The Myth of Cultural Imperialism
NOVEMBER 01, 1988 by ROBERT K. RAUTH JR.
What’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap over hostile elitists in a single bound? Well, it’s none other than the all-American duo of Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald.
It may come as a surprise to most Americans that overseas these beloved symbols are sometimes about as welcome as typhoid or leprosy. The cries of cultural imperialism are a relatively recent phenomenon. With the withering away of Western colonial empires, nationalists in the newly independent countries often became outraged over the staying power of colonial cultures. These nationalists came to term the presence and domination of Western culture as “cultural imperialism.” Paul Harrison’s description in his book Inside the Third World is typical: “And so there grew up, alongside political and economic imperialism, that more insidious form of control—cultural imperialism. It conquered not just the bodies, but the souls of its victims . . . .”
In time, the strength and attraction of Western popular culture became even more dominated by that of the United States. This development allowed the accusations of cultural imperialism to become just as common in European intellectual circles as in the Third World.
Because the French have traditionally been very proud of their culture, the emergence of American popular culture has been an especially bitter pill for them to swallow. The fear of encroaching Americana has often been on the mind of France’s Minister of Culture, Jack Lang. Shortly after the Socialist Party’s election Lang called “for a real crusade against . . . this financial and intellectual imperialism that no longer grabs territory . . . but grabs consciousness, ways of thinking, ways of living.”
One of the people who have examined cultural imperialism most closely is the exiled Chilean author Ariel Dorfman. Dorfman has published two books on the subject: How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comics and The Empire’s Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds.
The case of Mr. Dorfman is important because he is so open about the elitism that the movement classically represents. Dorfman is extremely paternalistic toward the poor he has elected himself to represent. He proudly recounts one tale in which he tells a female slum dweller that photo novels, because they foster impossible dreams, are both “a hazard to her health and to her future.”
Later we find that it is not photo novels that Dorfman opposes, but the fact that these books send the message that love and money can make one happy. We learn this because, soon after the socialist Allende regime took power, Mr. Dorfman was busying himself by becoming “personally involved in producing new comic books.” Obviously, when it comes to Mr. Dorfman, the medium is not the message. As he later notes in The Empire’s Old Clothes, “No matter whether a country is oozing with opulence or on the path to pauperdom, the new generation is always required to accept the status quo of their parents.” Unfortunately, Mr. Doffman never recognized the truism of this statement as he produced the new status quo for his children’s generation.
The leftist bias of Dorfman and Lang is not unusual in those denouncing America’s cultural exports. Do,f man believes working hard to achieve success is a myth the developed world is trying to perpetuate. (Does this mean he doesn’t tell his children that hard work is the key to success?) This attitude is exemplified by his analysis of a Donald Duck cartoon. Dorfman mocks the moral of the story which he considered to be “the amount of money each person possesses is equal to the amount of work and cunning he has put into it.” Dorfman is shocked that the cartoon ignores the “years of appropriating other people’s labor to build up that wealth.”
Uniting Against “Pollution”
The cries of cultural imperialism, however, are not restricted to the world’s leftists. In fact, there are few issues that exact such a universal response from the world’s elite, regardless of their political position. The left and right have often joined forces against the American “pollution” of their native culture. While leftists are disgusted by the strength and attraction of a base, capitalistic culture—one that emphasizes money, lust, and power—conservatives simultaneously lament the democratization of their “civilization.”
One example of this coalition of strange bedfellows occurred recently in France, after the announcement that a European Disneyland would be built near Paris. According to one report, the French Communist Party joined “unreconstructed Gaullists in deploring the encroachment of an ‘alien civilization’ on a site so close to the ‘city of enlightenment.’”
Despite the popularity of American food, music, fashion, and movies among the French middle class, the attacks on America’s pop culture by French intellectuals have been particularly cutting. A popular magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur featured a cover with Mickey Mouse high above the Eiffel Tower. The headline read: “Is this Mouse Dangerous?” In the accompanying article, one writer likened Dis-neyland to a “degenerate utopia.” One of the leading French newspapers, Le Matin, warned that the European Disneyland will “deform generations of French children.”
Le Figaro’s writers were equally outraged. Louis Pauwels called the coming of Mickey a “defeat for Europe.” The most combative was Jean-Edern Hallier who cautioned against a “cellulite mentality” that would lead France to becoming “the 51st state after Hawaii.”
