Mickey Mouse, Imperialist

April 10, 1991|By BEN WATTENBERG

MARNE-LA-VALLEE, FRANCE — Marne-la-Vallee, France.--In 1992, 500 years after a European named Columbus discovered America, other Europeans will discover Americans named Donald Duck and Goofy here at Euro Disney, 20 miles from Paris. Alas, some French intellectuals say the new theme park will be a ''cultural Chernobyl,'' polluting the glory of La Belle France.

It only sounds stupid, and, uh, Mickey Mouse. But culture does count in the games that nations play, especially popular culture. Today's European popular culture offers a glimpse of America's future. Mickey and Donald are only part of it.

Next year, the European Community 1992 comes into being. European optimists say EC '92 will create a ''new European identity.'' American pessimists say it will build a wall keeping America out of a lucrative market, 350 million strong.

Don't bet with either Euro-optimists or American pessimoans. Today, the great cultural identifying feature of Europe is American movies, television and music, with American journalism not far behind.

Look at the marquees on the Champs d' Elysees. There's ''Danse Avec Les Loups.'' That's the one with Kevin Costner and good-guy Indians. Next door is ''Alice,'' directed by that great Frenchman, Monsieur Woody Allen. In France about 60 percent of box-office receipts come from American movies, low by European standards. In Italy it's over 80 percent.

The television situation is not as potent: A mere 57 percent of television drama in Europe is from America. But it would be higher if not for ''cultural quotas.''

An EC directive tells nations to run at least 60 percent Euro-origin entertainment television ''when practicable.'' French law demands 50 percent of video drama be French. The Brits say Englishmen can only get about 30 percent foreign-origin television. Adam Smith, Magna Carta, where are you?

America opposes quotas, saying it's neither free trade nor free expression. But many observers say quotas won't make too much difference. The privatization of broadcasting plus new cable and satellite technologies will double European television hours from 1985 to 1995. Only America produces enough programming to fill them.

Beyond quota defenses, the French are going on offense. If you can't beat 'em, etc. ''Riviera,'' Europe's first American-style soap opera, is in production near Paris. The director barks in French; the thespians perform in English. At the booming firm of Canal Plus, big movie-export deals are cooking; a hot one is ''JFK,'' directed by Oliver Stone, an American.

Three French radio networks run more than 50 percent American music. The Gulf War made CNN a big player in Europe. There are American daily newspapers, newsmagazines and Reader's Digest.

And Euro Disney. Eighteen million visitors, child-driven, are expected in year one. The Chernobylists say those Disneyed kids will grow up and mistakenly be called Europeans.

Is it important? It is. We've heard that America is losing a trade war, can't compete and is in decline. The figures now show the U.S. trade deficit going down. Many experts believe it will move into surplus. Beyond that is the quality of trade. All imports and exports are not culturally equal. We import television sets; we export television series.

Nations want to wield influence. Ever thus.

Does an imported Japanese car influence us? Probably. Are wine and cheese from France influence-peddlers? Sure. Everything has a cultural price tag.

We export pharmaceuticals, food, McDonald's, Coke and airplanes. For decades, radicals everywhere denounced ''Coca-colonization'' as ''cultural imperialism.'' America was in the bubbles.

Cars and soft drinks export culture, but only indirectly. There is now an explosion in the export of direct culture -- television, radio, VCR tapes, movies and journalism. Neither cars nor Coke sit in your living room speaking to you.

Who will shape the future culture? Either America, as now, or in partnership with international players, marrying still-strong local culture with American techniques and themes. Heads, America does well. Tails too.

Ben Wattenberg, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is author of ''The First Universal Nation.''

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