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Puritans or pornographers?
Lexington
The Economist/Feb. 23, 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 diplomacy.

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 of anti-Americanism.

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.

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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