This spectacle would have been amusing were it not so disarmingly hypocritical. After all, French rightists never complained about dispatching priests and bureaucrats to convert and civilize French West Africa. Similarly, French Marxists had few hesitations in proselytizing their own brand of religion to Franco-phobe subjects. As David Lamb, author of The Africans, writes: in French West Africa, France “remains the paramount economic and cultural force . . . . Unlike other colonial powers, France governed through a policy of assimilation or, as some have called it, cultural imperialism.” This policy has not ended with the continent’s independence, although French influence has slackened, much to the mother country’s chagrin. Luigi Barzini, author of The Europeans, believes that France was the most dissappointed of any of the Western European powers at the loss of colonies and influence.
While condemnations of America’s spreading influence are usually limited to the cultural sphere, a surprisingly large chunk of the opposition stems from the economic risks American firms pose to local inefficient enterprises. This economic insecurity further explains the left-right coalition. Workers repre sented by the left, and owner-managers represented by the right, fear American domination of their home market. In Canada for example, a top labor official fears that “free trade would turn us into bloody Americans.” The same attitude is shared by many in Canada’s broadcasting and publishing industries, where the link between culture and big business is especially important. Reactions to U.S. moves to open Brazil’s computer market were no less fierce. Newspaper editorials were filled with charges of “U.S. imperialism” and Brazil’s foremost economic newspaper labeled American pressure “Rambonomics.” Newspaper cartoons pictured President Reagan as Rambo, slamming Brazilian President José Sarney over the head with a computer.
Unions have also been particularly fierce in their fight against the first McDonald’s in Mexico. This Mexico City McDonald’s was accused of “threatening national values” mostly because it wanted to use part-time nonunion workers. Protesters painted “Death to the Voracious Bosses” on the walls of the restaurant. The horrible crime of the nasty capitalist bosses? Paying non-union workers more in an hour than the union’s standard contract paid in a full day. Meanwhile, cars backed up in a mile-long line waiting to order their Big Macs.
Which Culture Dominates?
The world’s literati will be happy to know that America itself is not immune to the fear of cultural imperialism. Americans living between Los Angeles and New York often bemoan the cultural products of these two foreign capitals. More serious is the risk posed by what anthropologists term “the law of cultural dominance.” This theory states that whichever culture is technologically superior will eventually dominate its inferiors.
Until World War II, this position of dominance was shared by Great Britain and France and was ceded to the United States in the wake of the war. If this theory holds true, perhaps the next dominant culture will be Japan’s. As it is, Japanese food, fashion, and art are more popular than ever both in America and worldwide; Japanese technology and management techniques are in even greater demand. While this idea might seem a little far-fetched to some, it would surprise no one in the rest-belt cities of Detroit or Pittsburgh. Auto and steel executives speak openly of their hatred for their Oriental competitors, taking the phrase “trade war” literally. “This time,” one auto executive told me, “the laps won’t lose.”
At the moment, however, American culture is—if nothing else—technology, and it is in this realm that the fewest complaints abroad are heard about cultural imperialism. But vaccines, telephones, and airplanes are as symbolic of America as Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald. Once American technology is in-troduced-even though technology is generally considered non-imperialistic—a closer mirroring of America is likely to follow. For example, once cars become important to a society, road systems and Cities designed to accommodate the vehicles will result. Thus, a more American-looking city is created. As a faster lifestyle comes about, fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken become more acceptable and necessary.
This trend is especially well demonstrated by the success that these two chains have had in the rapidly developing Asian market. For example, McDonald’s highest sales per store have been recorded in Taiwan while Kentucky Fried Chicken’s most successful franchise is found in Malaysia. The chains admit that their success has been greatly dependent on these countries’ economic development and urbanization.
The worldwide dominance of the English language is as much a result of America’s intellectual and economic prowess as it is of the legacy of the British Empire. The majority of the world’s foremost academics and businessmen use English; to communicate with them directly, or indirectly through their writings, one must be able to understand English. When Americans, with less than six per cent of the world’s population, have won 38 per cent of all Nobel prizes in science, it should come as no surprise that Scandinavian graduate students in engineering use American texts. Similarly, France’s premier graduate institute of business management has switched to an English format. As the dean of the school insists: “English is the international business language.” What is the alternative for advocates of the theory of cultural imperialism? Should American professors be writing in French or Swa-hill?
American technical superiority also provides much of the basis for the omnipresence of our popular culture. American acting, writing, and designing is equal or superior to that of any European country. As for the technical side, Americans are without match. In fact, American music and film have become so well known for their production wizardry that there has been a home-grown backlash in favor of less polished projects. Critics have become bored with movies that contain more special effects than plot, and rock music has a large and growing movement that has embraced the raw energy of “garage bands.”
