Last week, we learned via WikiLeaks that the U.S. State Deparment had produced a cable analyzing trends of anti-Americanism in Canadian TV. But it now appears that the U.S. has an offensive as well as defensive posture on televisual warfare—and not just in Canada, which we’ve been bombing into submission with our sitcoms and dramas for decades now. No, according to a U.S. embassy cable analyzing trends in the media in Saudi Arabia, American entertainment shows have been more effective at tamping down extremist jihadism there than propaganda broadcasts.
Since 9/11, as the cable alludes to, the U.S. government has made efforts to win hearts and minds in the Arab world through interviews and other broadcasts offering the American side of world and regional issues. But, according to some unnamed contacts of the cable’s writer, what’s really helping to disseminate Western values in the kingdom is rebroadcasts of shows like Late Show with David Letterman, Desperate Housewives and American movies.
“It’s still all about the War of Ideas here,” says one of the anonymous Saudis, “and the American programming on MBC and Rotana is winning over ordinary Saudis in a way that ‘Al Hurra’ and other US propaganda never could. Saudis are now very interested in the outside world, and everybody wants to study in the US if they can. They are fascinated by US culture in a way they never were before.”
According to the cable, the TV reruns were reaching audiences with messages that not only present a more positive view of the West but that comport with the goals of the Saudi government (e.g., “moderation” and “respect for the law over self-interest”). And, at least in the view of the writer, Western pop culture was having visible effects in the kingdom’s most conservative regions, where “‘you no longer see Bedouins, but kids in western dress’ who are now interested in the outside world.”
I don’t know if I’d pin a medal on Letterman just yet. Pop culture and the narratives it relates have wide and various influences, but not ones that are easily predictable or universal; it’s too easy and simplistic–whether you’re talking about Saudis or Americans–to believe that people can be brainwashed uniformly to a predetermined effect. The cable doesn’t ask, for instance, whether along with “Westernizing” some of the audience, the prevalence of Western messages in the media were hardening the attitudes of any jihadists (a common theme among whom is the idea that the West is perverting and subverting their culture and its morals).
But the cable at least gives a sign that the U.S. is paying attention to the issue, and it suggests that if you want to send a message to another country, it makes sense to package it in a form that people actually want to watch. And for people like me, who have spent their careers arguing that pop culture matters as much as “serious” political issues, it’s a shot in the arm. Thanks for caring, U.S. State Department!