Globalization as Americanaization

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IOSR Journal of Applied Physics (IOSR-JAP)
e-ISSN: 2278-4861. Volume 5, Issue 2 (Nov. – Dec. 2013), PP 19-24
www.iosrjournals.org
Globalization as Americanization? Beyond the Conspiracy
Theory
Dr. Wassim Daghrir, the University of Sousse, Tunisia
I.
Introduction
Globalization and its major engines (growing human capital, free markets, increasing cross-border
interaction) have created a new world order that has incited passionate debate, pro and con. In recent culture
studies, one of the foremost explorations concerns the influence globalization has upon culture. In fact, one of
the most common criticisms we hear about the globalization of today?s world is that it is producing mainly one
culture, it is destroying diversity, and it is bringing everyone into the same global culture. Actually, much of the
sociological hype about cultural globalization, defined as the diffusion of cultural values and ideas across
national borders, sees it as synonymous with homogenization. Cultural globalization is, thus, one of the major
concerns of academics, journalists, political activists and leaders of “cultural preservation” movements who
despise what they see as the trend toward cultural uniformity. They usually regard global culture and American
culture as synonymous and, thus, express serious concerns about their cultural distinctiveness.
The United States dominates the current global traffic in information and ideas. American music,
American movies, American television, and American software are so dominant, so sought after, and so visible
that they are now available literally everywhere on Earth. They influence the tastes, lives, and aspirations of
virtually every nation. But how “American” is American culture? Has not the US been as much a consumer of
foreign cultural influences as it has been a shaper of the world?s entertainment and taste? Has not the US been a
recipient as much as an exporter of global culture?
The impact of globalization on culture and the impact of culture on globalization deserve discussion.
Therefore, this article tries to assess the global impact of American culture. It addresses the following issues:
How “American” is globalization? How real is the Americanization of global culture? And, most importantly,
has the American mass culture transformed the world into a replica of the US or has America?s dependence on
foreign cultures made the US a duplication of the world?
II.
Homogenized Culture: “The Americanized Village”
A. Americanization: How are we being Americanized?
With the development of the satellite dish and more recently, the Internet, distance no longer seems a
limiting factor for the flow of culture. Common global norms about conduct, consumption standards and cultural
practices are spreading everywhere. This globalized package has been challenged by several intellectuals who
despise what they see as the trend toward cultural uniformity. They regard global culture and American culture
as one and the same. In fact, in the dark shadow of globalization, the most widely held description of culture is
that of homogenization; the convergence toward a common set of cultural traits and practices. Those who
consider culture to be persistently directed toward homogenization hold the belief that the so-called global
culture follows the global economy, and this has led to such phrases as “Coca-colonization” and
“McDonaldization”. The notion of “McDonaldization” refers to the worldwide homogenization of societies
through the impact of multinational corporations. McDonaldization is viewed as Americanization of the entire
globe.1 Essentially, uncomfortable with the global impact of American culture, critics insist that Hollywood,
McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Coca-Cola, Nike, Levis, Disneyland and, more recently, Yahoo!,
Microsoft, Google, and Motorola are eradicating regional and local eccentricities.
Anti-globalism activists often depict the McDonald’s, Disney, and Coca-Cola corporations as agents of
globalism or cultural imperialism. According to this view of world power the control of culture is seen as far
more important than the control of political and geographic borders. Due to the perceived threat of
Americanization and that of the transnational corporation, fears exist that a homogenization will wipe out
national distinctiveness. Accordingly, Europeans, Latin Americans, and Arabs, left-wingers and right dread that
local cultures and national identities are dissolving into an unsound American consumerism. These critics
maintain that globalization is nothing more than the imposition of American culture on the entire world.
The argument that globalization is destroying culture comes from people across the political spectrum,
liberals and conservatives. Even globalization supporters like Thomas Friedman see it. Friedman, a famous
1
www.globalization.about.com.
