Monday, October 7, 2019

Diana Lemberg's "Barriers Down"

Diana Lemberg is associate professor of history at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Barriers Down: How American Power and Free-Flow Policies Shaped Global Media, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Barriers Down comes at the end of chapter 3, which analyzes how American policymakers responded to global language diversity from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Chapters 1 and 2 examine how, as it became a superpower in the mid-twentieth century, the United States sought to liberalize cross-border media traffic, or in other words to promote “freedom of information.” However, language diversity was a wrinkle in this plan, for as I point out in the first line of chapter 3, “Information, no matter how freely flowing, was of little use if the people of the world could not comprehend it.” Page 99 discusses how the American response to this issue in the 1960s differed from previous approaches. While both postwar Americans and earlier generations of Anglophone policymakers thought that spreading English globally would solve the problems they associated with multilingualism, their rationales differed. Earlier language reformers tended to “[frame] English as a language of enlightenment” that conveyed specific cultural content—Shakespeare, Milton, etcetera—with some even contending that English was intrinsically superior to other languages. This was especially true of interwar British reformers. By contrast, postwar Americans tended to view the spread of global English in more instrumental terms: They portrayed English as a tool for conveying practical information, first and foremost. As the Johnson administration put it in 1965, “English is a key which opens doors to scientific and technical knowledge indispensable to the economic and political development of vast areas of the world.” Page 99 addresses how language diversity related to development policy as the latter became a key concern for Washington in the 1960s.

Page 99 is idiosyncratic in certain respects and typical of the book in others. I’ll address its representative qualities first. One of my concerns in this book was to situate U.S. global power inter-imperially, especially in relation to the twentieth-century British and French empires. Page 99 relates American interest in global English to earlier British discussions of the same, in the House of Commons and among figures like Julian Huxley, who was UNESCO’s first director-general. Page 99’s attention to the triangular relationship between media and information, language, and development aid is also characteristic of the broader project of the book. For instance, another chapter, chapter 5, addresses predictions that satellite broadcasting—globalized in part through American aid—was going to intensify the spread of English. I show how these predictions in turn helped spur French efforts to reinforce the place of the French language in ex-French Africa.

In other ways, the chapter that page 99 comes from, chapter 3, is a bit unusual. Barriers Down covers various media that the United States tried to diffuse or export after World War II. But the other chapters treat more accustomed media—film, television, satellite broadcasting, etcetera. Chapter 3 is the only chapter to focus solely on language as an information “medium.” If any overburdened readers are seeking a more representative excerpt, I’d point them to page 132, which discusses satellite communications.
Learn more about Barriers Down at the Columbia University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue