The Real Culture Wars

Movie-goers at a cinema in Beijing, January 2021. Thomas Peter / Reuters
Movie-goers at a cinema in Beijing, January 2021. Thomas Peter / Reuters

Authoritarians know that controlling their societies takes more than the heavy hand of the police or the courts; it also requires shaping how their populations think and see the world, and how the world sees them. In 2020, China imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong in a bid to further tie the territory to the Chinese mainland. Alongside the law’s prohibitions on “secession” and “subversion” came tightened controls on museums and art institutions. Hong Kong’s Beijing-appointed chief executives warned cultural leaders to police the line between “artistic expression” and works “really meant to incite hatred or destroy relations between two places and undermine national security”. On the mainland, the Chinese Communist Party has increasingly shut out foreign movies, investing in the production of domestic films that reinforce preferred themes and storylines; several recent blockbusters, for instance, feature brave Chinese heroes fending off Western villains. Autocracies elsewhere also seek to control culture to preserve their hold on power. Cuba has imprisoned Latin Grammy–winning singer Maykel Castillo Pérez for his activism. In April 2023, leaked documents revealed that Iran had established a secret committee to blacklist and target artists for backing street protests. In 2020, Hungary adopted a new school curriculum stressing national pride, whitewashing the country’s wartime defeats. Budapest has also advised theater directors that plays must hew to government-approved plotlines.

Democracies and autocracies are waging a global battle, principally through military, political, economic, and diplomatic means. Yet the outcome of this contest will hinge significantly on culture. How people in democracies and autocracies see the world is shaped by the music they listen to, the books they read, the films and television they watch, the art they admire, the museums they visit, and the textbooks they must study. That makes culture not a sideshow to geopolitics but rather a central arena with sweeping implications for international relations.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, agencies of powerful governments were principal actors in contests over culture; they promoted their countries’ ways of life and showcased shining examples of national achievement. Today, autocracies are engaged in technologically enabled top-down efforts to impose their narratives and ideologies on their own populations in order to spread their views abroad. Their most effective opponents won’t be Western cultural attachés but rather authors, artists, and curators who carry out their work on the very battlegrounds at stake around the world. In places such as Ukraine and Uganda, the cultural actors with the potential to counter autocracy are indigenous to these contested societies, able to evoke traditions, stories, histories, and ideas integral to national identities. By supporting these culture keepers and creators, opponents of authoritarianism can foster a potent force for freedom.

THE ART OF THE STATE

Dictators have long known that the output of artists, musicians, filmmakers, authors, playwrights, and scholars can be pressed into the service of those in power. Totalitarianism demands control over a society’s vanguard, its most inventive, independent-minded, and potentially subversive minds. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, among other repressive regimes, strictly regulated and even dictated the bounds of allowable art, music, and literature. During the Cold War, the overlords of the Eastern bloc used art to portray an idealized communist life.

For its part, the U.S. government promoted art that burnished its image as a free and prosperous country, hoping to motivate people behind the Iron Curtain to reject communism. Founded in West Berlin in 1950 with CIA support, the Congress for Cultural Freedom supported anticommunist magazines, conferences, and journals and provided direct support to artists and writers with the aim of shaping global opinion. The radio network Voice of America sought to counter communist propaganda and contrast life in the totalitarian Soviet Union with the freedoms of the West. Under the aegis of the U.S. Information Agency, founded in 1953, Washington sent American jazz legends on tour around the world and mounted exhibitions in Europe featuring abstract expressionist and surrealist art.

But Americans gradually grew leery of state intervention in cultural affairs. The Red Scare and McCarthy era—when U.S. officials attacked artists, writers, and filmmakers tarred as communist sympathizers—exposed the dangers of government intruding into the realms of art and creativity. The makers of both culture and policy began to worry that government attempts to shape art, scholarship, and creativity borrowed from an authoritarian playbook. The notion of centrally orchestrated propaganda seemed to contradict the essence of what the United States was seeking to promote: namely, liberal institutions, creative liberties, cultural heterogeneity, and unfettered freedom of thought. Since the 1970s, official U.S. cultural outreach efforts have centered on scholarly and artistic exchanges, educational programs, and tours that foster ties and showcase culture without overtly trying to tilt the geopolitical table.

DISCIPLINE AND PUBLISH

Authoritarians today regard culture as an indispensable tool that would fall into enemy hands were they not to maintain tight control over it. The sweep of current efforts to dictate culture is particularly stark when it comes to the writing and presentation of history. In crafting a governing ideology in Russia, President Vladimir Putin has sought to rehabilitate the strongman legacy of Stalin while suppressing efforts to unearth the atrocities and abuses of the Soviet past. Russia’s war on Ukraine has culture as both motivation and means. Putin’s invasion aimed to make real his claim that a distinct Ukrainian nation and identity have never existed. Russia has imposed the use of Russian schoolbooks in occupied territories and targeted Ukrainian museums, libraries, and monuments.