Many would reject the law of cultural dominance. To them, the reason American culture is popular worldwide is due to the power of multinational corporations and their manipulative ad agencies. This view was succinctly stated by E. J. Dionne in The New York Times: “American culture is popular around the world . . . because it has behind it the enormous resources of a very rich country.” But this is further evidence of the movement’s elitism. If we are merely the puppets the elitists accuse us of being, we would all be drinking New Coke instead of Classic Coke (a fact that should be especially noted by those who describe cultural imperialism as the cocacolonialism of the world).
Rejecting Popular Culture
The ability to withstand America’s popular culture is perhaps best illustrated by a community within shouting distance of America’s megalopolis. A short distance northwest of Philadelphia lies a large community of Amish people living an eighteenth-century lifestyle. They have been able to reject T-shirts and television, and have prospered, thus proving that not only is it possible to steer clear of twen-tieth- century pop culture, but that acceptance of it is not necessary to thrive economically.
The power of advertising is not an omnipotent one. As even Ariel Dorfman realizes, “Them is in men and women a deep refusal to be manipulated.” Sixty per cent of all grocery products test-marketed fail in America despite the millions of dollars targeted for advertising. Conversely, many important recent musical movements, such as punk, acid rock, and disco, were popular long before they were noticed by radio stations and record companies. Moreover, without the influence of Madison Avenue in the Soviet Union, how can one explain the popularity of Levi’s and rock music in that country?
A more plausible explanation for the success of American popular culture abroad has been offered by a French writer, Pierre Billard, who hypothesized a melting-pot theory. As a nation of immigrants, the United States has absorbed talent from all over the world and has synthesized it into a universally accepted culture. In doing so, columnist Richard Reeves states, “the world’s great democracy has produced the great democratic culture. It may be the ‘lowest common denominator’ entertainment, but that’s just another way of saying ‘universal.’”
The immigrant can be found from the beginning of America’s—and therefore the world’s—popular culture. Popular culture was born only in the last 100 years, during the height of the immigration influx. Because of the huge numbers of disparate peoples with little knowledge of English, the purveyors of the new culture were forced into simplicity. Kurt Anderson of Time points out that comics were pushed by newspaper magnates Pulitzer and Hearst “to appeal to readers freshly or barely fluent in English. Vaudeville was a spangly folk theater of bold strokes that had to entertain first- and second-generation Americans.”
This simplicity has, however, provided the elitists with much of their ammunition. One French writer, for example, likened the diffusion of American culture to the Continent as the “cretinization of Europe.”
This tradition of Simplicity has continued with Westerns, war movies, and police flicks. These movies have been welcomed overseas largely because they are action-fRied and thus better understood by people in foreign countries. (Of course, Hollywood has no monopoly on thrillers. Karate films from Hong Kong and Singapore do a bang-up business throughout the Third World. Indian films, which are generally romantic melodramas, do well because the actors use hugely exaggerated gestures better to tell the story. Despite the success Indian romances have had around the world, no one complains about Indian cultural imperialism.)
Another reason that these films do well is because they are created for mass audiences. As French actor- singer Yves Montand, a former Communist sympathizer turned Reagan-admirer comments: “If America has succeeded in invading us culturally, it is because we like it. T-shirts, jeans, hamburgers: Nobody imposes these things on us. We like them.” In contrast, countries such as France and West Germany spend a large part of their cultural budget producing films and T.V. programs that aspire to be “art.” Critic Jacques Barzun comments that this strategy has failed: “The French experience of 300 years is conclusive. In France, those who produced the works we admire today, had to survive as best they could, outside of officialdom and often in angry opposition to it. By contrast, the term ‘official art’ means art that is competent and safe.”
Furthermore, as any free-market advocate would be quick to point out, government projects naturally tend toward inefficiency and ineffectiveness. Thus any government-spon-sored program faces double the struggle that any private production would not only in becoming art, but in attaining popularity.
Perhaps one of the most ignored factors behind the attractiveness and quality of America’s cultural exports is that they are made in a free environment. Why would a creative Eastern European or Latin American risk producing a movie or album only to have it censored? Maybe one of the reasons literature flourishes in these two regions is because it is one of the few art forms that is a private accomplishment and can be easily hidden.
The perils of censorship of the arts are well illustrated by the history of the Mexican movie industry. Mexican film, according to journalist Alan Riding, experienced a golden era in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. This rise to prominence was recognized throughout Latin America and occurred because Hollywood movies became more concerned with propaganda and less with entertainment.
This gilded age ended in the ‘50s when the Mexican government bought out the nation’s largest studio, and eventually came to own most of the movie theaters and the Cinematographic Bank—which provides financing for most productions. Riding concludes that soon after, “The low quality of the movies exhibited in Mexico . . . reflected the government’s fear of political and moral subversion. Censorship remained tight, with only cheap and banal entertainment considered appropriate for the masses.” This situation has been altered only since 1970-1976 when the Mexican government eased control and allowed the production of a number of movies that were both critically . acclaimed and box-office hits.
