|Alan Miller: 'We don't do McDonald's' - America and world culture
||[Oct. 26th, 2009|03:01 pm]
Battle of Ideas
America no longer commands the type of adoration that once existed – at least not in elitist European circles. Where once the remarkable story of America wowed the world – with its can-do attitude, where ambition and hard work produced a society that was clearly dynamic with the potential to provide decent living standards to an ever increasing population – these days it is far more common to witness derogatory remarks and snide comments. Sniggering in fact is the order of the day where the United States is now seen as a land of obese junk-eating philistines, who don’t know where the major capital cities of the world are, or even where many countries are on the world map. |
The thing is, when reflecting on American contribution to civilization, it is breathtaking just how significant culturally it has been. It is hard not to compile a short shopping list of some of the greatest cultural contributors the world has witnessed, just to underline the point. From Steinbeck and Hemingway to Arthur Miller and David Mamet to film directors John Ford, Francis Ford Coppola, Spike Lee and Darren Aronofsky we could not imagine a world where “American culture” was absent. Musically we would truly be living in a far duller world – the soaring heights of jazz, the spiritual elevation of the Blues right up to rock and pop, Disco, Hip Hop and Funk we could never begin to contemplate our world without this and so it is also true in classical music, where even in an age of dumbing down American orchestras regularly play to packed audiences.
However, the contemporary popularity of anti-Americanism, is not so much to do with the empirical record of cultural output, rather it is a statement about the very notion that underlines the philosophy that has characterized America. Indeed, in an age where we believe “small is beautiful” and “less is more” the bold outlook of the American Dream is now seen as a real problem. Where once society believed we could innovate, design, build and manufacture our way to overcoming obstacles, today we have come to view these very things as the heart of the problem itself.
So, the popular disdain that has become fashionable towards America represents far more our cynical and parochial view towards human achievement itself. Of course it is far easier to guffaw at a generalized notion of “ugly, overweight and stupid Americans” than to begin to unpick why it is we have become so disillusioned with the idea of human progress and ingenuity.
In an age where the popular vocabulary at school and in business encourages us all to limit our “carbon footprint” and that we need to ensure there are limits to growth and “Sustainable Development” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) the very idea at the core of the American project is seen as being thoroughly flawed. In truth of course, there have always been severe limitations on the ability of America to deliver on the promise of the American Dream. However today, we are more likely to entertain the idea that humans are the problem on the planet and the pernicious anti Americanism really represents a nasty anti-humanism.
In the “age of Obama” one may believe that things will perhaps be a little different. After all, if such an intelligent president, a law professor who also happens to be black can make it there, well surely that is a sign of a changing nation. The thing is however, society’s contemptuous regard towards America also infects the elite in America and represents the idea that humans are a mad and bad bunch that need to put the brakes on. While China and India are now making significant inroads in to impacting the world, the one thing that does seem to be universal is the outlook that people are a problem – and not a solution.
The idea that homogenous, gluttonous, ridiculous America is chomping its way through the worlds’ resources and blindly exporting a culture of ignorance is just plain stupid. However, the underlying values that inform it, degrading humanity’s ability to improve the world continually through our intelligence, creativity, development and aspiration is a far more serious issue. It is something we need to address and challenge immediately.
Alan Miller lives in New York and London, is Director of The NY Salon www.nysalon.org and co-Founder of London’s Truman Brewery and Vibe Bar. He is speaking at The Battle of Ideas Satellite event 'We don't do McDonald's': America and world culture at University of Notre Dame London Centre on Tuesday 27 October at 7pm. For further details go to www.battleofideas.org.uk or call 020 7269 9220.