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Globalization as Americanization? Beyond the Conspiracy Theory
columnist for The New York Times, believes that globalization is “globalizing American culture and American
cultural icons”.2 In a post-9/11 column explaining why terrorists hate the United States, Friedman put it thus:
Globalization has a distinctly American face: It wears Mickey Mouse
ears, it eats Big Macs, it drinks Coke or Pepsi and it does its computing
on an IBM or Apple laptop, using Windows 98[…]. In most societies,
people cannot distinguish any more between American power, American
exports, American cultural assaults, American cultural exports and
plain vanilla globalization. They are now all wrapped into one. Many
societies around the world can’t get enough of it, but others see it as a
fundamental threat.3
In May 2000, Le Monde Diplomatique described the new face of “US Imperialism” as follows:
US hegemony also embraces culture and ideology. […] Its mastery
extends to the symbolic level, lending it what Max Weber calls
“charismatic domination”. […] Wielding the might of information and
technology, the US thus establishes, with the passive complicity of the
people it dominates, what may be seen as “affable oppression” or
“delightful despotism”. And this is all the more effective as its control of
the culture industries lets it capture our imagination. […] The American
empire has become a master of symbols and seduction. Offering
unlimited leisure and endless distraction, its hypnotic charm enters our
minds and installs ideas that were not ours. America no longer seeks our
submission by force, but by incantation. It has no need to issue orders,
for we have given our consent. No need for threats, as it bets on our
thirst for pleasure.4
America’s primacy is hardly surprising. Superpowers have, throughout the ages, sought to perpetuate
their way of life: from the philosophy and mythology of the Greeks to the law and language of the Romans;
from the art and architecture of the Renaissance Italy, to the sports and systems of government of the British.
“Most empires think their own point of view is the only correct point of view,” says Robert Young, an expert in
postcolonial cultural theory at Oxford University. “It’s the certainty they get because of the power they have, and
they expect to impose it on everyone else”. 5 So, as the unrivaled global superpower, America exports its culture
on an unprecedented scale. From music to media, film to fast food, language to literature and sport, the
American idea is spreading inevitably, not unlike the influence of empires that preceded it. The difference is that
today’s technology flings culture to every corner of the globe with blinding speed and, thus, in a far more
efficient way.
B. The Rise of cultural preservation movements
Concerns that local cultural and national identities are dissolving into a cross-cultural American
consumerism are widespread. In fact, a large number of international voices has joined in denunciations of the
American culture; a culture that they charge is pushing out all others and taking over the world. They lament the
loss of local language, local habits, and local social life in the global rush to be just like the United States.
Fearing globalization and cultural imperialism, many countries have created protectionist policies to
maintain control over local cultural content and to foster a type of “nationalism” among their own entertainment
producers. French producer Martin Karmitz noted that “sound and pictures have always been used for
propaganda, and the real battle at the moment is over who is going to be allowed to control the world?s images,
and so sell a certain lifestyle, a certain culture, certain products, certain ideas”. 6 Many nations, mainly in
Europe, having concluded that their native producers face an uphill struggle, now subsidize filmmaking, and
many place quotas on the importation of foreign films, especially American ones.
It is France that provides the most revealing case of cultural protectionism. France has not only built a
bureaucratic barrier against American culture, it has constructed a notorious intellectual case against it as well.
For the French cultural and intellectual elite the issue is not just a matter of who watches which films, but rather
2
Cited in Philippe Legrain, “Cultural Globalization Is Not Americanization”, op.cit, p.1.
Thomas Friedman, “Commentary: Why Those Angry Men Want to Kill America”, The New York Times, Aug. 25, 1998, p. 7.
Ignacio Ramonet, “The Control of Pleasure”, Le Monde Diplomatique, May 2000, pp.8-9.
5
Cited in Mark Rice-Oxley, “In 2,000 Years, Will the World Remember Disney or Plato?”, Christian Science Monitor, January 15, 2004, p.
8.
6
Cited in Johanna Blakley, “Entertainment Goes Global: Mass Culture in a Transforming World”, The Norman Lear Center Publications,
January 2001, p. 13.
