Culture not for sale
Protecting our culture gives us a chance to develop our own sense of the world.
Dateline: Monday, October 31, 2005
For years now, the survival of Canada as a meaningfully independent country has seemed precarious.
Canadians have been coaxed into accepting "free trade" deals — deals that seem less about trade and more about weakening the power of national governments.
The notion that governments should have the power to protect the national interest — to retain the right, for instance, to protect domestic industries — has been dismissed as antiquated, and anyone defending it branded "backward-looking."
The apparent groundswell of support for this "free trade" agenda made it seem inevitable.
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The huge foreign sales of the US entertainment industry help reduce the US balance of payments deficit.
But it turns out that it isn't inevitable. Nor is there much of a groundswell for it. In fact — at least when it comes to the area of culture — almost no one supports it.
Earlier this month, 150 countries attending a UN meeting in Paris overwhelmingly voted for a resolution affirming the right of national governments to protect their domestic cultural industries. Only the US and Israel opposed it.
Washington insists that its vigorous opposition is about defending "choice."
More likely, its main concern is its balance of payments. The huge foreign sales of the US entertainment industry help reduce the US balance of payments deficit. Washington fears the industry's profitability could be jeopardized, if countries are permitted to subsidize their own cultural industries or impose domestic content requirements on their airwaves.
But without these sorts of protections, it's almost impossible for anyone to compete with the dominant US entertainment industry. The industry has grown dominant partly because of its economies of scale. With the giant US market of 300 million people, a US TV network can easily recoup the enormous cost of making programs.
Canadian networks can then buy these US programs for a fraction of what it would cost to generate original Canadian programming. So Canadian networks would run virtually nothing but American shows, if Ottawa didn't require them to make room for some Canadian programming.
Even with these requirements, American shows — with their unabashedly American themes, cultural references and attitudes — have long dominated our airwaves. Roughly 75 percent of our prime time programming is American, according to the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.
So no one can reasonably argue that we don't have the "choice" to watch American programming. It envelops us.
The issue is whether we'll have the choice to watch anything else, to develop our own sense of ourselves and the world. In other words, whether we'll have a shot at being a country, not a state.
Canada has been grappling with this for decades. But it's striking to learn that it's a problem for the rest of the world, too. This is one groundswell we should ride.
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