The perception is that American television is a virus from which we must be protected
Saturday 17 February 1996
To which the first response is "Who's this 'we' that's 'well aware'?" It doesn't, for example, appear to include the Euro MPs who voted this week to toughen up the EU regulations on the number of American and Australian programmes shown on European television. The MPs removed a "wherever practicable" clause from the ruling which requires broadcasters to provide at least 51 per cent of home-grown programmes in their schedules. These MPs clearly regard quarantine as at least partially achievable. Moreover, their concern is not just a matter of domestic job creation or quality - they aren't legislating on the nature of the programmes that must be produced in Paris or Rome. The perception is that American and Australian television constitutes a kind of cultural virus, a contagion from which native citizens must be protected (there is, as it happens, an "epidemiological" theory of culture, too).
I think this is wrong-headed - an impractical and counter-productive regulation - and the metaphor (or theory) of the meme helps us to see why. Imagine that culture is "red in tooth and claw", a competitive arena in which rival memes compete for survival. The cluster of memes that constitute an American soap clearly have an environmental advantage - the economics of American commercial television mean they are cheap. In other words, they are perfectly adapted to exploit the powerful and widespread meme for "profit" which has already colonised (or infected) European television executives.
But what will protection do to the rivals of these invading memes? Isolation, as repeated biological instances show, is not always helpful to an organism. A partial quarantine may help to extend the life of an enfeebled species, but it will do nothing to improve its long-term fitness - indeed, it is likely to compound whatever weakness has made intervention necessary in the first place. Milton addresses a similar issue in Areopagitica, his "Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing" of 1644, a work that occasionally seems to offer a premonition of the meme. "For books are not absolutely dead things," Milton notes at one point, "but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are: nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon's teeth, and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men." He continues to a famous passage about the nature of a sturdy faith. "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue," he writes, "unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race..."
Milton would doubtless have been surprised to find his own liberty memes hijacked and applied to Neighbours or Santa Barbara, but the argument is independent of the work at hand - a "fugitive and cloistered" culture is, in the long-run, not a healthy one, artificially preserving weaknesses and preventing the emergence of new strengths. Can MEPs really be confident that a mounting weariness with American mediocrity will not provoke a new renaissance some years down the road? Alternatively, have they forgotten that the last evolutionary burst of French film, the Nouvelle Vague, was built upon a consuming passion for the most disregarded of Hollywood product - B-movies - a passion that in turn re-invigorated American cinema? What would the history of French cinema look like if American product had been excluded for reasons of cultural hygiene? The lesson of that experience is that cultural evolution can be as wayward and unpredictable as biology - and great achievement sometimes arrives by undignified routes. Far better to let the memes fight it out.
Life & Style blogs
Alexander McQueen at auction: What makes a really great piece of fashion?
A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
No female ejaculation, please, we’re British: a history of porn and censorship
Stressed nurses are 'forced to choose between health of patients and their own'
Pornhub: Kim Kardashian's sex tape is the most-watched porn video of all-time
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...
£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...
£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...
£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...