Not long after the end of World War II there emerged a global popular culture with unmistakably American features. It roughly coincided with a global youth culture. Its basic language was English, American English at that, and its vocabulary (often strangely garbled) infiltrated the indigenous languages. Its denizens exhibited the same (loosely hanging) gait and wore the same clothes (jeans, originally derived from the dress of American farmers), baseball caps (the favorite headgear of the American working class), sneakers. The sound track, inevitably, was rock music, and the rock concert was the favorite collective ritual. With all this went a sort of post-Protestant ethic—sexually liberated, tolerance its major virtue, an informal, relaxed style its self-confident behavioral code. A few years ago I had an interesting conversation with the teenage daughter of a colleague. She kept saying that a person was or was not “cool.” I asked her to describe just what this adjective meant. She did a remarkable job of explaining it (she was not only a very intelligent young woman, but the daughter of a sociologist to boot). You can meet a young man in Singapore wearing a t-shirt inscribed “Hard-Rock Café”—when asked if he knew the address of this café in Singapore, he shrugged and said “It is everywhere.” Young people in Africa wear t-shirts with the names of American elite universities—places they could never get into, and which they could not locate on a map. The imagination of the world is still American.
Will it continue so? The global popular culture (the political theorist Benjamin Barber called it “McWorld”) coincided with the rise of American imperial power. Will its American flavor survive the end of that power? Hard to say. Who or what would succeed it? It’s hard to imagine kids in Singapore or in Soweto finding Chinese or Russian words “cool.” Yet the moment may be close. Perhaps it already happened, when Barack Obama did nothing after the Damascus regime used poison gas in Syria—and the United States handed the issue to Russia (“over to you, Vladimir”). We shall see.
In the meantime, it is useful to recognize that popular culture is not the only American cultural influence in the world. On a different level of sophistication there is what Samuel Huntington called the culture of “Davos man”—an international elite meeting annually in a Swiss mountain resort. I once lectured (I think it was on the nature of modernization) to an international meeting of associates of the McKinsey consulting firm. Here was a large group of highly intelligent people, coming from all parts of the world, their skin the color of all available shades on the spectrum. Of course they conversed in excellent American-accented English. I was impressed by the fact that they all laughed at the same jokes—including some by Woody Allen, whose humor is distinctively New York Jewish—what does it take to socialize individuals from Singapore to laugh at these jokes!
There are other international networks of still-noticeable American provenance. Declining world power or not, the United States still has a military vastly more powerful than that of any other state. The entire world is divided up by U.S. military “commands,” large or small—I assume that Antarctica is assigned to a “command,” perhaps a couple of guys sitting in an igloo somewhere on the vast Antarctic continent. If suspicious air activity is detected in the area, the Pentagon will call the igloo and a search party (from Australia?) will be dispatched to find out what’s going on. The Antarctic Command will have enough seminars and joint exercises to create a channel of American cultural influence. What jokes do the guys in the igloo tell each other? If one talks about American influences, which America is he talking about? The question is not new. When the Soviet empire collapsed in Eastern Europe, two variants of American influence swept across the region—one semi-official, supported by the State Department and featuring matters such as human rights, democracy, religious freedom, and other elements of American ideology. The other variant peddled influences from the counterculture, often leftist in political content, and hard to reconcile with the American narrative of the Voice of America.
One cultural influence that I find very interesting is the export of American victimology. Looked at historically, this ethos puts in question an important American value—that of defining oneself as coping with whatever afflictions life throws one’s way, not of defining oneself as a victim. The old value, if anywhere, survives in Texas: I remember a road sign—“If you want a Texan to do something, tell him that it cannot be done.” The Civil Rights Movement has become the icon of non-violent protest and the strongest claimant to officially certified victim status—justly so, as black slavery and its aftermath can be plausibly described as the worst crime of American history. But as legislation and public policy provided tangible benefits for being certified as a victim—“affirmative action” in all its forms—others, many with less historical justification, climbed aboard the victimology bus—women, Latinos, Native Americans, gays (lately the “LGBT community”). And now the populist movement exploding on both sides of the Atlantic is defining the white working class as victims—made such by the ruling class, by capitalism, by the cultural elite if not by the very groups previously accorded victim status—racial minorities, immigrants, and so on. Curiously, even in the previous victim groups there has been a rebellion against the non-violent, “vanilla,” well-behaved form of social protests—think “black power,” “gangsta rap.” We have exported our culture wars, with some confusing consequences.
