POPULAR culture. Is it a positive force in the United States and in the world at large, or is it destructive and demeaning? Is it fundamentally American or essentially universal, appealing to youth everywhere? Is it "culture" at all, as the term has traditionally been used?
Scholars, writers, and think tankers who make a living pondering such questions have no handy answers. Many of them, however, share a belief that the spread of popular culture - whether defined broadly to include books, newscasts, and social values or narrowly as mass-appeal entertainment - is a factor that can't be ignored in the formation of a new, post-cold-war world.
Economist Stephen E. Siwek has studied the reach of what he calls the US mass-culture sector. In 1990, he finds, major American studios earned $1.7 billion from film rentals in overseas markets, up from $620 million in 1985. Japan and Germany are the leading customers. Add to this $2.4 billion from videocassette sales and rentals and $2.3 billion from television sales abroad. American writers such as Alexandra Ripley ("Scarlet") and Stephen King lead the bestseller lists in France, Germany, and other cou ntries.
"As the data makes clear," writes Mr. Siwek, "US mass culture exports are substantial, and growing. Indeed, for better or worse, it is an almost one-way street from the United States to the rest of the world."
Whether "for better or worse" was one issue dealt with by the participants in a conference held earlier this month by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington-based research center. The organizer of the gathering, Ben J. Wattenberg, a writer and AEI senior fellow has little doubt how that issue should be resolved: "Today, only the American democratic culture has legs. Only Americans have the sense of mission - and gall - to engage in global cultural advocacy.... We run the most potent cultu ral imperium in history."
In Mr. Wattenberg's view, that's all to the good. He sees a substantial convergence between the pop culture being conveyed and the best in American political and social values - values like individual initiative, upward mobility, and patriotism.
Others have their doubts. Walter Berns is an AEI fellow and a professor at Georgetown University. He views rock music, Hollywood films, and other popular entertainment exported by the US as corrupting influences that damage the societies receiving them and tarnish America's image. Mr. Berns would like to see the country return to the local censorship that, in his view, once protected family, children, and community standards.
The purveyors of popular culture - from filmmakers to rap singers - have twisted their liberty into a license to be libertine, says Berns.
A flimmaker's perspective comes from Sydney Pollack, who produced "Tootsie," "Out of Africa," and "Absence of Malice," among many other widely hailed movies. Addressing the AEI conference, he repeatedly made the point that "the business of films is to reach as many people as possible."
As an artist, he said, you don't worry about whether a movie will do the world any good or even whether it will make money, you just try to tell a story as well as possible.
Acknowledging concerns about the effect of films, Mr. Pollack rhetorically asked, "What do you do about a society that celebrates the common man but doesn't always like his taste?"
Michael Novak, an author of many books on the place of religion in democratic society, didn't let it rest there. Noting a point raised by Wattenberg about Americans' continuing religious faith as revealed in opinion surveys, Mr. Novak observed that "American society isn't libertine, but our popular culture often portrays it as so." The people who make art here, he said, "often hide behind the market system" by pleading they make what people want.
Novak asked: Why aren't there more films that sympathetically explore the religious dimension of American life?
That question itself is way off base, according to Daniel Boorstin, author and librarian emeritus of the Library of Congress. Efforts to steer filmmakers or other artists toward an "interest" attacks the very foundations of creativity, he asserted.
Austrian scholar and writer Reinhold Wagnleitner was appalled that a number of participants at the conference would even contemplate a return to censorship. Openness and freedom are the most central values conveyed by American culture, he said.
And what about the impact of the wave of American music and films on other cultures? Clearly, said author Pico Iyer, some countries, like India and China, fear being overwhelmed by American popular culture. But culture flows both ways, he said. "We can absorb lots of influences from around the world without being undermined by them, and we should ascribe the same ability to others."