How American Culture Ate the WorldHistorians in the News
tags: popular culture, cultural history, American imperialism
Dexter Fergie is a doctoral student in U.S. and global history at Northwestern University and an interviewer for the New Books Network.
In the mid-1990s, an American college student named Max Perelman was traveling through Sichuan, China, more than 1,500 miles from Beijing. While holed up in the southwestern province during the winter months, he encountered a group of Tibetan travelers heading to their capital, Lhasa. The group embraced the young American, sharing food from their rucksacks, perhaps over a fire or in a hostel. The Tibetans had apparently never traveled far from their village before nor had they seen technology like Perelman’s camera. Yet at some point in the conversation, one of the Tibetans turned to Perelman and asked: How is Michael Jordan doing?
That these Tibetan travelers in rural China not only knew about an American sports league but also followed one of its stars and his team—the “Red Oxen,” as the Chicago Bulls are known in Asia—reveals a defining feature of the contemporary international order: The rest of the world is glued to the United States. Foreigners follow American news stories like their own, listen to American pop music, and watch copious amounts of American television and film (in 2016, the six largest Hollywood studios alone accounted for more than half of global box office sales). Sometimes the attention cast toward American culture comes at the expense of foreigners knowing about their own countries. Canadians, a 2008 study found, tend to know more about American history than about their own national history.
But that’s only half the story. Americans, too, stick to the U.S. The list of the 500 highest-grossing films of all time in the U.S., for example, doesn’t contain a single foreign film (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon comes in at 505th, slightly higher than Jerry Seinfeld’s less-than-classic Bee Movie but about a hundred below Paul Blart: Mall Cop). Another measure of parochialism is the percentage of Americans who have a passport, a number that is drastically lower than in many other countries in the global north. Compared to 66 percent of Canadians and 76 percent of U.K. citizens, only about four in 10 Americans have a passport and can therefore travel abroad.
American parochialism can become American ignorance, a condition that has long frustrated geography teachers in the U.S. and delighted late-night talk show hosts. (Take a cringe-filled stroll through YouTube’s vast catalog of segments such as Jimmy Kimmel’s “Can You Name a Country?” in which several random passersby in Los Angeles fail to identify a single country on a world map.) But this lack of familiarity with the world beyond U.S. borders has also had dangerous consequences, for both the U.S. and the world. Ignorant of local condiations, American policymakers have made disastrous assumptions—the conflation of Al Qaeda with Saddam Hussein comes to mind—and leapt into war.
How did this happen? How did cultural globalization in the twentieth century travel along such a one-way path? And why is the U.S.—that globe-bestriding colossus with more than 700 overseas bases—so strangely isolated? The answer, Sam Lebovic’s new book, A Righteous Smokescreen: Postwar America and the Politics of Cultural Globalization, convincingly argues, largely comes down to American policy in the middle decades of the twentieth century.
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