America, Americanization, and Anti-Americanism
America, Americanization, and Anti-Americanism
AMERICA, AMERICANIZATION, AND ANTI-AMERICANISM
What kind of "ism" is anti-Americanism? Like any "ism" it refers to a set of attitudes that help people to structure their worldview and to guide their actions. It also implies a measure of exaggeration, a feverish overconcentration on one particular object of attention and action. Yet what is the object in the case of anti-Americanism? The word suggests two different readings. It could refer to anti-American feelings taken to the heights of an "ism," representing a general rejection of things American. Yet it can also be seen as a set of feelings against (anti) something called Americanism. In the latter case, we need to explore the nature of the Americanism that people oppose. As we shall see, the word has historically been used in more than one sense.
Yet whatever its precise meaning, Americanism—as an "ism" in its own right—has always been a matter of the concise and exaggerated reading of some characteristic features of an imagined America, as a country and a culture crucially different from places elsewhere in the world. In that sense Americanism can usefully be compared to nationalism. In much the same way that nationalism implies the construction of the nation, usually one's own, in a typically inspirational vein, causing people to rally around the flag and other such emblems of national unity, Americanism helped an anxious American nation to define itself in the face of the millions of immigrants who aspired to citizenship status. Particularly at the time following World War I it became known as the "one hundred percent Americanism" movement, confronting immigrants with a demanding list of criteria for inclusion. Americanism in that form represented the American equivalent of the more general concept of nationalism. It was carried by those Americans who saw themselves as the guardians of the integrity and purity of the American nation.
There is, however, yet another historical relationship of Americanism to nationalism. This time it is not Americans who are the agents of definition, but others in their respective national settings. Time and time again other peoples' nationalism not only cast their own nation in a particular inspirational light, it also used America as a counterpoint, a yardstick that other nations might either hope to emulate or reject. Foreigners, as much as Americans themselves, therefore, have produced readings of America, condensed into the ideological contours of an "ism." Of course, this is likely to happen only in those cases where America has become a presence in other peoples' lives, as a political force, as an economic power, or through its cultural influence. Again the years following World War I were one such watershed. Through America's intervention in the war and the role it played in ordering the postwar world, through the physical presence of its military forces in Europe, and through the burst of its mass culture onto the European scene, Europeans were forced in their collective self-reflection to try to make sense of America and to come to terms with its impact on their lives. Many forms of Americanism were then conceived by Europeans, sometimes admiringly, sometimes in a more rejectionist mood, often in a tenuous combination of the two. The following exploration will look at some such moments in European history, high points in the American presence in Europe, and at the complex response of Europeans.
To be sure, certain European attitudes toward the United States formed before 1918. Various European travelers commented admiringly on American democracy and religious freedom, or else they voiced distress about American commercialism or the absence of an appropriate hierarchy in American family life. The United States was widely seen as a land of prosperity and economic opportunity, aspirations to which spurred many European emigrants. But larger reactions to Americanism awaited the growth of global influence of the United States in the twentieth century, though some earlier themes (particularly on the more critical side) continued.
AMERICANISM AND ANTI-AMERICANISM
"Why I Reject 'America.' " Such was the provocative title of a piece published in 1928 by Memo ter Braak, a young Dutch author who was to become a leading intellectual light in the Netherlands during the 1930s. The title is not a question but an answer, assessing his position toward an America in quotation marks, a construct of the mind, a composite image based on the perception of current dismal trends that ter Braak then links to America as the country and the culture characteristically—but not uniquely—displaying them. It is not, however, uniquely for outsiders to be struck by such trends and to reject them. Indeed, as ter Braak himself admits, anyone sharing his particular sensibility and intellectual detachment he is willing to acknowledge as a European, "even if he happens to live on Main Street." It is an attitude for which he offers us the striking parable of a young newspaper vendor whom he saw one day standing on the balcony of one of those pre–World War II Amsterdam streetcars, surrounded by the pandemonium of traffic noise yet enclosed in a private sphere of silence. Amid the pointless energy and meaningless noise the boy stood immersed in the reading of a musical score, deciphering the secret code that admitted entrance to a world of the mind. This immersion, this loyal devotion to the probing of meaning and sense, to a heritage of signs and significance, are for ter Braak the ingredients of Europeanism. It constitutes for him the quintessentially European reflex of survival against the onslaught of a world increasingly geared toward the tenets of rationality, utility, mechanization, and instrumentality, yet utterly devoid of meaning and prey to the forces of entropy. The European reaction is one that pays tribute to what is useless, unproductive, defending a quasi-monastic sphere of silence and reflexiveness amid the whirl of secular motion. Here was a combination characteristic of European anti-Americanism: a real concern about new levels of American influence plus a rejection of real or imagined Americanism as symbolic of developments in contemporary social and economic life.
