In the years following the end of the Second World War, the United States controversially exported its pop culture around the world. The “American Dream” sold well. Perhaps it was just that — a dream, a fantasy, but it had its appeal and people wanted a taste of it. It was youthful, unorthodox and dynamic. People from Japan to Germany to Australia to Taiwan wanted to drink Coca Cola, they wanted to watch American films, to listen to American pop music, to watch American films. Although, myself, a defender of British (Commonwealth) and European traditions, I appreciate the appeal of the American.
The United States held a certain appeal. Americans never quite managed to develop culture to the same extent that others have. Sometimes, this is simply a result of the USA’s relative youth. Italy, Portugal, Germany… Countries with long, complex and rich histories and cultural legacies to which the USA simply cannot be compared. At the same time, the United States didn’t have their historical baggage, either. I would compare the USA and Russia — but that would be even more extreme. Russia has a cultural depth, a profundity which the USA doesn’t deserve to stand in the shadow of. At the same time, Russia has baggage that a worse enemy could scarcely be cursed to bear the half of.
The USA never had the same artistic heritage, so Americans bought up masterpieces from around the world and housed them in some of the world’s greatest, most innovative museums. The USA did not produce classical musicians of the same calibre as Germany, Russia or Italy — so it hired them. American artisans couldn’t compete with European artisans, so the Americans simply gave them visas and lucrative contracts. San Francisco, San Diego and Santa Barbara benefited tremendously from this. Some of the most iconic pieces of American numismatic history — the Barber coins, the Morgan dollar, Saint-Gaudens’s series of gold coins and the Peace dollar — were designed by Europeans. Barber, Morgan and Saint-Gaudens were from the United Kingdom. Anthony de Francisci was from Italy.
The United States didn’t have a classical tradition of its own, but it had a freshness that Europe did not. There has never been an American Bach, but Gershwin was absolutely brilliant. There has never been an American Shakespeare, but Tennessee Williams wrote absolutely brilliant plays. No American city could compete with the complexity of a Rome, the elegance of a Paris, the grandeur of a London or even the faded glory of a Lübeck. Yet… The United States had the chaotic brilliance of New York City, the contrarian charm of San Francisco, the hellish dream-scape of Los Angeles, the languid splendour of New Orleans and Savannah… At one time, the United States offered that with the added benefit of superior infrastructure.
For its faults and shortcomings, the Americans had something to offer, something new. They could be difficult, overbearing — but they could offer opportunities and they could be excellent. After all, the United States could afford to take chances, the United States could afford to buy that which it lacked. The world’s great musicians and actors “wanted” to perform in New York City, in Chicago, in Boston… The worlds’s great film stars “wanted” to get roles in Hollywood. If you were a young German engineer, a young Italian artisan, a young French musician, a Shakespearean-trained English actor, you could do infinitely worse than in the United States.
That has all somewhat changed. The United States has become the centre of a toxic woke culture that is tearing apart the fabric of much of the world. There are countries like South Africa where the desperate need for cultural and social openness has been undermined by the USA’s exported woke culture. Countries like the United Kingdom, like Australia, like New Zealand, like Ireland, like Canada are suffering severe negative consequences. Much like South Africa, their unique sets of historical circumstances are ignored and an ideology based on a warped assessment of the USA’s set of historical circumstances is imposed. Whatever failures the Old Realms had, they did not have the USA’s history of slavery and segregation. South Africa has its share of historical horrors, but it is not the United States and it cannot be treated as such. Much like the United States has long struggled to advance and improve, South Africa needs to do so as well — but it has to find its own path, its own modes.
As I watch the US fall apart around me in my final months here, I hope that we can collectively snap out of it and move past it. If the USA is determined to implode, then it will implode but we don’t need to follow it down the drain.
6 thoughts on “Woke up?”
Hello Christopher. Another enjoyable read. I may have mentioned this to you before, but you might find this an interesting read; I certainly did. It is available as a free download on http://www.archive.org
Mrs Trollope had a very dim of view of Americans as she found them to be in 1830. It is a view that I think was shared by Charles Dickens judging by what he had to say in Martin Chuzzlewit, though that was written 10 years later.
I also read http://www.takimag.com. It provides an alternative view of American culture that you wont find in the MSM.
Don’t get me wrong, there is much I like and admire about America and Americans, but I also believe there to be a great deal of national self delusion. In any event, the prognosis for the country does not look terribly rosy. But nor does it look too good for any western country right now, the UK in particular.
Sipu: I adore the USA for what it has sometimes been, for what it could be. There is something about a country that, save for its historically oppressed indigenous peoples and African-American population, has no truly unique culture of its own. Country music is largely of Ulster Scots origin. Cowboy culture is based on Spanish and Hispano-Mexican traditions that predate Anglo-American expansion in the US West. Yet… For all that, they did much to save things that were at risk of destruction. For example, at the California Palace of the Legion of Honour there are rooms taken from Parisian salons of the ancien regime and a wooden ceiling from a mediaeval Spanish castle. A wealthy Boston woman fell in love with Italy and had an entire Venetian palazzo exported to her native Massachusetts.
