authoritarians. Another reason, explored for the first time in this pathbreaking book, is the distorted picture of freedom and democracy found in America’s cultural exports.

In interviews with thoughtful observers in eleven countries, Martha Bayles heard many objections to the violence and vulgarity pervading today’s popular culture. But she also heard a deeper complaint: namely, that America no longer shares the best of itself. Tracing this change to the end of the Cold War, Bayles shows how public diplomacy was scaled back, and in-your-face entertainment became America’s de facto ambassador.

This book focuses on the present and recent past, but its perspective is deeply rooted in American history, culture, religion, and political thought. At its heart is an affirmation of a certain ethos—of hope for human freedom tempered with prudence about human nature—that is truly the aspect of America most admired by others. And its author’s purpose is less to find fault than to help chart a positive path for the future.