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The ‘Ends’ of U.S. Culture in the Middle East

Book examines morphing of American culture globally and geopolitical implications

  • Author interested in challenging presumptions of cultural diplomacy
  • Analysts downplay major role culture plays in geopolitics, author says
  • Debates over cultural products can help explain what people are thinking

EVANSTON, Ill. --- American culture has been morphing globally in unexpected and even unrecognizable ways as the digital age races on, according to a new book by Northwestern University’s Brian T. Edwards

Yet analysts downplay the major role that culture plays in geopolitics or in the “hard” world of politics, according to “After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East” (Columbia University Press, December 2015). 

“So many who talk about American soft power or cultural diplomacy have not caught up to the realities of the digital age -- what I call a period after the ‘American century,’’’ says Edwards, the Crown Professor in Middle East Studies and professor of English and comparative literary studies at Northwestern. 

Now in the digital 21st century, American movies, music, video games, and television shows are received, understood, and transformed, according to the book. American products and phenomena -- such as comic books, teen romances, social-networking sites, and ways of expressing sexuality -- are stripped of their associations with the United States and recast in very different forms.

For example, Edwards says he came across a very different Shrek in Morocco. A hugely popular Moroccan video pirate artist, named Hamada, took a dance scene from ‘Shrek’ and dubbed a popular Moroccan song over the soundtrack. His work became known as Miloudi, after the singer whose work was dubbed over a clip of Donkey singing.

“I’m really interested in what this all means, what the ‘ends’ of these versions of American culture are, where they ‘end’ up,” he says. 

Most importantly, Edwards is interested in how American culture is not merely being replicated or appropriated, but also is challenging many of the presumptions of cultural diplomacy.

He cited the highly controversial “Innocence of Muslims,” a low-budget film made in California that was considered especially hostile to Muslims. The film led to worldwide protests in 2012 that Edwards suggests makes it difficult to understand within a “soft power” context.

Students whom he was teaching in a classroom in Rabat, Morocco, argued that the film should be taken off the Internet. Two of the actors in the film -- who claimed they had been duped and that their parts had been dubbed over with anti-Islam dialogue -- also sued Google for not removing all copies of the film from the Web.

Ben Affleck’s 2012 Academy Award-winning film “Argo” also caused great controversy in the Middle East. “The film brought together opposing sides in Iran in their resistance to the movie,” Edwards says. “Culture affects geopolitics, and the debates over cultural products can also help explain what people are thinking.”

Edwards says it was important for him to write the book because there is so much misunderstanding about the relationship between culture -- in this context films, TV, music -- and politics.

“I take seriously the idea that the realm of culture plays a major role in geopolitics,” Edwards says. “Analysts of foreign affairs tend to say that culture doesn’t explain or affect anything in the ‘hard’ world of politics. But then a movie like ‘Innocence of Muslims’ spreads across the world in a single day, leading to massive protests against the United States.” 

Read more about the book in a Columbia University Press interview with Edwards.

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