This reflex of survival through self-assertion was of course a current mood in Europe during the interwar years, a Europe in ruins not only materially but spiritually as well. Amid the aimless drift of society's disorganization and the cacophony of demands accompanying the advent of the masses onto the political agora, Americanism as a concept had come to serve the purpose of focusing the diagnosis of Europe's plight. The impulse toward reassertion—toward the concentrated retrieval of meaning from the fragmented score of European history—was therefore mainly cultural and conservative, much as it was an act of protest and defiance at the same time. Many are the names of the conservative apologists we tend to associate with this mood. There is Johan Huizinga, the Dutch historian, who upon his return from his only visit to the United States at about the time that ter Braak wrote his apologia, expressed himself thus: "Among us Europeans who were traveling together in America . . . there rose up repeatedly this pharisaical feeling: we all have something that you lack; we admire your strength but do not envy you. Your instrument of civilization and progress, your big cities and your perfect organization, only made us nostalgic for what is old and quiet, and sometimes your life seems hardly to be worth living, not to speak of your future"—a statement in which we hear resonating the ominous foreboding that "your future" might well read as "our [European] future." For indeed, what was only implied here would come out more clearly in Huizinga's more pessimistic writings of the late 1930s and early 1940s, when America became a mere piece of evidence in Huizinga's case against contemporary history losing form.
Although the attitude involved is one of a rejection of "America" and Americanism, what should strike a detached observer is the uncanny resemblance with critical positions that Americans had reached independently. Henry Adams of course is the perfect example, a prefiguration of ter Braak's "man on the balcony," transcending the disparate signs of aimlessness, drift, and entropy in a desperate search for a "useless" and highly private world of meaning. But of course his urgent quest, his cultural soul-searching, was much more common in America, was much more of a constant in the American psyche, than Europeans may have been willing to admit. Cultural exhortation and self-reflection, under genteel or not-so-genteel auspices, were then as they are now a recurring feature of the American cultural scene. During one such episode, briefly centered on the cultural magazine The Seven Arts, James Oppenheim, its editor, pointed out that "for some time we have seen our own shallowness, our complacency, our commercialism, our thin self-indulgent kindliness, our lack of purpose, our fads and advertising and empty politics." In this brief period, on the eve of America's intervention in World War I, there was an acute awareness of America's barren landscape, especially when measured by European standards. Van Wyck Brooks, one of the leading spokesmen of this group of cultural critics, pointed out that "for two generations the most sensitive minds in Europe—Renan, Ruskin, Nietzsche, to name none more recent—have summed up their mistrust of the future in that one word—Americanism." He went on to say "And it is because, altogether externalized ourselves, we have typified the universally externalizing influences of modern industrialism." Here, in the words of an American cultural critic, we have a crisp, early version of ter Braak's and Huizinga's later case against Americanism, against an America in quotation marks. American culture no more than "typified" what universal forces of industrialism threatened to bring elsewhere.
One further example may serve to illustrate the sometimes verbal parallels between European and American cultural comment. In a piece written in honor of Alfred Stieglitz, entitled "The Metropolitan Milieu," Lewis Mumford spoke of the mechanical philosophy and the new routine of industry and the dilemmas this posed to the artist whose calling it was "to become a force in his own right once more, as confident of his mission as the scientist or the engineer," yet, unlike them, immune to the lure of mindless conquest. "In a world where practical success canceled every other aspiration, this meant a redoubled interest in the goods and methods that challenged the canons of pecuniary success—contemplation and idle reverie" (it is almost as if we hear ter Braak), "high craftsmanship and patient manipulation, . . . an emphasis on the ecstacy of being rather than a concentration on the pragmatic strain of 'getting there.' "
Yet, in spite of these similarities, the European cultural critics may seem to argue a different case and to act on different existential cues: theirs is a highly defensive position in the face of a threat which is exteriorized, perceived as coming from outside, much as in fact it was immanent to the drift of European culture. What we see occurring is a retreat toward cultural bastions in the face of an experience of a loss of power and control; it is the psychological equivalent of the defense of a national currency through protectionism. It is, so to speak, a manipulation of the terms of psychological trade. A clear example is Oswald Spengler's statement in his Jahre der Entscheidung (Years of Decision): "Life in America is exclusively economic in its structure and lacks depth, the more so because it lacks the element of true historical tragedy, of a fate that for centuries has deepened and informed the soul of European peoples." Huizinga made much the same point in his 1941 essay on the formlessness of history, typified by America. Yet Spengler's choice of words is more revealing. In his elevation of such cultural staples as "depth" and "soul," he typifies the perennial response to an experience of inferiority and backwardness of a society compared to its more potent rivals.
