America’s Undimmed Global Culture
NEW YORK – Amanda Gorman’s remarkable performance of her poem “The Hill We Climb” at US President Joe Biden’s inauguration touched millions. That was reason enough for a leading Dutch publisher to commission a prominent novelist to prepare a translation. But the choice of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, an International Booker Prize-winning novelist who is white and identifies as nonbinary, provoked an immediate protest by black activists in the Netherlands. They demanded that Gorman, an African-American, be translated by a black person. Picking a white translator caused one of the protesters “pain.” Rijneveld withdrew from the project.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, in Japan, local followers of QAnon, an American far-right conspiracy theory, are adding their own zany fabulations to the shared belief that Donald Trump was robbed of his presidency. Japanese QAnon supporters are convinced that sinister foreigners are ruling Japan behind the scenes, and that the imperial family was responsible for everything from the atom bomb to the devastating earthquake of 2011. If that isn’t odd enough, one group of Japanese QAnon adherents idolizes the disgraced former US army general Michael Flynn.
For better or worse, the influence of American culture remains as strong as ever. In this respect, at least, reports of US decline are wildly exaggerated. Even with the rise of China, the vast wealth of the European Union, and the embarrassing spectacle of the Trump presidency, people around the world still look to America for their cultural and political cues.
It used to be people on the right who most feared American cultural influence. Prewar cultural conservatives in Europe and Japan deplored the vulgarity of American commercialism, the rootlessness of its multiracial immigrant society, and the raucous liberalism of its political institutions. The US example was a threat to social order, ethnic homogeneity, and high culture. Of course, political extremes find common ground. The far left deplores the global reach of America’s capitalist culture – “Coca-Colonization” – just as much.
In fact, along with Coca-Cola, one of America’s most successful exports over the years has been the culture of protest. It was the American Revolution, after all, that inspired the French Revolution. In the 1960s, students all over the world demonstrated against “American imperialism” and the Vietnam War, but they followed the example of students at Berkeley and Columbia. They listened to American protest songs. And sometimes, as with Andreas Papandreou of Greece, anti-American politicians picked up many of their ideas at American universities.
The chief attraction of the United States, despite its many institutional flaws, its history of racism, and its spasms of moral hysteria, has been the promise of greater freedom: economic, political, artistic, and sexual. That is why left-wing refugees from Nazi Germany often chose to move to the US in the 1930s and 1940s, while more conservative refugees preferred to settle in Britain.
The question today is whether the current wave of US influence promises more freedom or less. Some might argue that the “critical race theory” and gender politics now roiling American university campuses and the liberal media expand the scope of freedom, especially for sexual and racial minorities. But much of this is rooted in the specific traumas of American history, just as the insistence on public atonement is linked to particular American religious traditions.
Can these aspects of American culture be projected neatly onto societies in other parts of the world? Do American obsessions with “identity” and “representation” carry the same meaning in countries with very different histories? Why must Gorman’s poem be translated by a Dutch person of color? Why should a French high school named for a French female mathematician (Sophie Germain) be renamed for an African-American activist (Rosa Parks)?
One might also wonder whether removing books by classic Western authors from classrooms in the name of social justice and “decolonization” will expand our freedom. This, too, is unquestionably a form of protest culture. But the ideological zeal fueling so much activism in America about race, gender, and identity has echoes of popular movements in the past: puritanism, quasi-religious fervor, intellectual intolerance – in short, the opposite of more freedom.
Extremism on the left is being inflamed and indeed mirrored on the right. If the waves of “woke culture” are washing over universities and liberal media in countries outside the US, so are the often more horrifying effects of right-wing madness, of what the historian Richard Hofstadter famously called “the paranoid style in American politics.”
The example of Trump and his illiberal, anti-immigrant, openly racist rhetoric has already inspired a host of authoritarian politicians emerging from the margins of once-robust liberal democracies. The growth of QAnon in Japan is the clearest case of the American paranoid style spreading overseas.
One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.
Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.
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