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Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America's Image Abroad Hardcover – January 21, 2014

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (January 21, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300123388
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300123388
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #321,247 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


“Bayles points to the elephant in the room that is ignored in all other discussions of public diplomacy in general and cultural diplomacy in particular: the overwhelming role of commercial mass culture. I know of no other book that shows its lopsided influence, for good or ill. An extremely intelligent mix of reporting, analysis, and policy prescription.”—Robert Asahina, author of Just Americans: How Japanese Americans Won a War at Home and Abroad
(Robert Asahina)

“This is a very good book—informative, witty, and thought-provoking. Noting that America’s image abroad has been driven by American popular culture since the end of the Cold War, often with adverse results, Bayles advocates compellingly for a revival of ‘public diplomacy.’ She concludes with a set of very hands-on recommendations on how to achieve this.”—Peter L. Berger, Boston University
(Peter L. Berger)

“Martha Bayles takes a tough, piercing and very thoughtful look at how Americans and our culture are perceived and often misunderstood in the increasingly connected global community. She demonstrates how critical it is that our government return to vigorous public diplomacy to showcase the best of America—our deep commitment to democracy, freedom and human rights and the innate optimism and hope that is at the core of our culture.”—Nicholas Burns, Harvard University and former Under Secretary of State
(Nicholas Burns)

“Martha Bayles, one of America's most astute cultural critics, demonstrates in Through a Screen Darkly how the vulgarization of American popular culture has distorted the image of the United States for millions of people around the world, even as Washington has let its capacity for ‘public diplomacy’ decay. It is a lively but sobering read for anyone concerned with America's place in the world.”—Francis Fukuyama, author ofThe Origins of Political Order
(Francis Fukuyama)

Through a Screen Darkly is a vivid study of the decline of American popular culture and the difficulties it has produced for us worldwide. Analyzing the public diplomacy of the Cold-War and post-Cold-War period, Martha Bayles has produced an absorbing account of the challenges stemming from our present polarization.”—Abbot Gleason, Keeney Professor of History, Emeritus, Brown University
(Abbot Gleason)

“Public Diplomacy is the weakest aspect of US engagement with the rest of the world. Martha Bayles here offers a well-researched explanation of why Americans are the worst propagandists in the world. This valuable book should help the American public as well as foreign policy establishment understand their country's global image problem.”—Husain Haqqani, former Ambassador of Pakistan to the United States
(Husain Haqqani)

"This is a brisk, how-policy-has-gone-wrong-and-what-to-do-about-it book, which conceals in its pages something more: a brilliant and courageous meditation on the difficulty of communication between modern and traditional societies."—Sam Schulman, Weekly Standard
(Sam Schulman Weekly Standard)

"Bayles . . . has written the freshest and most original treatment of U.S. Public Diplomacy in many years . . . A book to stimulate the professional conversation and debate that Public Diplomacy needs in a new century."—Donald M. Bishop, American Diplomacy
(Donald M. Bishop American Diplomacy)

"An author who knows her stuff and applies it level-headedly is a rare delight nowadays. Martha Bayles, in exploring how America projects its image, both favorably and unfavorably, reaches not only into the detailed modern history of American foreign relations but also into broad cultural matters, and she has a knack for prodding honestly against the weak spots."—Sarah Ruden, Books and Culture
(Sarah Ruden Books and Culture)

"The value of this book . . . stems from its mix of insights into the marketing behemoth that is the entertainment industry, combined with careful compilation of provocative anecdotes from those on the receiving end of Hollywood’s finished products. Bayles’ work makes plain the size of the challenge to America’s public diplomats and offers fresh evidence of the damage that results when correctives to skewed images of the United States are lacking overseas."—Emily T. Metzgar, Center on Public Diplomacy Blog
(Emily T. Metzgar Center on Public Diplomacy blog)

"As Bayles shows in her timely book, the decline of America’s public diplomacy efforts and institutions—which once vigorously promoted our strongest civic and political ideals—means that popular culture exports are now the main shapers of our image abroad. And when not glorifying violence, crime, or casual sex, most of these exports depict a people largely cut off from sustaining ties with family or community, completely absorbed in preening narcissim and seflish consumerism . . . Needless to say, the picture inspires neither emulation nor respect."—Jay Tolson, Hedgehog Review
(Jay Tolson Hedgehog Review)

About the Author

Martha Bayles is the author of Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music. Her reviews and essays on the arts, media, and cultural policy have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Boston Globe, Weekly Standard, and many other publications. She teaches humanities at Boston College.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Donald M. Bishop on December 26, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In this lively, fresh, and penetrating new book on public diplomacy, Professor Martha Bayles of Boston College addresses two large questions.

First, why do so many people overseas have "fun house mirror" views of the United States? Professor Bayles explains that film portrayals of the U.S., "the American way of sex," "American raunch," video game violence, and "24" make stronger impressions than "the American ethos," "the religion of progress," and the values of creative freedom without censorship. Her views of how other cultures adapt new cultural formats ("idol" television shows, for instance), deal with new values, and push back against American popular culture are fascinating.

Second, why is U.S. public diplomacy "moribund"? Among her conclusions: Public diplomacy failed to "relaunch" after the end of the U.S. Information Agency. In the 1980s, "both sides in the culture war tried to shape the content of public diplomacy." Part II of her book includes valuable chapters on Washington's ties to Hollywood, U.S. international broadcasting, military strategic communication, the Peace Corps, "gospel tourism," and "the social media are not the message." She explains that the "official stance of the U.S. government toward faith-saturated societies" is "relentlessly secular," and she sounds cautionary notes about "the gender agenda." Finally, she challenges the takeover of public diplomacy by "advocacy."

In writing her book, Professor Bayles met foreign thinkers in locations as distant as Cairo, Mumbai, Jakarta, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, and Beijing. She interviewed many practitioners (myself included).
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Natalia Quirk on June 13, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Packed with anecdotes and insights, this is not just a primer on Cultural Diplomacy, it's a careful study of the effect our pop culture is having on our image abroad. This should be read in conjunction with foreign policy readings because no matter what treaties or trade agreements we sign as a nation, sometimes it is our TVs, movies and music that speak much louder.

This is of vital concern in the modern age, where everything we say and do as a country is easily accessible to others. Just as we ought to be worried about how our personas are reflected on the web, so too should we be worried about the "selfie" America is posting for the world to see. It is not a particularly flattering image.

This book gives concrete ideas for how America might better cultivate it's image and does so in a very readable format.
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Format: Hardcover
Martha Bayles possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of American popular culture. Here she puts that knowledge to good use by examining how expressions of pop culture provide the medium through which others perceive, construe, and misconstrue the United States. Like it or not, it's the latest Hollywood hit not the text of Mr. Jefferson's Declaration that shapes America's global image. That image is at turns both alluring and deeply repellent -- or alluring to some and repellent to others. Bayles argues that the implications of this reality for U. S. policy are not trivial. The U. S. government cannot control the effusions of pop culture and would be foolish to try. Yet the agencies responsible for U. S. foreign policy would be equally foolish simply to shrug off culture as not their concern. Public diplomacy is a legitimate, even necessary component of effective statecraft. Especially since the end of the Cold War, Washington's approach to public diplomacy has been notably ineffective, most especially in the Third World. Bayles concludes her book with some thoughtful and concrete ideas for how to fix that.
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