The USA can be a surprising country. For example, there is a former church in Minneapolis-St Paul that is now one of the few museums in North America dedicated to the art and culture of the former Russian Empire and USSR. In the same city, there is a museum dedicated to the lives and culture of Swedish immigrants to the region. The Minneapolis Institute of Art has a surprisingly good, diverse collection. You would expect that in San Francisco, Boston or even Atlanta — large cities, but not on the same scale as Los Angeles, New York or Chicago — but not in a middling urban centre in a middling state in the middle of nowhere. There are places sprinkled throughout the country — Butte (Montana), Durango (Colorado), Volcano (California), Hilo (Hawai’i), Virginia City (Nevada), etc. that aren’t particularly large now, but possess surprising grandeur. You can be in a town with a few hundred people but you can find some impressive houses, streets and museums.
This can, of course, be seen as products of the rapid rise and fall of so many places in the United States. Volcano was once, briefly, California’s largest city. Now, it’s a tiny hamlet. Butte was the world’s wealthiest hill, Virginia City was at the centre of the Comstock Lode. These areas emerged almost overnight, blossomed with blinding speed and declined just as quickly. I could very happily live in Hilo. It’s no longer the plantation centre it once was, but it’s a pleasant place surrounded by incredible beauty.
There isn’t much national self-delusion left in the US. It is, in fact, almost depressing. The USA has lost its confident swagger. Some 88% of Americans think their country is falling off a steep cliff. The country, the people are riddled with self-doubt and worry. I have acquaintances in New York. Once was born and raised in NYC. Another lived in NYC for the better part of 50 years before moving to a rural town only an hour or two away. Both have told me that it’s not what it used to be. Even the 1970s-’80s with their crime and squalor were better. Now, it’s just a bland, conformist and dreary shell of what it once was. San Francisco has become unlivable. I used to love going there. Now, I travel through as quickly as possible when flying into and out of California.
Just a different ‘slant’ on the export of U.S. culture post-war…
My father (and many people of his generation) had already imported U.S. musicians, like Bing Crosby, and were more than happy to lap up films (like the Road to series) that came out of Hollywood post-war.
And you really must remember that the only films that were available immediate post-war and for some long time thereafter – were American films. There were no other choices!
And the whole world wanted to brighten its life up – and the U.S. exports of weird drinks (Coca Cola); odd food (popcorn and pork scratchings) and a glimpse of a brighter way of life certainly lightened up the life of people who were still surrounded by bomb-sites and daily reminders of the war that had swept through their countries. Bomb-sites were still being cleared in London in the 1950s.
… and, again, I have to say that America’s export of its lifestyle was the only one on offer.
And then came Presley, etc. It was, as you say ‘youthful, unorthodox and dynamic’. But it was also the only alternative around for people like me – who found Bing Crosby and his pals incredibly boring… and out of touch with where we wanted to be – and as an additional bonus – my father hated it!
I never thought I was embracing American culture and I’m quite sure that very few of my generation did – we liked the sound, but didn’t care whether it was from the U.S., eventually home-grown or later from somewhere else…
… but we were quite appalled in the 60s to learn that the Self-Proclaimed Defender of Freedom and Democracy didn’t allow some of its citizens to vote – or travel freely on its public transport. America lost a lot of its ‘gloss’ then…
The U.S. is now, as far as I’m concerned, overcompensating for it’s discriminatory past – I just don’t know why the rest of the Western World has followed suit.
It doesn’t surprise me one bit that America is losing its confident swagger – it’s actually about time it did, it’s time it took a long and hard look at itself and asked the hard question of whether it is living up to the image it likes to portray itself as being.
Many years ago I went to Disney in Orlando… It was an incredible experience where I so lost touch with reality that I exclaimed on coming out that the moon in the sky really looked like the moon…
… it took me a few seconds (or probably shorter!) to understand that I was looking at the ‘real’ moon.
Why do I mention this? Quite simply, because as a historian I was appalled at how history was presented to the American people in that theme park – and having talked to a number of Americans (outside of America) many know that.
Disney’s interpretation of history was that every single invention, every single ‘good’ thing of historical importance anywhere in the world started in the U.S. after 1776. So yes, Sipu, I think you’re right – U.S. self-delusion is a big problem and is compounded by places like Disney who only try to reinforce the self-delusion.
The U.S. certainly needs to re-evaluate it self – every country has to do that at some point. I hope that, in the end, the common-sense people of the U.S. (wherever they are hiding!) manage to do that.