3
4
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Globalization as Americanization? Beyond the Conspiracy Theory
it is that Hollywood is a Trojan horse bringing with it Disneyland Paris, fast-food chains and free advertising for
American products from clothes to rock music. In Les cartes de la France à l’heure de la mondialisation
(“France’s Assets in the Era of Globalization”), former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine denounced the
United States as a “hyperpower” that promotes “uniformity” and “unilateralism.” Speaking for the French
intelligentsia, he argued that France should take the lead in building a “multipolar world”. 7 France’s
commitment to film protectionism became an international issue in the spring of 1994, during the General
Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) talks. The world’s leading trading nations negotiated widespread tariff
reductions on goods and services. American negotiators promised to remove many trade barriers against
European goods, but they asked in return that the Europeans -especially the French- extend impartial treatment
to American movies and remove the special taxes and quotas. The French refused. Indeed, keeping out
American films became one of the most important French national policies. The well-known French filmdirector Claude Berri reflected a popular attitude when he warned that “if the GATT deal goes through as
proposed, European culture is finished”.8 The French government even promised to veto any GATT agreement
that did not preserve its protectionist policies toward the film industry. Despite the protestations of Hollywood,
the Americans backed down and acceded to the wishes of the French government. After the French won the
GATT battle, French director Jean Jacques Annaud claimed, “We removed the threat that European culture
would be completely eliminated”.9
In a certain sense, the present human world is more tightly integrated than at any earlier point in
history. In the age of the satellite dish, the age of global capitalism, the age of omnipresent markets and global
mass media, various commentators have claimed that the world is rapidly becoming a single place. Although
this slightly exaggerated description has an important point to make, a perhaps even more striking aspect of the
post-Cold War world is the emergence of identity politics whose explicit aim is the restoration of rooted
tradition, religious fervor and/or commitment to ethnic or national identities. For a variety of reasons, then,
globalization creates the conditions for localization, that is various kinds of attempts at creating bounded entities
-countries (nationalism or separatism), faith systems (religious revitalization), cultures (linguistic or cultural
movements) or interest groups (ethnicity).
III.
How “American” is American Culture?
A. The Cosmopolitan nature of American culture
The cosmopolitan nature of American culture explains its universal appeal. In fact, Globalization is not
a one-way street. The cultural relationship between the United States and the rest of the world has not been onesided. On the contrary, the United States was, and continues to be, as much a consumer of foreign intellectual
and artistic influences as it has been a shaper of the world’s entertainment and lifestyles. As a nation of
immigrants, the United States has been a recipient as much as an exporter of global culture. Indeed, the
influence of immigrants on the United States explains why its culture has been so popular for so long in so many
places. American culture has spread throughout the world because it has incorporated foreign styles and ideas.
What Americans have done brilliantly is repackaging the cultural products they receive from abroad and then
retransmitting them to the rest of the planet. That is why a global mass culture has come to be identified,
perhaps simplistically, with the United States.10
So, it is most likely a myth that globalization involves the imposition of Americanized uniformity,
rather than an explosion of cultural exchange. Americans, after all, did not invent fast food, amusement parks, or
cinema. Before the Big Mac, there were fish and chips. Before Disneyland, there was Copenhagen’s Tivoli
Gardens (which Walt Disney used as a prototype for his first theme park in Anaheim, California). And in the
first two decades of the 20th century, the two largest exporters of movies around the world were France and
Italy.11 Many other representative “American” products are not as all-American as they seem. Levi Strauss, a
German immigrant, invented jeans by combining denim cloth (or “serge de Nîmes,” because it was traditionally
woven in the French town) with Genes, a style of trousers worn by Genoese sailors. So Levi’s jeans are in fact
an American twist on a European hybrid.12
What?s more, even quintessential American exports are often customized to local tastes and have thus
conformed to local cultures. MTV in Asia promotes Thai pop stars and plays rock music sung in Mandarin.
CNN en Español offers a Latin American take on world news. McDonalds also commonly alters its regional
menus to conform to local tastes. McDonalds in Egypt, for example, serve a McFelafel. Indian McDonalds don?t
serve beef at all. And some French McDonalds serve rabbit.