The Chinese Communist Party’s latest official account of its history, published in 2021 and covering a century, devotes more than a quarter of its 531 pages to its leader Xi Jinping’s first nine years in power. This account, which shapes school curricula, exhibitions, books, and films, aims to shore up Xi’s image as the personification of China’s manifest destiny. Xi’s China has also used cultural tools to burnish its global image. Beijing has set up CCP-controlled Confucius Institutes to promote an idealized version of the country’s culture at foreign universities, deepened partnerships among Chinese academic institutions and counterparts abroad, and sought to control media and civic life among Chinese diaspora communities.

In backsliding democracies, too, demagogues have pushed aggressively into the cultural realm. Since becoming prime minister of Hungary in 2010, Viktor Orban has subjected previously independent arts institutions and universities to government oversight, clamped down on foreign funding for nongovernmental organizations, and effectively expelled the Central European University due to its ties to philanthropist George Soros. Prior to its defeat in elections in late 2023, Poland’s populist government had fired historians and museum curators for failing to sufficiently propagate patriotism and shuttered archives to block independent research into the country’s complicity in the Holocaust. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has invested in building new cultural institutions—including a national showpiece in New Delhi that, when completed, may be the world’s largest museum—that champion a cohesive, Hindu-centric national identity in keeping with the ideology of the ruling party. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used monuments and television shows to extol the country’s Ottoman past and gild his own rule.

Even in the United States, culture is swept up in political agendas. Several Republican-controlled states have imposed thousands of book bans and proposed and enacted hundreds of legislative restrictions on teaching and learning in schools and universities. Authoritarian in impulse, these measures target narratives and histories focused on racial and sexual minorities, casting such accounts as threatening, corrupting of children, contrary to acceptable social values, and damaging to national pride.

THE RESISTANCE

But no matter its power, the state rarely has the last word when it comes to culture. Even in the Soviet Union, dissidents spread their ideas and art through samizdat, with clandestine networks copying and distributing censored and subversive works. Stories, artwork, poetry, and other forms of expression can serve as antibodies against authoritarianism. They raise questions, puncture pieties, encourage empathy, and offer alternative visions for the future.

Today, in both autocracies and teetering democracies, scholars, writers, activists, and artists continue to push back against the narratives of the state. In places where protests and outright political challenges to the regime are not tolerated, dissent can find voice through music, poetry, art, fiction, television, and the writing of history. In polities where dissidents are jailed and persecuted, it is sometimes celebrities or popular musicians, such as Bobi Wine in Uganda, who can win a mass following to challenge an entrenched regime. In 2017, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko stripped the citizenship of his leading political rival, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. But what Poroshenko did not see coming was Volodymyr Zelensky—a television star with no experience in politics. Although he was first written off as a joke candidate, Zelensky’s popular following propelled him to the presidency and now, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the annals of history.

Culture has helped turn back the authoritarian tide in a few countries. Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland’s prizewinning 2023 film, Green Border, released shortly before the country’s October 2023 elections, met fierce government opposition for its depiction of Polish authorities and border guards brutalizing migrants. It irked Polish President Andrzej Duda, who rebuked the film in a September television interview, invoking a World War II–era slogan used to deride Poles who went to the movies during Nazi occupation: “Only pigs sit in the cinema”. The government forced the film to air with a warning, insisting that it contained “untruths and distortions”. But the film became the country’s second-largest box office release of the year, and as the election neared, Holland argued that “the film was needed. That the people didn’t want to be lost in the narrative that everything is fine”. Just weeks after the release of the acclaimed film, Poles voted and ousted Duda’s Law and Justice Party, ending its eight-year rule.

Similarly, in Brazil, artists and other cultural creators helped challenge the rule of populist President Jair Bolsonaro. The Bolsonaro government repeatedly delayed the release of a groundbreaking 2019 film about the leftist politician and guerilla Carlos Marighella. The obstruction spurred a defiant backlash, making the film the country’s most watched in 2021; when lights came up in the cinemas after screenings, theatergoers often broke into anti-Bolsonaro chants. During the same period, major novels were released that addressed the country’s history of Black enslavement, long a taboo subject confined mostly to academic journals. The bestsellers put Afro Brazilian narratives squarely in the mainstream. Two octogenarian musicians, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil,spurned retirement to campaign against Bolsonaro ahead of the 2022 election, as did the pop superstar Anitta. Her smash hit “Girl from Rio”, a send-up of the world famous “Girl from Ipanema”, celebrated Rio de Janeiro’s racial diversity and complexity in its rejection of the whitewashed image of Brazil promoted by Bolsonaro. She then dove directly into politics, becoming an adviser to Bolsonaro’s challenger and eventual vanquisher, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

In Ukraine, culture has been a wellspring of unity and resilience in fending off Russian aggression. Ukrainian writers, filmmakers, and artists have convened readings, mounted exhibitions, and promoted their works locally and globally. Ukrainian artists and writers have hit the road, traveling internationally to rally support and put a human face on their country’s struggle.