Boadicea: Fair points all. This is, perhaps, where the Continent and Commonwealth diverge. Thinking about the culture of the 1920s-’40s… I think of Lale Andersen, Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, Trio Lescano, Silvana Fioresi and Django Reinhardt. In the Post-War Era, there were the likes of Corrie Brokken, Jacques Brel, Georges Bresson, Siw Malmkvist, Alice Babs, Jacqueline Boyer, etc. There were the pre-1932 films of Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg… Language was a barrier, but it also allowed for greater cultural distinction. Because most couldn’t understand American films or music, the appeal it held was more muted. I am also somewhat familiar with Showa-era Japanese and 1930s Chinese film and music.
American jazz was very popular in Europe as well. American stars like Billie Holliday and Louis Armstrong performed to sold-out audiences. Even Maria Callas was born in New York. American writers like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and Mark Twain have long travelled/lived in Europe. Of course, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows were wildly popular in 19th century Europe as well. There was the constant flow back and forth across the Atlantic. Americans appreciated Europe’s traditions and culture, Europeans appreciated the quality of the USA’s output. You are correct that after the Second World War, the USA was really the only option. Everyone else was bombed. Then again, I give Kurosawa Akira credit. He and the actors who worked with him were willing to perform in a bombed-out Japan whilst suffering from hunger.
I don’t take issue with the US looking at its history critically. I have spent a lot of time learning about the history of my father’s native California. There is much good, but there is a lot of bad. I don’t like the toxic, destructive desire to overcompensate at the expense of recognising the full humanity of all involved in history. To their credit, there have always been Americans willing to question things. Mark Twain was frank in his assessments of his country’s failures. He might have enjoyed ribbing Europeans, but he did not spare his fellow Americans. Women writers could and did challenge the double standards they faced, people from visible minority backgrounds could and would write challenges that were often well received.
Not having watched much of the Commonwealth Games held recently in Birmingham, I was nevertheless interested to look at the medals table. There I found the names of countries I never knew belonged to the Commonwealth. Apparently quite a few states have joined the Commonwealth, despite never having suffered the dreadful colonisation by the UK. Odd! The Commonwealth must have something going for it. But given all the leaders of states, Chinese cash jingling in their pockets, who have decided to leave the organisation without actually consulting their electorates, I wondered what their athletes are going to do when they are no longer eligible to compete in Commonwealth games. If they had any sense they might lead a revolution, javelin throwers in the lead, to get rid of their corrupt politicians. I think of the ghastly “Dr Shola” – a PhD I presume since I’d hate to find her at my hospital bedside – who spends her time criticising the UK, the royal family and colonisation. She doesn’t look at her own awful country of Nigeria which seems to be in the process of falling to bits. Will the Fulani start selling the Yoruba into slavery again? There are still enough Arab/Muslim traders around to make it a paying proposition, I expect.
Sheona: I’ve long been a staunch critic of post-colonial theory. I fully agree that imperialism can be seen in many different ways and that the way a former colony might look back at the experience would differ from the former colonial power. That is, the way that Danes might perceive the history of the former Danish Virgin Islands would probably be far more romantic than the way that the descendants of their slaves would. You can see similar examples in the United States. Few African-Americans consider(ed) the Antebellum South to be particularly romantic or genteel, many in the South did. In truth, many continue to do so. Likewise, few indigenous people in the Western US think that the “Old West” was a particularly bright time. For many others, it was a golden age. Of course, when studying periods of time in which people from different countries, different backgrounds interacted as many viewpoints as possible should be introduced without a heavy-handed meta-narrative. History is the sum total of human experience.
Post-colonial theory is used to bludgeon the West on one hand and excuse even the worst corruption, brutality and inhumanity on the part of former colonies. Ian Douglas Smith was a deeply flawed man and he did some things that leave much to be desired, but compared to Robert Mugabe, he looks like a shining light of moderation and gentleness. Rhodesia could be oppressive, but so could/can Zimbabwe and Smith did not perpetuate a genocide like Mugabe did. The partition of India was chaotic and the way the British drew the border was, indeed, a mess. At the same time, Jinnah’s side were not going to be part of a united, independent India. Neither Nehru nor Jinnah were willing to cede an inch. The only point of agreement was that the Raj had to end on the agreed upon date. The British were given no choice but to draw a border with a mere weeks to go. Efforts were made at making them fair, but there was a sense that it was all very silly. It was not, however, done maliciously and the most enduring dispute — that over Kashmir — is a direct result of Nehru’s capriciousness.
When the British, French, Dutch, Spaniards, etc. arrived they did not find Arcadia. They found deeply flawed societies, many already declining. The great Mughal Empire entered into decline because Aurangzeb waged wars that bankrupted the treasury, decimated the military and only resulted in very tenuous victories. The old order in Hawai’i and Australia was already on the brink of collapse. The Dutch could be vicious, but they were no more so than the Javanese and their status as neutral outsiders was preferable to non-Javanese. The Aztec Empire was hardly peaceful and gentle. Someone like that Shola creature finds it easier to blame everything on Britain than to accept that Nigeria failed. There were many problems with colonial rule, but colonial rule was rarely worse than what preceded it and wasn’t always worse than what succeeded it.