A New Battlefront for Cultural Diversity

UNESCO hasn’t been on most people’s mental maps for many years, in part because the United States pulled out of the organization nineteen years ago. It was angry at developing countries for resisting the new world order of information flows that U.S. media companies wanted. Who hears about UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) anymore?

That is changing. Earlier this week, the Smithsonian Institution hosted a two-day conference about a proposed UNESCO treaty to protect “cultural diversity.” I came away convinced that it is time for more Americans to pay closer attention to the proposed treaty. The Convention could prove to be an important battlefront in the fight to protect cultures around the world from the predations of Big Media and “free trade.”

While trade at the margins can be a source of diverse cultural expression, in general it has been a driving force in reducing cultural diversity. Essentially, powerful media companies are overwhelming smaller countries and indigenous peoples with low-cost, trans-national “cultural product” (an oxymoron for anyone who understands what art and culture is all about). The stuff tends to be highly commercial, culturally generic (violence travels well), and lowest-common-denominator in sensibility. It is exemplified by Hollywood movies, MTV, Fox Television and all of their merchandising partners at McDonald’s, Starbuck’s and corporate America. Without new market vehicles or legal measures to protect cultural diversity, the “free market” is only going to intensify the homogenization, commercialization and erosion of localism and “small” cultures that is already occurring today.

It takes some effort to read between the lines to understand what is going on with the UNESCO Convention and what is at stake. This is partly because the U.S. Government has been deplorably opaque. It has done little to invite a public dialogue; has sponsored little publicity; has made little outreach in appointing an advisory panel; and has a bare-bones website with few key documents. This low-profile is apparently the deliberate choice of the U.S. State Department and National Security Council, who are not exactly known for fostering democratic transparency and citizen participation.

In any case, the U.S. Government seems eager to leverage UNESCO’s cultural influence to fight terrorism. In the words of a brochure published by Americans for UNESCO, a nonprofit closely allied with the U.S. Government perspective, UNESCO should try to mount “educational efforts to refocus attitude-formation in the many regions where brutal conflict and poverty are challenging the stability of today’s world.” While a full debate on the Convention has not really occurred – in part because many people concerned with the arts, culture and civil society are not really aware of what’s going on – many fear that the Convention will end up becoming a vehicle for free-traders and national security hard-liners to reassert their values and policy priorities. UNESCO will simply be a convenient multilateral, cultural fulcrum.

On the other hand, if advocates for the arts, culture and civil society could mobilize themselves, the Convention could prove to be a great opportunity to challenge the trade norms of the World Trade Organization and World Intellectual Property Organization. Artists and culturalists could also proclaim some eternal human truths about culture that need defending, above and beyond any American-driven policy agenda.

The governments of Canada and France, with the help of the International Network for Cultural Diversity, drafted a proposed Convention in 2000, but that draft has undergone many revisions. With sufficient international and civic support, the treaty could evolve into a bold international statement that recognizes cultural diversity and legitimates active steps to protect it, even at the expense of “free trade.” This won’t happen, however, unless the arts and culture world finds its voice, organizes itself, and rallies behind a powerful new vision to protect their interests.

The latest draft of the treaty will be discussed in Paris in early February. There are many indications that the negotiations could be lengthy and contentious. From a distance, the issues seem terribly abstract, complex and far-removed from immediate political importance. Yet the proposed Convention could be potentially significant if it recognizes new legal norms for protecting culture from the market pressures of giants like Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, the News Corporation (Rupert Murdoch), and the like.

For more information on the UNESCO Convention, check out the websites of the International Network for Cultural Diversity and the media reform group Free Press, which sponsors a website, Media Trade Monitor. The American Library Association is involved, and many original documents and links can be found on the website for the Consumer Project on Technology. My statement to the Smithsonian conference can be found on the attachment below.