The Mullahs and Rupert Murdoch

Posted: Dec 16, 2004 12:00 AM

When Sarah Jessica Parker, the star of the HBO hit "Sex and the City," loomed large in a scanty sequined dress on a billboard overlooking Jerusalem in behalf of Lux soap, a lot of prospective consumers complained. This was no way for a lady to look, especially to orthodox Jews. The bare arms and back - not to speak of bare thighs - were quickly covered in a more modest couturier design.

Unilever, the giant consumer goods corporation, got the message. To save face - and money - a spokesman said that it was the climate that dictated the change of dress. Warm weather had suddenly turned cold and the leading lady had to be protected from the big chill. Of course.

Capitalism has great regard for cultural traditions when it's likely to suppress sales. Unlike Bob Dylan, a businessman needs a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. When10 percent of your market is made up of ultra-orthodox Jews, modesty is important.

Israelis, not unlike the natives of other Middle Eastern cultures, hold divided feelings over the importation of American pop culture and its icons. Along the road to Jerusalem, for example, songs of the king of rock 'n' roll spill out of the Elvis Presley Diner into a parking lot where a 13-foot statue of the king draws in customers eager to be photographed standing next to it. Occasionally, a real live human "Arab Elvis" greets visitors.

Not everyone in Israel approves of Elvis or his music, but he's relatively benign compared to some other pop culture exported to the birthplace of the three great religions. Israel, after all, is an open and democratic society, accustomed to the good and the not so good that come with public exposure to a secular world. Israelis can usually take it or leave it. Muslims see things differently.

In "Jihad vs. McWorld," Benjamin Barber blames the United States for the export of low-culture packages - including pop music, videos, movies and fast food, suggesting that they contribute to the "holy struggle" of them-against-us, even abetting terrorism. The Islamists, he says, feel they're being "colonized" by the secular materialists and polluted by imported cultural trash.

Such simplistic analysis overlooks the way our popular culture can work in mysterious ways beneath the vulgar appeal to the senses. In a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, Charles Paul Freund, senior editor of Reason magazine, describes how our popular culture in its different guises is a conduit for liberal values, driving dynamic competition in strange and unlikely places.

When McDonald's opened a restaurant in Istanbul, an ethnologist set out to document how hamburger franchises would damage traditional Turkish cuisine. Instead she discovered that the lowly American burger spurred a renaissance of traditional dishes in the Turkish marketplace.

Even more important, American popular culture can work to encourage young men and women to have confidence in their own potential despite obstacles thrown up by their political systems. Until recently, political satire was rare in the Arab world because it distracted from pan-Arab aims, but today, Freund says, "corruption, hypocrisy and even legitimacy of the Arab political leadership are regularly under attack in a variety of comedy programs."

One weekly television program on an Emirates-based network is something of a knockoff of "Saturday Night Live." A Syrian television comic, described as a fusion of Woody Allen and Groucho Marx, satirizes the Baathist Party, the Syrian public's complicity in its own problems and the cynical Arab exploitation of Palestinian refugees. "Superstar," based on "American Idol," draws contestants from several Arab countries with the audience determining the winner. This year a Libyan beat out a Palestinian in the final round. He didn't have to sing "I hate Israel," popular in certain Middle Eastern circles, to win.

Authoritarian systems wield powerful tools of oppression through censorship, but popular culture has a way of circulating from the bottom up, appealing to intuitive drives and personal dreams that can keep dictators off guard. The mullahs have to compete with Rupert Murdoch's Fox television hits. The Taliban, for all of its ferocious hostility to popular culture, still couldn't control young men from getting Leonardo DiCaprio haircuts in Kabul.

Freund argues that even vulgar music videos can appeal to an independent spirit, loosening the moorings of dictatorial power and the sheep-like conformity of groupthink. This enrages some and pleases others, but a singer who wants to be a superstar won't wear a bomb around his waist. American popular culture is the culture of life, vulgar as it can be, and not death. Original American creativity can inspire others to dream for something better in this world - even better than soap.