Such was the reaction, as Norbert Elias has pointed out in his magisterial study of the process of civilization in European history, on the part of an emerging German bourgeoisie vis-à-vis the pervasive influence of French civilization. Against French civilisation as a mere skin-deep veneer it elevated German Kultur as more deeply felt, warm, and authentic. It was a proclamation of emancipation through a declaration of cultural superiority. A similar stress on feeling, soul, and depth vis-à-vis the cold rationality of an overbearing foreign civilization can be seen in an essay entitled Ariel, written in 1900 by the Urugayan author José Ednrique Rodó. He opposed the "alma" (the soul) of the weak Spanish-American countries to the utilitarianism of the United States (although, tellingly, he at the same time admired America's democratic form of government). In his critique, once again cultural sublimation was the answer; in what would become known as the Arielista ideology, Rodó's ideas would inspire several generations of Latin-American intellectuals.
Americanism, then, is the twentieth-century equivalent of French eighteenth-century civilisation as perceived by those who rose up in defense against it. It serves as the negative mirror image in the quest for a national identity through cultural self-assertion. Americanism in that sense is therefore a component of the wider structure of anti-Americanism, paradoxical as this may sound.
AMERICANISM, UN-AMERICANISM, ANTI-AMERICANISM
Let us dwell briefly on the conceptual intricacies of such related terms as Americanism, un-Americanism, and anti-Americanism. Apparently, as we have seen, Americanism as a concept can stand for a body of cultural characteristics deemed repugnant. Yet the same word, in a different context, can have a highly positive meaning, denoting the central tenets of the American creed. Both, however, duly deserve their status of "isms": both are emotionally charged code words in the defense of an endangered national identity. In the United States, as "one hundred percent Americanism," it raised a demanding standard before the hordes of aliens aspiring to full membership in the American community while threatening the excommunication of those it defined as un-American. Americanism in its negative guise fulfilled much the same function in Europe, serving as a counterpoint to true Europeanism. In both senses, either positive or negative, the concept is a gate-keeping device, a rhetorical figure, rallying the initiates in rituals of self-affirmation.
Compared to these varieties of Americanism, relatively clear-cut both historically and sociologically, anti-Americanism appears as a strangely ambiguous hybrid. It never appears to imply—as the word suggests—a rejection across the board of America, of its society, its culture, its power. Huizinga and ter Braak may have inveighed against Americanism, against an America in quotation marks, but neither can be considered a spokesman of anti-Americanism in a broad sense. Both were much too subtle minds for that, in constant awareness of contrary evidence and redeeming features, much too open and inquiring about the real America, as a historical entity, to give up the mental reserve of the quotation mark. After all, ter Braak's closing lines are: " 'America' I reject. Now we can turn to the problem of America." And the Huizinga quotation above, already full of ambivalence, continues thus: "And yet in this case it must be we who are the Pharisees, for theirs is the love and the confidence. Things must be different than we think."