7
Hubert Védrine, Les cartes de la France à l’heure de la mondialisation (Paris: Editions Fayard, 2000).
Cited in Tyler Cowen, “French Kiss-Off: How protectionism has hurt French films”, Reason Magazine, July 1998, p. 10.
9
Ibid, p. 10.
10
Richard Pell, “American Culture Goes Global, or Does It?”, The Chronicle Review, April 12, 2002, p. 14.
11
Ibid, p. 14.
12
Ibid, p. 14.
8
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Globalization as Americanization? Beyond the Conspiracy Theory
American culture is an amalgam of influences and approaches from around the world. It is melded into
a social medium that allows individual freedoms and cultures to thrive. In effect, one important way that the
American media have succeeded in transcending internal social divisions, national borders, language barriers,
and distinctive cultures is by mixing up cultural styles. Given the U.S. demographic makeup, it comes as no
surprise that the country has been very receptive to external cultural influences, which have, then, become
incorporated into the fabric of U.S. culture. The contributions of various foreign cultures have often mixed to
create powerful hybrids. U.S. popular culture evolves constantly, fermenting new forms and expressions. So a
key factor behind the universal attractiveness of American culture concerns the international features of the
American audience. The heterogeneity of America’s population -its regional, ethnic, religious, and racial
diversity -forced the media, from the early years of the 20th century, to experiment with messages, images, and
story lines that had a broad multicultural appeal. The Hollywood studios, mass-circulation magazines, and the
television networks have had to learn how to speak to a variety of groups and classes at home. This has given
them the techniques to appeal to an equally diverse audience abroad. For instance, an art form as essentially
American as Jazz evolved during the 20th century into an amalgam of African, Caribbean, Latin American, and
modernist European music. This blending of forms in America’s mass culture has enhanced its appeal to
multiethnic domestic and international audiences by capturing their different experiences and tastes.
Nowhere are foreign influences more clearly identifiable than in the American movie industry.
Hollywood became, in the 20th century, the cultural capital of the modern world. But it was never an exclusively
American capital. Like past cultural centers (Florence, Paris, Vienna), Hollywood has functioned as an
international community drawing on the talents of actors, directors, writers, cinematographers, editors,
composers, and costume and set designers from all over the world. Ever since Charlie Chaplin crossed over
from Britain, foreigners have flocked to California to try to become global stars: Just look at Penelope Cruz,
Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Ewan McGregor.13 Top directors are also often from outside America: Think of
Ridley Scott or the late Stanley Kubrick. Some studios are foreign-owned: Japan’s Sony owns Columbia
Pictures, Vivendi Universal is French. Two of AOL Time Warner’s biggest recent hit franchises, Harry Potter
and The Lord of the Rings, are both based on British books, have largely British casts, and, in the case of The
Lord of the Rings, a Kiwi director.14 To some extent, then, Hollywood approaches film making as a
cosmopolitan art that transcends national boundaries.
B. Additional Reasons for the ascendancy of American culture
In addition to the key features of American culture dealt with above (multiculturalism, the broad
multicultural appeal, the heterogeneity of America?s population, and the international complexion of American
audience), there are further reasons for the ascendancy of American mass culture. U.S. firms have always
enjoyed a comparative advantage in the global media and popular culture industries because of a huge domestic
market that offers economies of scale, ensuring that cultural exports can be sold at rates well below the cost of
production for smaller nations. U.S. firms also have the advantage of profiting from cultural exchange programs
that bring large numbers of foreign students, academics, and other professionals to the United States who
continue to consume U.S. cultural products when they return home.
The U.S. government has also played an important role in promoting cultural exports, not only as a
source of export income but also as a means of exporting beliefs, values, and practices that inherently favor
U.S.-based corporate capitalism. The U.S. government backs its film and television industries whenever foreign
governments try to restrain the flow of U.S. audiovisual products abroad. It has contributed enormously to the
development of communications infrastructures, such as satellites. The United States also uses di …
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