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Thursday, October 23, 2003

Cultural Diversity Treaty

Around the world, many NGOs, governments, film makers, artists, writers and others are pushing for some sort of international convention to preserve cultural diversity.

This week, the Christian Science Monitor had an interesting story (note the title, "Global pushback against 'Titanic' culture") about the rationale for such a convention. French leader Jacques Chirac promoted the idea at UNESCO's recent Paris meeting.

Those supporting such a treaty fear that globalization is Americanization, but embracing "diversity" allows them to counter that notion without being explicitly anti-American. Instead, they argue for preservation of their own cultural ideas and diversity. Let me quote Sheila Copps, Canada's heritage minister, from the CSM story:
"A book is clearly quite different from a ball of wool," and should not be subject to the same trade rules. "If you demand the right to see your own language reflected in a book, is that anticompetitive?" she asks.

Canada's strong cultural policy..."ensures free movement of ideas," says Ms. Copps, "but it saves shelf space for our own faces and voices. If you don't see yourself reflected in books, movies, TV, and music there is a part of civilization that's missing."
The US government is arguing that "preservation of culture" is a fairly clear means to limit free trade in "intellectual property." For transnational corporations, that means video games, DVDs, music, books and TV programs.

US officials also argue that consumers, not governments, should make choices about viewing or reading particular cultural material.

It is obviously quite early in the treaty-making process, but there does seem to be a transnational network of activists (the International Network for Cultural Diversity) that has been meeting regularly -- and it has produced a draft treaty.

What to make of all this?

American culture is pervasive around the world. During the mid-1980s, I went to an interesting talk by George Quester of Maryland that described the power of American television in Canada. Apparently, polls showed that Canadians had watched so many programs about policing in the US ("Dragnet" and "Kojak" were mentioned at the time, iirc) that they had huge misconceptions about their basic rights. Canadians had heard US Miranda rights so often they they (incorrectly) thought they had them!

Is the popularity of Britney Spears and "Baywatch" harmful? The global diffusion of this "cultural material") might not trigger the "clash of civilizations," but that doesn't mean the world is happy about the popularity of American culture.

If nothing else, this effort (following Cancun) illustrates that the laissez-faire WTO is under attack on a variety of fronts.

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