Now where does that leave us? Both authors were against an Americanism as they negatively constructed it. Yet it does not meaningfully make their position one of anti-Americanism. There was simply too much intellectual puzzlement and, particularly in Huizinga's case, too much admiration and real affection, too much appreciation of an Americanism that had inspired American history. Anti-Americanism, then, if we choose to retain the term at all, should be seen as a weak and ambivalent complex of anti-feelings. It only applies selectively, never extending to a total rejection of both Americanisms. Thus we can have either of two separate outcomes: an anti-Americanism rejecting cultural trends which are seen as typically American, while allowing of admiration for America's energy, innovation, prowess, and optimism, or an anti-Americanism in reverse, rejecting an American creed that for all its missionary zeal is perceived as imperialist and oppressive, while admiring American culture, from its high-brow to its pop varieties. These opposed directions in the critical thrust of anti-Americanism often go hand in hand with opposed positions on the political spectrum. The cultural anti-Americanism of the interwar years typically was a conservative position, whereas the political anti-Americanism of the Cold War and the war in Vietnam typically occurred on the left wing. Undoubtedly the drastic change in America's position on the world stage since World War II has contributed to this double somersault. Ever since this war America has appeared in a radically different guise, as a much more potent force in everyday life in Europe than ever before. This leads us to explore one further nexus among the various concepts.
The late 1940s and 1950s may have been a honeymoon in the Atlantic relationship, yet throughout the period there were groups on the left loath to adopt the unfolding Cold War view of the world; they were the nostalgics of the anti-Nazi war alliance with the Soviet Union, a motley array of fellow travelers, third roaders, Christian pacifists, and others. Their early critical stance toward the United States showed up yet another ambivalent breed of anti-Americanism. In their relative political isolation domestically, they tended to identify with precisely those who in America were being victimized as un-American in the emerging Cold War hysteria of loyalty programs, House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) inquiries, and MacCarthyite persecution. In their anti-Americanism they were the ones to rally to the support of Alger Hiss and of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Affiliating with dissenters in America, their anti-Americanism combined with un-Americanism in the United States to form a sort of shadow Atlantic partnership. It is a combination that would again occur in the late sixties when the political anti-Americanism in Europe, occasioned by the Vietnam War, felt in unison with a generation in the United States engaged in antiwar protest and the counterculture of the time, burning American flags along with their draft cards as demonstrations of their un-Americanism. As bumper stickers at the time reminded them: America, Love It or Leave It.
The disaffection from America during the Vietnam War, the un-American activities in America, and the anti-Americanism in Europe at the time may have appeared to stand for a more lasting value shift on both sides of the Atlantic. The alienation and disaffection of this emerging adversary culture proved much more short-lived in America, however, than it did in Europe. The vigorous return to traditional concerns in America since the end of the Vietnam War never occurred in any comparable form in countries in Europe. There indeed the disaffection from America had become part of a much more general disaffection from the complexities and contradictions of modern society. A psychological disengagement had occurred that no single event, such as the end of the Vietnam War, was able to undo. The squatters' movement in countries such as Germany, Denmark, or the Netherlands, the ecological (or Green) movement, the pacifist movement (particularly in the 1980s during the cruise missile debate), had all become the safe havens of a dissenting culture, highly apocalyptic in its view of the threat that technological society posed to the survival of mankind. And despite the number and variety of anti-feelings of these adversary groups, America to each and all of them could once again serve as a symbolic focus. Thus, in this more recent stage, it appears that anti-Americanism can not only be too broad a concept, as pointed out before—a configuration of anti-feelings that never extends to all things American—it can also be too narrow, in that the "America" which one now rejects is really a code word, a symbol, for a much wider rejection of contemporary society and culture. The more diffuse and anomic these feelings are, the more readily they seem to find a cause to blame. Whether or not America is involved in an objectionable event—and given its position in the world it often is—there is always a nearby MacDonald's to bear the brunt of anger and protest, and to have its windows smashed. If this is anti-Americanism, it is of a highly inarticulate, if not irrational, kind.
The oscillations and changes in focus of anti-Americanism have social as well as political dimensions, though the social history has yet to be fully explored. Most commentary between the wars was not only conservative but elitist. It was not clear that the attacks on American cultural and commercial influence resonated with ordinary people. But the discussion could have social effects, as in debates over whether French retail shops should imitate American "dime stores" or have a more distinctively French devotion to style over mass marketing. Political attacks on American diplomacy in the Cold War enlisted large working-class followings, but the older cultural criticisms persisted as well, often (particularly in France and communist countries) with some government backing against American commercial inroads.
