Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Sandefur points to this article in Reason, responding to this article in the Washington Times about American popular culture’s dominance over the rest of the world. Sandefur is quite right to point out that Bork has far more in common with the Taliban than he or his followers would like to admit. Witness this comment:

Robert H. Bork remembers his ambivalence in 1989 as the Berlin Wall came down and dungarees and rock music poured into the former East Germany.

“You almost began to want to put the wall back up,” says the former Supreme Court nominee, a tart critic of American popular culture…

Still, Mr. Bork, author of “Slouching Towards Gomorrah,” thinks some conservative (not to say radical) Muslims have a legitimate point — as do American evangelicals and others on the religious right.

“They have good reason to be very worried about” the spread of American movies, music and fashion, Mr. Bork allows. “I suppose it’s better than what they have now, but I wouldn’t celebrate too much if they began to adopt our popular culture.”

There are so many things to comment on in this article, but I want to focus on one aspect of it, the idea that nations or ethnicities have a single “culture” that can be identified. The whole notion seems absurd to me and always has. When leftist academics complain about the “dominant ideology” of “western culture”, what on earth are they referring to? Who represents “German culture”, Adolf Hitler or Anne Frank? Who represents the dominant ideology of American culture, the slave owners of the south or the abolitionists? David Duke or Martin Luther King? All of them, of course. Because there is no single monolithic “culture” in any of them, certainly not in the West. All cultures, particularly those not in the grip of totalitarian repression, are a mishmash of contradictory ideas and traditions.

This is doubly true of American culture, which is the most obviously diverse nation in the world due to massive amounts of immigration. There simply is no “American culture” to be exported abroad, because American culture is a boiling witch’s brew of influences from the British, French, German, Mexican, Greek, Jewish, Italian and other cultures. The notion of “cultural imperialism” is, at its core, an illogical proposition. People point to a McDonald’s or a Pizza Hut in some foreign nation, but they don’t recognize how much those corporations adapt to the cultures they’re found in. You can’t get ground beef at a Pizza Hut in India, and a McDonald’s in many nations are as likely to serve lamb kabobs as burgers. When these things meet, the result is mixture, not domination:

“Somebody would look at Pizza Hut in Thailand and say this is American cultural imperialism,” postulates Harvard University’s Joseph Nye. “But wait a minute — where did pizza come from? We’re a country of immigrants. Our culture is constantly changing, and we often repackage things that were cultural exports to this country.”

OK, Italian immigrants invented pizza. Optimists say globalization means more cultural choices for everyone, not global homogeneity.

“No American artifact will ‘Americanize’ a foreign user any more than playing a Japanese-produced video game will make you Asian,” Mr. Freund argues. “It’s preposterous.”

Where do you find “American culture” in New York City? In Chinatown? Little Italy? In the martini bars where the stockbrokers drink after work in Manhattan? Or in the gay bars of Greenwich Village? In the artist’s studies in Soho? Or in the rough and tumble neighborhoods in Brooklyn? The answer, of course, is all of them.


  1. #1 Kevin
    December 31, 2004

    Not that it’s especially salient, but Ann Frank was Dutch. Otherwise, good post.

  2. #2 ray
    December 31, 2004

    Sorry Kevin, but she moved to Amsterdam from Germany. She was born in Frankfurt am Main.

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