Commentary Magazine


Move Over, J.R.

 

Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch have written an interesting piece for the Washington Post in which they argue that that 80’s television drama “Dallas” helped win the Cold War. The case is overstated, but not entirely invalid: 

It was the booze-and-sex-soaked caricature of free enterprise and executive lifestyles that proved irresistible not just to stagflation-weary Americans but viewers from France to the Soviet Union to Ceau?escu’s Romania. 

"Dallas" wasn’t simply a television show. It was an atmosphere-altering cultural force. 

The voluptuous charms of big oil, beautiful women, and sprawling ranches were dangled before viewers in nearly 100 countries, and spoke of possibilities beyond those offered by the state. Soft power is real, and if one looks at the styles of neo-capitalists from former Soviet countries they can appear is if still stuck in the gilded 1980’s. 

So, the question is: what is today’s Dallas?  That is, what definitively American phenomenon is being broadcast to a world-viewership? Furthermore, what does today’s product say about today’s America? 

Unquestionably, the U.S.’s biggest cultural export is the multimedia spectacle of the current presidential election. In particular, it is the Democratic showdown between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton that holds the world’s attention. A few months ago, in the Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash wrote: 

Strike up a conversation with a complete stranger in any bar in any city on any continent, and you can be fairly sure the talk will turn to this. "Who are you backing, Hillary or Obama?" is, at least for Europeans, an almost universal opener, perhaps even a chat-up line. In a media world at once increasingly connected and increasingly fragmented according to special interests, it’s so nice to find one topic that everyone has in common. 

Garton Ash acknowledges that global interest in the U.S. election isn’t merely a matter the geopolitical implications:  “it’s like an exciting horse race or a well-made soap opera.” 

But where Dallas was about the competition among characters to make the most of their unique American opportunity, the Race 2008 is about who’s more opposed to current American policy. The tension comes from who represents the bigger “change” from what the world perceives as America. Obama and Hillary each try to prove their anti-war credentials, and both denounce the current U.S. president for his supposed record of blunders and for being above the law. Aside from that, they speak of America’s “disgraceful” inability to provide adequate healthcare, the legacy of racial inequality, and the provincial inclination of small town Americans. 

Not only does America’s number one rated show confirm every anti-American suspicion, but it does so with a flourish of decadence that could make J.R. Ewing blush. An Australian journalist notes: “Americans would argue the drawn-out, smack-down battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is an inspirational celebration of democracy, but in reality it’s an offensive display of financial excess,” and then goes on to list the great sums that have been poured into the Democratic campaign. 

Dallas worked as a kind of Trojan horse. Dictators like Nicolae Ceau?escu allowed their people to watch the show because they thought the evils of capitalism were significantly on display in the form of ruthlessness and duplicity. But the only thing Romanians saw amid the capitalist machinations was opportunity. Hillary and Obama may think they’re sending the rest of the world a message about American cordiality and sympathy, but in reality they’re offering America’s enemies a glimpse of debauched self-loathing. For two candidates who claim to be so concerned with America’s image abroad, they should be trying a little harder.  

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