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Hollywood and the Spread of Anti-Americanism

Anti-American sentiment, particularly in Europe and the Middle East, is on the rise. Here, Lebanese demonstrators in a suburb of Beirut protest "American interference" in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon earlier this year.
Ramzi Haida
AFP/Getty Images
Anti-American sentiment, particularly in Europe and the Middle East, is on the rise. Here, Lebanese demonstrators in a suburb of Beirut protest "American interference" in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon earlier this year.

Hollywood is an entertainment-industry juggernaut; its success in exporting movies, TV shows and music that have vast, global appeal is unparalleled. At the same time, anti-American sentiment is rising overseas, most notably in the Middle East, Latin America and Europe.

A panel of authors, educators and filmmakers gathered on Dec. 13 to explore to what extent, if at all, these two phenomena are connected. They debated the proposition, "Hollywood has fueled anti-Americanism abroad."

Participants agreed on two basic premises: that there is growing anti-American sentiment abroad, and that Hollywood produces globally successful exports. But the panelists disagreed over the significance of Hollywood's influence, and the distinction between causing anti-American sentiment and fueling it.

The event is part of a series of Oxford-style debates called Intelligence Squared U.S. Produced in New York City by WNYC, it is based on the Intelligence Squared program that began in London in 2002. Three experts argue in favor of the motion, while three others argue against it.

Roger Kimball, an art critic, essayist, editor and social commentator, delivered the debate's opening salvo by stating that he believes Hollywood's anti-American stance is obvious. He said that all global empires have been targets of criticism, and that previously expansionist civilizations such as the Romans and the British have passed on the "scepter of antipathy" to the Americans.

Defining what were to be the supporters' central arguments, Kimball enumerated two specific ways in which Hollywood encourages anti-Americanism: by exporting a wealth of what he described as violent, tasteless representations of American culture that vilify government and corporations, and through films such as Syriana, which he said actively and directly criticize U.S. institutions and industry.

Joshua Muravchik, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, continued this theme. He likened the current entertainment industry to an "un-American," Cold War era Hollywood that he claims supported communism — although communism was no longer the cause.

"You don't have to love Stalin to hate America," he said, singling out Oliver Stone as a filmmaker who encourages foreign paranoia and antipathy with anti-government conspiracy theory films such as JFK.

He argued that even non-historical thriller movies malign American government and industry. He cited as an example the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, where a U.S. multinational corporation resembling Halliburton replaced the communist villains of the 1962 original.

James Hirsen, a law professor at two Christian universities and a New York Times best-selling author, echoed the notion that entertainment exports, such as rap music, give the world an impression of American culture that is violent, misogynist, degrading, narcissistic and far removed from the lives of ordinary citizens.

In the past, he argued, Hollywood provided a positive American image to the world — back when John Wayne as a cowboy exemplified ruggedness, independence and fairness.

But films such as 1969's Midnight Cowboy — the Oscar-winning film in which Jon Voight played a Texan who goes to New York City to work as a prostitute — represented a turning point in American cultural representation in the cinema.

"Hollywood has manufactured a new 'American Way' that doesn't fit with either truth or justice," he said.

In a way, those on the opposing side agreed.

"Most art sucks," Richard Walter noted in his opening remarks.

The writer and UCLA professor conceded that the entertainment industry produces many lackluster films, but he reminded his opponents that Hollywood did not invent sex and violence. Hollywood is, above all, a business that shouldn't be criticized for attending to the "bottom line," he said.

Walter articulated the opposition's common themes: that foreigners, in fact, love America for its movies; and that the Iraq war and U.S. foreign policy are primarily responsible for anti-American sentiment overseas.

Robin Bronk, executive director of the Creative Coalition, pointed out that there is no statistical evidence to support the motion. And even if Hollywood films with anti-American themes have some detrimental effect, she said the number of patriotic, apolitical and high-quality films exported surely outweigh any negative effect.

In an impassioned response for the opposition, the final speaker, filmmaker and activist Robert Greenwald, said he found the notion "disgusting" that Oliver Stone, Michael Moore and any similar filmmakers would be considered haters of America as opposed to critics of domestic policy.

With heavy sarcasm, Greenwald said it must be films such as Ocean's 11, Shrek, Spider-Man and Men in Black that inspire hatred for America, and not the mounting death toll of the Iraq war and destructive U.S. foreign policy.

During the question-and-answer session of the debate, the moderator, former New York Times Hollywood correspondent Bernard Weinraub, noted that the top five grossing American films worldwide are Titanic, Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, Pirates of the Caribbean, E.T. and The Lord of the Rings — none of which are overtly political movies.

The audience at the event voted on the resolution, that "Hollywood fuels anti-Americanism," before and after the debate. During the first poll, 40 percent voted in favor of the motion, 35 percent against, while 25 percent didn't know. After the debate, however, the numbers were virtually reversed: 35 percent voted for the motion, 59 percent against, and only 6 percent was undecided.

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Jonathan Wellemeyer