GLOBALIZATION, AMERICANIZATION, AND ANTI-AMERICANISM
As American culture spreads around the world, American emblems, from Marlboro Country ads to MacDonald's franchises, tend to be found more places. They testify to Americanization while at the same time providing the targets for protest and resistance against Americanization. Many are the explanations of the worldwide dissemination of American mass culture. There are those who see it as a case of cultural imperialism, as a consequence of America's worldwide projection of political, economic, and military power. Others, broadly within the same critical frame of mind, see it as a tool rather than a consequence of this imperial expansion. Behind the globalization of American culture they see an orchestrating hand, whetting foreign appetites for the pleasures of a culture of consumption. Undeniably, though, part of the explanation of the worldwide appeal of American mass culture will have to be sought in its intrinsic qualities, in its blend of democratic and commercial vigor. In individual cases the particular mix of these two elements may differ. At one extreme the commercial component may be well-nigh absent, as in the worldwide dissemination of jazz and blues music. At the other extreme the commercial rationale may be the central carrying force, as in American advertisements. While trying to make a sales pitch for particular products, advertising envelops these in cultural messages that draw on repertoires of American myths and symbols that find recognition across the globe.
In a series of posters made by a Dutch advertising agency solely for the Dutch market, a particular brand of cigarette produced by a large Anglo-American tobacco company is being promoted. The posters combine visual and linguistic messages without apparent coherence, each a disjoint marker of larger semiotic repertoires. The only direct reference to the product being advertised is the picture of a packet of cigarettes, its flip-top open, with two cigarettes protruding as if offered to the viewer. Otherwise, there are no signs of a hard sell in the classic manner, no references to taste, to tar content, or other qualities of the product. The jumble of other messages on the poster all serve to illustrate its central slogan: "There are no borders." Remarkably, although the market addressed is Dutch, the slogan is in English, as if to illustrate its message of internationalism. That message, apparently, is the subtext of the entire poster. It is meant to evoke a world culture of leisure and pleasure, mentioning the names of places and hotels where the jet set congregates, and graphically showing the sensual pleasures they indulge in.
Yet this is only one way to read the slogan. It does evoke a global culture of consumption, assembling its attractions for the creation of an image attached to this particular brand of cigarette. A second way to read the message is in terms of the echoes it contains of more narrowly American dreams and images. In spite of the relative absence of patently American markers that, for example, characterize the worldwide advertising campaign for Marlboro cigarettes, the Stuyvesant posters do evoke repertoires of American images, known the world over, where "America," and more particularly the American West, symbolizes a world without borders. The established imagery of America as open space, a land that knows no limits, sets no constraints, allowing all individuals to break free and be the agents of their own destinies, has a venerable pedigree as an ingredient for the construction of commercial images.
Some of the oldest traceable examples go back to the early 1860s. Two tobacco brands, the Washoe brand and a brand called "Westward Ho," already used images of the West, in addition to more general American imagery, embodied in representations of the Goddess Columbia. We see vast stretches of open country, a pot of gold brimming over, an American eagle, a bare-breasted Columbia, loosely enveloped in an American flag, galloping forth on elk-back. Westward Ho, indeed. This is not Europa being abducted by Jupiter; this is a modern mythology of Columbia riding her American elk. At the time, clearly, an abundance of mythical markers was needed to tie Virginia tobacco to the beckoning call of the West. Today we no longer need such explicit reference to trigger our store of images concerning America as a dream and a fantasy. A simple slogan, "There are no borders," is all it takes. It is no longer the cryptic message it may seem at first glance. We know the code and have learned how to crack it.
In its dual reading, then, the Stuyvesant slogan illustrates two things. It evokes a world increasingly permeated by a culture of consumption, geared toward leisure and pleasure. At the same time it illustrates the implicit Americanness of much of this emerging global mass culture. It is a point to bear in mind when we engage in discussions concerning the globalization of culture taking place in our day and age. Too often in these debates the point seems to be missed when people try to separate the problems of an alleged Americanization of the world from the problems of the globalization of culture. A closer reading will reveal that in many cases it is a matter of American cultural codes being picked up and recycled for the production of meaningful statements elsewhere.