Argentine films have been similarly transformed in recent years. As one observer notes, “every time a democratic government assumes power in Argentina, the number of films increases—greater freedom releases creative talent. Financial problems are overcome and international recognition follows,” as evi denced by the Oscar-winning The Official Story. Obviously, a foreign culture has a much better chance to dominate when local artists are inhibited.
While radio, T.V., and film are often railed against as instruments of American cultural imperialism, the vast majority of governments show little restraint in using the media to further their own interests. The Soviets encourage outer space exploration and development of Siberia through music and film. A song by one government-sanctioned rock group is entitled “I’11 Take You Away to the Tundra.” This strategy is shared by non-Marxist governments as well. One Mexican politico argues that popular culture should be used to contribute to stability by diverting attention from social problems: “It’s better to use tearjerkers than tear gas.”
Cultural Imperialism in Miami
One of the best environments to examine cultural imperialism lies not in Western Europe or the Third World but in Miami, Florida. Anglos and blacks in that city are tireless in voicing their objections to Hispanic cultural imperialism. As one bumper sticker states: “Will the Last American to Leave Miami Please Bring the Flag.” With 40 per cent of the city’s population Hispanic, non-Hispanics often feel like strangers in their own country. They point to Miami’s two Spanish-language newspapers, two television stations, six radio stations, and the political domination of Hispanics. They are especially incensed that Miami residents increasingly need to master two languages—an obstacle that has particularly hampered black employment opportunities. For instance, a recent discrimination complaint was filed by two Miami women who were refused jobs as cleaning women in a downtown office building because they couldn’t speak Spanish.
It is not difficult to relate to the problems of non-Hispanics in Miami. But a closer investigation yields a different conclusion on cultural imperialism in Miami. What is taking place in Southern Florida is a hybridization of Hispanic and non-Hispanic cultures: evidence that cultures are dynamic, making the history of cultures a history of evolution. Cultures are adaptive, and as the needs of a society change, the culture is altered.
The most conclusive evidence supporting this theory is the alacrity with which Cubans in Miami have accepted the American dream. With the help of Cuban-immigrant entrepreneurs, a dying pert and travel destination has once again become a boom town. Equally important, for better or worse, Hispanic lifestyles are mimicking their Anglo counterparts. The vast majority of Cubans in Florida have learned English, are relatively well-educated, and for those between the ages of 25 and 34, earn a higher median family income than their non-Hispanic white peers. Despite their staunch Catholicism, the Cuban divorce rate matches the U.S. national average and their birthrate falls just below the national average. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, approximately half of all Cuban women marry non-Hispanic men. Older Cubans resent the Americanization of the younger generation nearly as much as Anglos and blacks grumble about the Hispanic influence in Miami.
What all of this means is that America is as subject to foreign influences as other countries are. Americans do not suffer, but enjoy, Jamaican reggae, Chinese restaurants, and British comedy. As evidenced by the difficulties in Miami, hybridization of cultures is not always easy. But those who denounce America’s cultural imperialism should realize that closing a society is no solution to preventing outside in-fluences. The most insular societies have the least to offer culturally to the masses. Despite its claim to the world’s proletariat, it is ironic that the Soviet Union’s most vital cultural ex-port-ballet-has not been appreciated by the masses, but by the world’s elite.
A Classless Phenomenon
Strangely enough, popular culture, the child of capitalism, is a largely classless phenomenon. As Kurt Anderson astutely observes, “Unlike serious painting or dance or poetry, the appreciation of popular culture requires no tutelage or special sensibility, not even close attention. Florenz Ziegfeld and George Lucas create art that is one-size-fits-all. Except perhaps for Roman Catholicism, no other Western cultural genus has been as inclusive as modern pop, so truly classless.” Perhaps only Levi’s and Elvis Presley can fulfill the dream that Lenin and Marx desired. In contrast, with the exception of an occasional gymnast or trapeze artist, modern popular Soviet culture is a wasteland.
It is not surprising that the most open society on earth has the most attractive popular culture. Just as a protected market leads to less competition and fewer innovations, an open market—whether economic or cultural—is bound to be more dynamic. After all, capitalism is exceedingly efficient in giving society what it wants. No one is surprised to learn that New York City is more vigorous culturally than Moscow. What nationalistic elites must realize is that along with the good, an open society may be subject to some dislikable elements. But a closed society brings in nothing—it is dead.
Most of us would regret the homogenization and standardization of the world. After all, finding a McDonald’s in Katmandu would make that town a little less exotic and special. But who are we to tell them that they shouldn’t have a McDonald’s? Let their wallets decide.