In the January-February issue of Society, the social science journal edited by Jonathan Imber at Wellesley College, there is an interesting article about such an American export: A clash between Evangelical Protestantism and the LGBT ideology in South Korea. Evangelicals, a group with indelible American features, have been the fastest-growing religious movement of our time in the developing societies of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Originally brought there by American missionaries, Evangelicalism has been very much “indigenized,” but it retains strong ties with the American “mother country.” In some African countries, notably Uganda, American missionaries have strongly supported legislation to suppress homosexuality (including the death penalty, though that was stopped after a storm of protest). Korea has always been fertile grounds for victimology: Squeezed between Chinese and Japanese imperialism, Korea has long understood itself as a “martyr nation.” Korean Evangelicals have now adopted conservative American Protestants’ narrative of being persecuted by a secularist cultural elite that wants to impose its sexual ethic on everyone else—while of course the LGBT ideology is based on a narrative of persecution. The article ends on a hopeful note, of Evangelicals in Korea as in America trying to serve as bridge-builders rather than ideological foot soldiers in cultural conflicts (a dialogue was successfully started in Utah).
I’m especially intrigued by one aspect of the debate over bathrooms for transgender individuals. Until recently there was an assumption across polarized positions that “gender,” while also a social construct, had some sort of physiological basis. After all, whatever an individual wants to make of this, men have penises, women have vaginas. Well, no. The LGBT movement now defines “gender identity” as based on the individual’s free choice, independent of the physiological facts: “I feel myself to be a woman, and I demand that this chosen (or felt) identity be socially accepted.” There is an interesting analogy to this in the Obama Administration’s policy of forcing the military to accept women in combat roles. It is widely accepted that most women have less upper-body strength than most men. But some women do have the requisite strength and, in the name of equality, they should be allowed to apply for the necessary training. Only the Marine Corps kept resisting the demand, arguing that (while some women might make the grade), their presence might harm the combat-readiness of the unit. Finally, in the best American tradition of military-civilian relations, the Corps saluted and a few women went into training. Many didn’t make it. A couple did. I watched a film about those two. They made it in the end, but they clearly had a terrible time getting there. Understandably they were very proud. But of course this outcome could not settle the debate about the combat-readiness of the unit.
This post is getting to be rather long, but I cannot resist the temptation of mentioning the most extreme case of victimological affirmative action—which is not in the United States but in India. Already under British rules there were laws protecting those were then called Untouchables (the acceptable term is now Dalits). In 1989 the Parliament of independent India passed the Prevention of Atrocities Act, which protected the lower reaches of the Hindu caste system against (unfortunately) common crimes of violence by higher-caste people. But this relatively modest goal formed the basis of a vast system of affirmative action for “scheduled castes” (not always limited to Hindus) and “scheduled tribes” (the relatively primitive tribal groups in less developed rural areas). The core of this system was the institution of “reservations”—quotas for parliamentary representation, government jobs, places in universities. Another category was added to the original two “schedules”—“other backward classes” (OBCs), to which, according to a study in the 1980s, 52 percent of the population of India belonged. Given the hard benefits provided to people “assigned” to this identity, it should not surprise that “being an OBC” is a very desirable status—for Muslims and Christians, and even for some Hindu Brahmins who managed to be so “assigned.” Although this victimological system is much criticized in India, it is very difficult to remove or modify. Entitlements, once granted, become fiercely defended rights. American affirmative action pales by comparison.
I assume that, in the language of the LGBT ideology, my “assigned gender identity” is that of an old heterosexual male and a medical examination would support this “assignment” by various facts. But suppose I said: “I don’t care about your so-called facts. My chosen identity is that of a young heterosexual male. I demand that my chosen identity be respected and on that basis I demand admission to a training course for the Boston Marathon. So there!”