Students of Americanization broadly agree that semantic transformations attend the dissemination of American cultural messages across the world. Depending on their precise angle and perspective, some tend to emphasize the cultural strategies and auspices behind the transmission of American culture. Whether they study Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show when it traveled in Europe, Hollywood movies, or world's fairs, to name just a few carriers for the transmission of American culture, their focus is on the motifs and organizing views that the producers were trying to convey rather than on the analysis of what the spectators and visitors did with the messages they were exposed to. All such cultural productions taken as representations of organizing worldviews do tend to lead researchers to focus on senders rather than receivers of messages. Yet, given such a focus, it hardly ever leads these researchers to look at the process of reception as anything more than a passive imbibing. Whatever the words one uses to describe what happens at the point of reception, words such as hybridization or creolization, current views agree on a freedom of reception, a freedom to resemanticize and recontextualize meaningful messages reaching audiences across national and cultural borders. Much creativity and inventiveness go into the process of reception, much joy and exhilaration spring from it. Yet making this the whole story would be as fallacious as a focus centered solely on the schemes and designs of the senders of messages. Whatever their precise angle, researchers agree on the need to preserve balance in their approach to problems of Americanization.
Furthermore, some researchers tend to conceive of Americanization as tied to an American economic expansionism early on and then, more recently, to an emerging global economy structured by the organizing logic of corporate capitalism, still very much proceeding under American auspices. The main area in which they see Americanization at work is in the commodification of culture that colonizes the leisure time of people worldwide. World's fairs and other transmitters of America's commercial culture conjure up a veritable "dream world" of mass consumption, a simulation through spectacle of the good life afforded by the technological advances associated with modernization. One could go on to contrast this simulacrum of the good life with the ravages wrought by corporate capitalism in many parts of the globe. It would be one good reason to keep the concept of Americanization in our critical lexicon as a useful reminder of what American economic expansionism has meant in terms of advancing the interests of American corporate culture overseas.
It is important to note also that the American influence in many ways continues to expand. This is true in consumer culture, as witness the success of Euro-Disney (near Paris) in the 1990s after some initial resistance and necessary adjustments to the preferences of European visitors. It is also true in terms of business practices, where, again in the 1990s, consulting firms of American origin, American management texts translated from English and specific American fads such as Total Quality Management gained unprecedented attention and prestige.
Yet others take a different tack. They would argue that one should not look at the autonomous rise of global corporate capitalism as due to American agency. It is a common fallacy in much of the critique of Americanization to blame America for trends and developments that would have occurred anyway, even in the absence of America. From Karl Marx, via John Hobson and V. I. Lenin, all the way to the work of the Frankfurt School, a long line of critical analysis of capitalism and imperialism highlights their inner expansionist logic. Surely, in the twentieth century, much of this expansion proceeded under American auspices, receiving an American imprint, in much the same way that a century ago, the imprint was British. The imprint has often confused critics into arguing that the havoc wreaked by an overarching process of modernization, ranging from the impact of capitalism to processes of democratization of the political arena, was truly the dismal effect of America upon their various countries. From this perspective the critique of Americanization is too broad, exaggerating America's role in areas where in fact it was caught up in historic transformations much like other countries were.
From a different perspective, though, this view of Americanization is too narrow. It ignores those vast areas where America, as a construct, an image, a phantasma, did play a role in the intellectual and cultural life of people outside its national borders. There is a repertoire of fantasies about America that even predates its discovery. Ever since, the repertoire has been fed in numerous ways, through many media of transmission. Americans and non-Americans have all contributed to this collective endeavor, making sense of the new country and its evolving culture. Especially in the twentieth century America became ever more present in the minds of non-Americans, as a point of reference, a yardstick, a counterpoint. In intellectual reflections on the course and destiny of non-American countries and cultures, America became part of a process of triangulation, serving as a model for rejection or emulation, providing views of a future seen in either a negative or a positive light. America has become a tertium comparationis in culture wars elsewhere, centering on control of the discourse concerning the national identity and the national culture. When America was rejected by one party in such contests, the other party saw it as a liberating alternative. Writing the history of such receptions of America is as much American studies as it is an endeavor in the intellectual history of countries other than the United States. It also should form part of a larger reflection upon processes summarily described as Americanization.
Undeniably, though, in the course of the allegedly "American Century" America assumed a centrality that one might rightly call imperial. Like Rome in the days of the Roman Empire, it has become the center of webs of control and communication that span the world. Its cultural products reach the far corners of the world, communicating American ways and views to people elsewhere, while America itself remains relatively unaware of cultural products originating outside its national borders. If for such reasons we might call America's reach imperial, it is so in a number of ways. It is imperial in the economic sphere, in the political sphere, and in the cultural sphere. If it is still possible to use the word in a relatively neutral way, describing a factual configuration rather than the outcome of concerted effort and motive, we might speak of an American imperialism, of its economic imperialism, political imperialism, and cultural imperialism. Trying to accommodate themselves to their diminished role and place in the world, European countries have at times opted to resist particular forms of America's imperial presence. Thus, in the most telling case, France chose to resist political imperialism by ordering NATO out of the country, it warned against America's economic imperialism through Jean Jacques Servan-Schreiber's Le défi américain, (which nonetheless urged imitation of management styles), and it briefly considered preventing Jurassic Park from being released in France, seeing it as a case of American cultural imperialism and a threat to the French cultural identity.
