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20.10.02

Countries Need Protection From U.S. Culture, Quebec Says

Warning that too much "Dallas and Dynasty" is dangerous, Quebec Premier Bernard Landry says all nations should be able to exclude culture from free trade negotiations.

"If the entire world wants to look only at Dallas and Dynasty in Texan English, that won't be a plus for mankind, in spite of the quality of those products," the premier argued.

Quebec and many other Francophonie [summit of French-speaking countries] members want a special instrument to allow them to set up barriers around cultural industries without being accused of breaking international treaties.

- via Witchvox


My initial reaction to this was a fairly libertarian one. If American cultural products are becoming prevalent in another country, it means that people there must want them. Because corporations are driven by profit, they won't sell their stuff in places there's no market for it. If people object to American culture, they should turn off Saturday Night Live and turn on Kids in the Hall. Saying that governments should be able to set limits on cultural importation sounds like a combination of cultural paternalism (we know what's best for you) and the use of the state to force the preferences and values of one group on a population whose purchasing record demonstrates that it likes American culture.

However, it's not quite that simple. People can only make economic choices between the options that are actually available to them. And what options are available is shaped by the preferences of those around you. I'm a big fan of certain Australian music, but I'll never find Yothu Yindi on the racks at Best Buy, because there aren't enough other Americans interested in buying to to make offering that choice worthwhile. Which leaves me two options, if I want to make sure I can get Aussie music and I can't travel -- either convince enough other people to ask for it at Best Buy (and purchase it when they get it in stock) to create a viable market, or legislate that music stores must carry certain options. There's a tension between the different elements of choice -- freedom at the level of the individual transaction versus giving people viable alternatives.

But this begs the question of which alternatives ought to be made available. Nobody would think that the US ought to legislate the availability of Australian or Canadian culture. There's an assumption that citizens of a country ought to have access to "their own" culture, in addition to whatever imports happen to be commerically viable. But despite centuries of nationalistic rhetoric, people's culture -- the things that have real meaning for them -- is not primarily determined by nationality. Culturally speaking, people in Vancouver often have more in common with people from Seattle than with people from Edmonton or Toronto. But because it's the state that's being looked to to enforce cultural integrity, it's state-based cultural divisions that will be enforced. The Pacific Northwest, on the other hand, has no power vis a vis the High Plains or Great Lakes.

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