Saturday, October 22, 2005

Pick the Right Culture War, Please

At the Harbourfront Writers’ Festival last night Bob Rae led a panel discussion with and about their new books. I sat behind Saul’s wife, , who until about two weeks ago was the adroit of Canada. She still is diplomatic to an extreme; although all the speakers joked wittily about various decisions of the , hers were the only shoulders in the room that did not shake with laughter. (I couldn’t see her face, so she may have smiled.)

had been ’s twenty-first premier, but that seems ages ago. So gradually has his formerly platinum blond hair turned white that one can still imagine that he looks boyish. Certainly his rejoinders remain youthfully quick. When someone assured him diplomatically that his political career may not yet be over, he replied, “I’m reformed.” However, although the two new books that were discussed evince different perspectives on the future, Rae did not prompt the authors to contradict each other in their proposed solutions.

John Ralston Saul gave the first presentation, summarizing his argument in The Collapse of Globalism by claiming that is on the way out. By “globalism” he means world-wide trends that are attributed to inexorable economic factors — a theoretical approach that he evidently considers unique. (I wondered why Marxism doesn’t fit that definition.) We had been told, he said, that globalization was unstoppable, and that no decisions made by governments could stay its course. Lately, however, people are recognizing that we do have choices, and fortunately has been leading international initiatives that will tame globalizing trends. He identified the three boldest moves of this kind as: the , the Treaty Against , and this week’s big news — a convention that allows nation states to protect their own cultural products.

This last initiative, which was backed by France, Canada, and Britain, has not made many headlines so I had not recognized its importance and had to Google it this morning. It’s a formal “” convention adopted by member states, approving France’s support of its film and music industries. French culture minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres complained that 85 percent of the world’s expenditures on movie tickets goes to , but his government already awards subsidies to its own film, music, theatre, and opera industries. France and Canada impose , requiring radio and television to limit the of foreign-made productions. Most of the 191 member states voted for the convention, which will have to be ratified by 30 member states to take effect.

I hadn’t paid much attention to this initiative because I really don’t care about it one way or the other. It doesn’t matter to me what nation state was the origin of a particular movie, book, or play. I would not fight either for this convention or against it. The whole issue seems misplaced, though I certainly do believe that culture is immensely important and must be defended more passionately than now. If not a product’s national origin, then what does count?

Its quality, that’s what. We need cultural products that do the job better than those available on our screens and bookshops. I won’t address the of operas, ballets, or the plastic arts (they may be fine) but I am appalled that we don’t recognize the central role that fiction plays in our society, nor do we criticize for their terrible failure to help save the world.

Let’s go back to the event last night. Ronald Wright read three passages from his book, A Short History of Progress, and then all three men discussed his and Saul’s books. Wright’s argument is precisely the one that has elaborated more recently and more wordily in his recent book, Collapse. In fact, I taught a seminar a decade ago on population and development, making the same point. That is, because of the world-wide expansion of the , compounded by carelessness, we are using up non-renewable at an alarming rate. Wright teaches some basic lessons from historical anthropology — that several other civilizations have outstripped their resources and have collapsed. Sometimes the population vanishes entirely (as on ) and sometimes they survive with a reduced standard of living after their empire falls. In a few cases (China for instance) the civilization continues on for millennia. The real question is: What will be the outcome for humankind, which now has globalized enough to be considered one single civilization?

Bob Rae pointed out the grim future that Wright outlines, referring humorously to a guy wearing a sandwich board that proclaims, “The End is Near.” Indeed, Rae challenged both Saul and Wright to propose solutions to the global crisis that both of them explicitly acknowledge as impending, if not already upon us.

Saul was more sanguine, assuring us that governments do have the power to make decisions. Yes, we have the US to contend with, but that obstacle did not seem insuperable to him. As someone who has flown over the many times, he described the that are melting and falling onto rocks instead of into the sea as icebergs. But he clearly expects governments to handle such problems. It is not clear that Wright, on the other hand, believes governments still have the capacity to solve the problem. His gloom seems deeper.

Rae made an obvious point: It’s not just the government that’s failing to take the necessary actions. It’s people too. Even in a well-run democracy, people may not accept the policies that are required. How true!

Yet neither of the authors accepted this analysis, arguing instead that can, and often do, force their policies (right or wrong) on their citizens. This accounted for the power of the US and UK governments to go to war in Iraq, over the objections of the whole world. A million people marched in New York, for example, to protest against the attack on Iraq, yet they failed to keep the Bush Administration from doing it.

I don’t think that explanation works. The majority of the US electorate accepted the war before it began and, to an amazing degree, even believed that the rest of the world also approved the plan. In March 2003, only 35 percent correctly perceived that the rest of the world opposed the US decision to go to war against Iraq. (In fact, of the 35 countries surveyed, in not a single one did a majority of the population approve of the US’s unilateral action.)

Indeed, according to polls, in October 2005 about 40 percent of the US population still believe that the war was worth its high costs. (This is a recent NBC News, Wall Street Journal poll that asked, "When it comes to the war in Iraq, do you think that removing Saddam Hussein from power was or was not worth the number of U.S. military casualties and the financial cost of the war?")

These findings about public opinion do not simply indicate that the news media have failed to inform the public properly. To be sure, there are differences between news sources; the print media was the most accurate, whereas Fox most often reported in ways that bolstered Bush’s war policies, incorrectly suggesting for example that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. However, the Americans who supported the war were not poorly informed; their misperceptions were of their own making, evidently to justify their own pre-existing political decisions. Thus, among the Bush supporters who did not follow the news closely at all, only 53 percent supported the war, whereas 86 percent of those Bush supporters who were following the news very closely supported the war. Bush had a political mandate for his actions.

In other words, factual information does not influence in the way that we might expect. I’m not claiming that the press did a good job of covering the run-up to the war, but I am claiming that what was decisive was citizens’ ideology or personal attractions. The public’s pre-existing loyalties took precedence over the information that they received, allowing them to misperceive reality in ways that were fateful for the world.

What are the practical implications of this finding? That emotional affiliation rules. Moreover, it is not just our stupid political enemies who are run by their personal loyalties — you and I do the same thing. We filter the information that we allow in, according to our values, sensibilities, and likes or dislikes.

In short, our rule us, and they are not shaped entirely by cognitive processes. You can give people all the information in the world and they won’t respond if their feelings run along contrary lines. But of course, the information is important, even if it is not sufficient.

Ronald Wright has done a great service to the world by pointing out the terrible course we are on and the likelihood of our own speedy demise as a civilization. Yet Rae alone, among the three panelists, pointed out this terrible truth: that politicians cannot fix the world’s problems unless people support the necessary changes. This observation is crucial and must inform our policies.

To influence people’s motivations you have to get at their , not just their heads. That’s the job of cultural productions, especially dramas and novels. When fiction consumers develop intense empathic bonds toward a presidential candidate or toward a character in a story, they want to help him attain his goals. For that reason, we desperately need the contributions of writers, producers, and actors who will show us lovable characters at work on solving the world’s problems. I can show research that proves my point. Nothing does a better job of motivating people than high-quality about inspiring, credible people who are addressing the problems that we all face as a species.

I am asking everyone to help me promote this as a public policy. I did not have a chance to make the pitch last night to Rae, Wright, or Saul, or to their large and sophisticated audience. But I will keep making it here and wherever else I have a chance. I hope you will join me.

What counts is not the national origin of a cultural production, but its quality and the substance of its message.


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