Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad
by martha bayles
yale, 336 pages, $30

During the Cold War the United States government made important attempts to manage America’s image in the world. Besides the radio stations—Voice of America and Radio Free Europe—and the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, there was the U.S. Information ­Agency, whose aim was to ensure that an upbeat and truthful image of ­America would prevail against the adverse propaganda of the Soviet Union. The USIA was closed down in 1999, and the scope of the radio networks has been curtailed.

One consequence of this—lamen­ted at length by Martha ­Bayles—is that the image of America in the world is now entirely the product of American popular culture, which has succeeded in giving a worse name to America than anything that could conceivably have been implanted by the Soviet propaganda machine. The Muslim peasant in his village has only to turn on the television to witness the Great Satan in flagrante delicto, and even if he is not immediately prompted to join al-Qaeda he is likely to be glad that others are doing so, with a view to punishing the blasphemies and obscenities that pour out across the screen.

Martha Bayles is an intelligent, learned, and sensitive person who has spent a long time studying the world of morons, apparently without going mad in the process. Her earlier book, Hole in Our Soul, described the loss of beauty in American popular music, and drew attention to a singular fact, which is that the music of modern life, which was born in America, has also died there. And the same has happened to the drama of modern life. Just as the life-affirming melodies of jazz have declined into the tuneless aggression of rap, so have the innocent romances of Hollywood morphed into movies in which explicit sex and manic violence are almost the only points of interest.

It is this second transformation that concerns Martha Bayles in her latest book, and the reader quickly learns why.

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