The fact that there are few places left on earth to which one can travel and encounter unfamiliarity with at least some aspect of life in this globe-spanning Goliath has been used to argue that America finds itself in possession of history’s first universal culture. Even during the preceding three centuries, when European literature, art and architecture reigned supreme, its influence was largely confined to other Europeans. Years after the Bolshevik Revolution, for example, the sway of the radiant new Soviet culture still ended abruptly at its military borders.
American culture, however, has known few such limits. What makes the worldwide unfurling of American culture so unique is that it is propelled by pull, not push. Contrary to popular belief, the spread of American civilization is not an indication of tyrannical globalization but rather a manifestation of increasing worldwide liberalization and choice in the 21st century. And choice, in almost any form, is a good thing.
“Every disgusting McDonald’s takes the place of a Russian restaurant, and soon everything will be fast food,” lamented a friend in Moscow. “That is globalization.” At the same time, he was at a loss to explain why so many McDonald’s restaurants seemed to exist there, beyond the fact that many Russians simply like it. After all, the restaurants were opened by Russians for Russians. In the new Russia, consumers determine which restaurants shall open and which shall close.
Every American knows that should your Epicurean preference disfavor McDonald’s, you need only stroll down the block to find Mexican burritos, Japanese sashimi, Thai noodles and Russian piroshki. Far from imposing cultural homogenization, openness has provided us with a gastronomic diversity beyond the dreams of Roman emperors. Instead, it is in those places where globalization has made the least headway that you find menus limited to the same traditional dishes people have eaten for generations.
Our nation demonstrates that the free flow of art, music, literature, food and ideas across borders serves to enrich and inspire cultural wealth, not diminish or displace it. Will anyone argue that America is lessened as a result of our admiration for Greek architecture, Asian martial arts or great works of European literature? You can’t compel someone to like or dislike something, for all the commissars in the world couldn’t have discouraged Soviet youths from yearning for Levi’s and jazz music.
The notion that imported elements of American life supplant local ones is mythical, based on paranoiac fears of cultural steamrolling and a misunderstanding of culture’s true depth. Slices of America arrive by way of seduction, not coercion. It is not the 82nd Airborne Division that forces restaurateurs to open our chains, cinemas to show our movies or hip youngsters to purchase Britney albums, but the freely elected preferences of foreign consumers.
Hollywood blockbusters, MTV and J.Lo are commodities, designed to appeal to the broadest possible swath of humankind. This leads their content to hone in on those desires, tastes, fears, emotions and impulses that are common to all, whether in Tokyo, Berlin or Rio de Janeiro. Unfortunately, this often leaves foreigners with an inaccurate and crude caricature of debased American cultural life, ignoring the fact that we also have our Guggenheims, Metropolitan Operas and Nobel laureate novelists to satisfy those subscribing to higher aesthetic standards.
How grating it is when Middle Easterners demand our material prosperity and technology for themselves, while in the same breath denouncing the decadence they see in our bare midriffs, gender equality and tolerance of homosexuals, without grasping that all are the indispensable fruits of a free society. An unruly America has invented “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and Black Sabbath just as surely as it has automobiles, airplanes, personal computers, the Internet and cell phones.
Even when it seems our cultural products aren’t welcome in some precincts, you can be sure our medical breakthroughs or scientific knowledge are, which are just as valuable in Santa Barbara as they are in Paris, Cairo or Bangkok. America continues to offer the world a big menu of new choices, and most of the world is delighted to partake.
Daily Nexus columnist Joey Tartakovsky enjoys eating piroshki while listening to Black Sabbath.