Preserving culture, or curtailing freedom?
By Wendy McElroy
On Oct. 20, by a vote of 148 to 2, the United Nations' Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) approved the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (preliminary draft).
Only the U.S and Israel dissented. The Convention will be in force after ratification by 30 governments. Before that happens, the U.S. should withdraw from UNESCO as it did in 1984.
What is the Convention, and why is the U.S. hostile toward it?
This international legal agreement is sometimes called the Convention on Cultural Diversity (CCD). Article 1 states that sovereign nations should be allowed to implement "policies and measures…they deem appropriate for the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions on their territory." Article 8 reaffirms that goal.
But the CCD is extremely vague as to what constitutes "cultural expression." Article 4 defines "cultural content" as "the symbolic meaning, artistic dimension and cultural values that originate from or express cultural identities."
This vagueness of definition worries American officials. Cultural expression almost certainly includes movies, books, music, theatre and journalism…but what else? For example, French wine, cheese, bread and a wide variety of other consumables might be viewed as integral to French culture. If so, the CCD authorizes France to take whatever "measures…they deem appropriate" for cultural protection.
Presumably this means subsidies, tariffs, and other trade barriers.
The State Department has expressed concern that the CCD could become "a basis for impermissible new barriers to trade in goods, services, or agricultural products that might be viewed as being related to 'cultural expressions'."
But far more is at stake than economics.
The CCD is a blatant attempt to place world culture under the control of governments. A free flow of ideas and expression characterize both the marketplace and freedom itself. In its place, the CCD wants the equivalent of 'culture cops' in every nation, with an overriding 'culture court' called the Intergovernmental Committee.
The power grab is justified in noble terms. The CCD claims to protect 'minority cultures' and to promote diversity. Some nations may be sincere but several not-so-noble motives are also in play.
One of them is resentment over how well American culture sells when consumers are free to buy. Movies, blue jeans, rock music and jazz, toys, soft drinks, McDonalds, literature from Playboy to comic books… As Neil Hrab comments in Tech Central Station, the CCD is "an effort to punish the U.S. for too-successfully exporting its… cultural products around the world."
The Heritage Foundation concludes that the CCD "is more about…cultural prejudice than cultural diversity and understanding." The Foundation warns, "Imagine how much bolder such a convention will make countries like Burma, China, Iran, or Cuba, all of which are notorious for restricting freedoms, especially freedom of speech and of the press."
This is yet another ignoble motive. Oppressive regimes know that controlling culture is key to controlling what people think and feel.
China is an extreme example but it dramatically illustrates the relationship between culture and political control. It is no co-incidence that China's drive to embed communism as the dominant ideology and to quash political opposition was called "the cultural revolution." Purging the 'old culture' became a top priority. People were not permitted to retain the old culture even in the silence of their minds; those who did were "re-educated" in camps or simply killed.
Governments fear culture so much that they will expend huge amounts of energy and money to suppress a movie, a thought, or -- as in Iran recently -- the mere act of children dancing. They fear culture because it is a threat that cannot be truly controlled.
Culture is the accumulated knowledge, experience, beliefs, and customs within a group, which emerges over time and can be passed to others through literature, music and other expression. It cannot be created by government. You can't vote culture into being; you can't pass a law to turn a movie into a beloved classic. Culture emerges spontaneously and defies political control.
The freer a society, the more vigorous and diverse its culture, and vice versa.
Hrab asked an intriguing question in his commentary. "Thanks to the spread of personal electronic devices and the rise of sites where you can download content from the Internet, will this 'right' to regulate mean anything? Can governments seriously influence the viewing/reading/listening habits of citizens anymore?"
Again, China is instructive. To pacify the Beijing regime, Microsoft's Chinese portal recently banned access to certain words. The Financial Times reported, "Attempts to input words in Chinese such as 'democracy' prompted an error message from the site: 'This item contains forbidden speech. Please delete the forbidden speech…'"
With the current ease of duplicating books and movies, however, it is difficult to believe that even draconian measures can stem the cultural flow.
For several reasons, the CCD may well be unenforceable. But any attempt at government control can only harm what the CCD purports to protect: diversity and freedom of expression.
Those goals exist only when individuals are free to embrace the culture they prefer; when they have choice. And the best thing government can do is get out of the way.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.
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