Yet, suggestive as the terms are of neat partition and distinction, the three forms of imperialism do in fact overlap to a large extent. Thus America, in its role as the new political hegemon in the Western world, could restructure markets and patterns of trade through the Marshall Plan, which guaranteed access to the European markets for American products. Political imperialism could thus promote economic imperialism. Opening European markets for American commerce also meant preserving access for American cultural exports, such as Hollywood movies. Economic imperialism thus translated into cultural imperialism. Conversely, as carriers of an American version of the "good life," American products, from cars to movies, from clothing styles to kitchen apparel, all actively doubled as agents of American cultural diplomacy. Thus trade translated back into political imperialism and so on, in endless feedback loops.
Many observers in recent years have chosen to focus on the cultural dimension in all these various forms of an American imperial presence. American culture, seen as a configuration of ways and means that Americans use for expressing their collective sense of themselves—their Americanness—is mediated through every form of American presence abroad. From the high rhetoric of its political ideals to the golden glow of McDonald's arches, from Bruce Springsteen to the Marlboro Man, American culture washes across the globe. It does so mostly in disentangled bits and pieces, for others to recognize, pick up, and rearrange into a setting expressive of their own individual identities, or identities they share with peer groups. Thus teenagers may have adorned their bedrooms with the iconic faces of Hollywood or rock music stars in order to provide themselves with a most private place for reverie and games of identification, but they have also been engaged in a construction of private worlds that they share with countless others. In the process they recontextualize and resemanticize American culture to make it function within expressive settings entirely of their own making.
W. T. Stead, an early British observer of Americanization, saw it as "the trend of the twentieth century." He saw Americanization mostly as the worldwide dissemination of material goods, as so many signs of an American technical and entrepreneurial prowess. It would be for later observers to look at these consumer goods as cultural signifiers as well, as carriers of an American way of life. An early example of an observer of the American scene with precisely this ability to read cultural significance into the products of a technical civilization was Johan Huizinga. In his collection of travel observations, published after his only trip to the United States in 1926, he showed an uncanny awareness of the recycling of the American dream into strategies of commercial persuasion, linking a fictitious world of self-fulfillment—a world where every dream would come true—to goods sold in the market. High-minded aesthete though he was, forever longing for the lost world of late-medieval Europe, he could walk the streets of the great American cities with an open eye for the doubling of American reality into a seductive simulacrum. He was inquisitive enough to ask the right questions, questions that still echo in current research concerning the reception of mass culture in general and of commercial exhortations in particular. He wondered what the effect would be on everyday people of the constant barrage of commercial constructions of the good life. "The public constantly sees a model of refinement far beyond their purse, ken and heart. Does it imitate this? Does it adapt itself to this?" Apposite questions indeed. Huizinga was aware of the problem of reception of the virtual worlds constantly spewed forth by a relentless commercial mass culture. More generally, in these musings, Huizinga touched on the problem of the effect that media of cultural transmission, like film and advertising, would have on audiences not just in America but elsewhere as well. In these more general terms, the problem then becomes one of the ways in which non-American audiences would read the fantasy worlds that an American imagination had produced and that showed all the characteristics of an American way with culture so vehemently indicted by European critics.
See also other articles in this section.
Barber, Benjamin, R. Jihad vs McWorld. New York, 1995.
Braak, Menno ter. "Waarom ik 'Amerika' afwijs." In Verzameld Werk. Amsterdam, 1949–51. Pages 255–265.
Cowan, Paul. The Making of an Un-American: A Dialogue with Experience. New York, 1970.
Friedman, Thomas. The Lexus and the Olive Tree. New York, 1999.
Herman, Edward S. The Global Media: The New Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism. London and Washington, D.C., 1997.
Hollander, Paul. Anti-Americanism: Critiques at Home and Abroad, 1965–1990. New York, 1992.
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