What explains the unmatched global influence of American culture?by Josef Joffe / September 18, 2014 / Leave a comment
How the World Was Won: The Americanisation of Everywhere by Peter Conrad (Thames & Hudson, £19.95)
In centuries past, the cultural reach of the mighty ended exactly at their military borders. The Roman, Habsburg and Ottoman empires did not radiate beyond their conquests, nor did the Soviet colossus. Yet American culture needs no gun to travel. In terms of historical influence, only France comes to mind as a distant second. In the 17th and 18th centuries, its language, architecture and manners extended way beyond its possessions, though unlike America’s, French culture never seeped down to the masses.
“In the beginning,” John Locke mused in his Second Treatise, “all the World was America.” He meant that America belonged to nobody and thus to all. Today, all the world is America in the sense that it listens, talks, watches, dresses, dances and eats American. We read books courtesy of Amazon and Kindle. We communicate via Twitter and Instagram. We ape the latest American business-school fads and have assimilated the informal manners and youth culture of the Yanks. French postmodernism became the dogma du jour only after an invigorating detour through the humanities departments of the United States. Ambitious parents dream of Harvard and Stanford for their offspring. Even the lowly bagel, originally parboiled and baked in 15th-century Poland, has swept Europe as an echt American import.
In his grand history of American cultural influence since 1945, the Australian author and scholar Peter Conrad recounts “How the World Was Won.” It is a magisterial story, never before told in such an intelligent and, essentially, sympathetic manner. The book covers “all the bases,” as they say in the US (baseball being one of the few American things that has not conquered the world). Conrad ranges over literature, film, theatre and music. He draws on culture high and low—on William James, Porgy and Bess, Marvel Comics, Coke, Google and Jasper Johns, the painter who turned the Stars and Stripes into a global icon by “demilitarising” it. (As a universal emblem, the Union Jack fluttered only briefly, in the era of Carnaby Street, the Beatles and Mary Quant.)
Conrad is particularly good on the movies. The chapter on “Americanophilia” takes the reader on a tour through 20th-century film history, following the story of how Hollywood dethroned the French nouvelle vague and toppled Italian and British realism. (Germany doesn’t figure in this rout, as its greatest directors—Fritz Lang, Douglas Sirk and Billy Wilder—had the good sense to decamp for California when Leni Riefenstahl took over in the 1930s.)
Conrad tells the story elegantly, using as a case study Jean-Luc Godard’s À Bout de Souffle, that tragic encounter between a French gangster (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and an American student (Jean Seberg) in Paris. Belmondo “is a criminal who has learned the tricks of his trade from American films” and who “ineffectually apes [Humphrey] Bogart.” The film captures a period where the avatars of existential cool were no longer heroes out of a Jean-Paul Sartre play, but Bogey, Gary Cooper and James Dean, then Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen. And Lauren Bacall. No wonder European movies never really recovered.
Naturally, Europe, having ruled the world for half a millennium, did not succumb enthusiastically; the more the hoi polloi went for all things American, the more grimly the intelligentsia fought back—as it still does, for instance when it raises the banner of the “cultural exception” in free-trade talks. Anti-Americanism has always been the flip-side of what Jean-Paul Sartre denounced as “Americanism.”
The world is culturally more American today than it was even at the height of US power in 1945. But this sweeping victory sharpens the question: why did “Americanism” carry the day, conquering without war—even as US strategic supremacy receded in the course of the 20th century?
Conrad rightly claims that “America won the world by winning it over, sometimes with candy bars and jeans, mostly with images and sounds.” Note that he does not say: “with raw power,” though sheer strategic clout surely played a critical part. Luxembourg does not fire the world’s imagination.
But neither do Russia or China. So why America? Conrad’s theory of “America-the-Beguiling” is undoubtedly part of the reason. It also helps to be the world’s first modern nation—a novus ordo seclorum, a motto taken from Virgil and inscribed in the Great Seal of the United States. True, the US started out as a British transplant, faithfully copying the motherland’s mores, laws and institutions. But in the voyage across the sea, many other things were dumped into the Atlantic. Overboard went feudalism and despotism, as well as the fetters of closed guilds, unbending social rules, and priestly powers (the US, unlike every other nation, never had a state religion).
Thus unburdened, these young Americans could indeed start anew. They could invent and practice modernity—the modernity Europeans would eventually embrace, as well, when the democratic age dawned on the other side of the ocean. The Americans just got there faster, and so, by sheer historical luck, they set the model.
What is modernity if not the destruction of the old and the relentless creation of the new—especially of the mass culture that grips the rest of the world? Not that the Americans are somehow smarter than the Europeans. But given America’s freedom to tinker and to hustle, it may simply be easier to invent the iPad and YouTube, to rustle up capital for ideas and to market the product, than in the “Old World.”
It helps, furthermore, to be the world’s first “universal nation” peopled by immigrants who yearned to leave the “Old Country” behind, but kept their tales, traditions and sensibilities. Would WASPs have done as well in interpreting the American dream on celluloid for the rest of the world? Russian Jews, straddling two cultures, did, building the empire of Hollywood in the process. The special gift of a universal nation is a knack for insinuating itself into the minds and desires of the rest. Just take Superman and a slew of other cartoon superheroes. Such figures are deeply embedded in the human consciousness, but unlike Medea or Achilles, one does not need a classical education to appreciate them.
America is the Great Seductress, not a steamroller. Convenience is perhaps the country’s greatest export hit. Jeans, electric car windows, automatic transmissions, and air conditioning were originally made in the US. No wonder the rest of the world followed the it into mass society and consumerism. On the other hand, we resent those who seduce us, as we dislike ourselves for yielding to temptation. This is why, 60 years ago, Hannah Arendt called America a “dream and a nightmare,” what Europe either wanted or feared to become.
Still, Conrad has it right when he concludes: “Encounters in and with America can be baffling or bruising, but they are usually eye-opening and… exhilarating. That is why this perpetually self-renewing place exists—to confound our assumptions [and to] enlarge our ideas.” Or just to remind us, on a very practical level, of a life without things and ways American: this review was written on a Dell PC, in Microsoft Word and with the research assistance of Firefox and Google.