Even in places where authoritarianism is most entrenched, culture makers can play a long game. In Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and the Battle for the Future, the journalist Ian Johnson argues persuasively that writers, filmmakers, and artists countering state-dictated histories may hold the keys to an eventual future beyond the CCP. These independent thinkers often use digital technologies to evade surveillance. They have preserved the embers of free thought that may eventually catch fire.

THE INFANTRY OF DEMOCRACY

The United States and its allies can harness the power of culture as a bulwark against authoritarianism without resorting to the heavy-handed and sometimes shadowy tactics of eras past. U.S. public diplomacy already seeks to promote familiarity and positive associations with American culture through tours, exchanges, and educational programs. Tech companies and Hollywood movies, among other popular American cultural exports, also help spread the country’s influence.

Unlike during the eras of World War II or the Cold War, the United States should not seek to spread American culture to counter the work of autocracies; that would only spark backlash. Instead, the U.S. government, its allies, and civil society actors should strengthen the hands of independent thinkers and creators working within their own countries. Approaches will differ depending upon the setting. Direct foreign funding for artists and intellectuals in China or Hong Kong, for instance, would only imperil its recipients. By contrast, Ukrainian artists and other cultural creators could very much benefit from such material backing. For example, the U.S. government and the World Monuments Fund have devoted resources to the rebuilding of Ukrainian cultural sites destroyed in the war. But just as important as Ukraine’s cultural past is its present and future. For a fairly low cost, the United States embassy or the U.S. Agency for International Development could supply books, art supplies, and instruments to Ukrainian scholars, musicians, artists, and writers, helping them continue to produce and distribute work in wartime. Funds could underwrite the translation of works into English and other languages and allow Ukrainian culture makers to travel globally, helping to rally international support for Kyiv’s cause. Backing for musical events, exhibitions, and book festivals could help raise the country’s spirits and strengthen its cohesion as the war drags on.

The United States and other nations could take steps to fortify and better enforce global protections for artistic freedom. Artists and writers who become targets of repressive governments need accessible, robust channels of financial assistance, advice, and support. More funding is needed for existing global networks that protect artists in the real and online worlds, fend off lawfare used against them, sustain them when government repression dries up their income, and secure foreign visas for them when exile becomes their only viable option. Democracies should throw their weight behind efforts at the United Nations to adapt and extend to artists, writers, intellectuals, and culture makers the kinds of international norms and regimes that world bodies, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the UN Human Rights Council, have put in place to safeguard journalists and human rights defenders. The UN has detailed some of the types of assistance needed—for instance, training for defense attorneys and prosecutors handling creative freedom cases and resources for documenting and publicizing infringements on cultural rights through regular reports, site visits, and media outreach.

Western governments should recognize that culture creators are part of the infantry of antiauthoritarianism. U.S. embassy personnel should make a point of developing relationships with key cultural figures, understanding their needs and considering how the United States might usefully support their work without tainting or endangering them. Artists and intellectuals in repressive environments crave opportunities to share their work, see it distributed in translation, attend conferences and convenings internationally, and gain greater visibility at home and abroad through publications, interviews, events, and appearances. Such support can offer professional and creative sustenance as well as elevate the public profiles of cultural figures as a potential shield against persecution. Western governments and institutions seeking to push back against authoritarianism can make small investments in individuals with stature and vision that can pay significant dividends in terms of fostering resistance.

The aim of such efforts should be to lift and celebrate authentic creative thinkers and works rather than to shape what those thinkers say or produce. Such an approach avoids the pitfalls of advancing propaganda or a Western-centric worldview. It also steers clear of adopting the authoritarian approach of trying to commandeer outlets to propagate a message dictated from on high.

Culture may seem like a sideshow in a world riven by multiple wars, economic competition, and political confrontation. But traditional tactics to shore up democracy through elections and institution-building have fallen short for decades, with barometers of global freedom in free fall. The lack of progress speaks to the need to activate new forces and tactics. Innovative strategies are needed to penetrate more deeply into vulnerable polities, shaping citizens’ hopes, perceptions, sense of what is possible, and desire to effect change. Authors, filmmakers, artists, and musicians are in the business of tapping into deep-seated fears, beliefs, and aspirations. To survive and thrive, democracy depends on the popular will. That will cannot be manufactured nor stoked from the outside. But it can be sparked and cultivated from within by those who know a society best—its cultural creators.

Suzanne Nossel is CEO of the PEN America Center and the author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All.

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