This article was last modified on September 11, 2008.


The Soft-Toppling of Culture

Once upon a time, America was known as the melting pot, taking cultures from around the world (although primarily Europe) and mixing them together as one new culture. Surely, when the Irish or the Italians came, they were ostracized and forced to form subcultures, but eventually they would slowly melt and join the larger culture. Every year on St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is a little bit Irish. And while much of Italian culture is still seen as a big stereotype in Mafia shows and movies, at the very least we look with affection on these films, nodding with approval that gangsters are part of our country’s heritage.

But our tradition of being the melting pot ended some time ago and we are now nothing but a cultural Blob, spreading our cultural tentacles across the globe. Our slime is left everywhere we go, but nothing foreign can survive where the blob is strong. There is no more melting and blending — now there is nothing but complete submission to the dominant “American way of life”. Modern immigrants, such as Somalis or the Hmong, offer little to the dominant culture other than another group to assimilate.

And the “American way” isn’t all bread and roses. Sure, we have the ideals of “the American Dream” that everyone can succeed (still true in many ways) and we have the iconic Superman, fighting for truth, justice and the American way (which is an interesting semantic phrase — are truth and justice part of the American way or separate?). But we also have the ingrained notions of “American exceptionalism”, individualism and pervasive consumerism.

Do countries benefit from our pushing culture on them? Do families need less time with each other and more time in the drive-thru? Is the notion of “freedom” best summarized by our ability to buy the finest jeans?

What is Soft-Toppling?

The term “soft-toppling” is not in common usage, despite the action it represents being rather mainstream. Traditionally, the phrase referred to one government overthrowing (or “toppling”) an enemy regime through covert action. Iran, for example, is in the process of being soft-toppled by Western influences who wish to secularize the society and weaken the Islamic forces controlling the laws of the Middle Eastern nation. One anonymous Internet troll defined “soft-toppling” as “bringing down an oppressive regime by insidiously reawakening civil society.” This view suggests that the toppling is always a “good” regime removing a “bad” regime through democratic means. Of course, that does not reflect the reality.

While America seeks to expand its influence through militarism in order to maintain its status as the sole hegemon, in many cases the military is no longer necessary. As Iraq and Afghanistan are being occupied by the armed forces, we’re winning the war of ideas in other societies with fast food and television. Even if the host country has severe reservations about the American government, they cannot help but love America and its people once the parasite of American culture latches on to their own.

I rarely see eye to eye with director Spike Lee, but his speech at the Global Brand Forum in Singapore in August 2008 sums up my point as clearly as I could od myself, if not better. Says Lee, “The reason why America has been the most dominant country in the world is not because America has more nuclear arms than anybody else… Has anyone seen exactly where a nuclear arm influenced how other people dress, the way they talk, the way they think? America is dominating the world because of culture — movies, television, Levi’s, Coca-Cola, Disney, rock and roll, hip-hop. That’s power — when you influence how people think, how they dress, how they talk … not because we could blow the shit up.” [“Hollywood” 2008]

Let us further examine this phenomenon, using specific cases and discussing further implications.

Culture as a Weapon

We have mentioned the “power” of American culture and how spreading culture could replace the military or be a substitute for it, but David Rothkopf draws the connection even closer. What he refers to as “cultural imperialism” has been used as not only a tool but bluntly as a “weapon”. His focus is more on how a government interacts with the country’s existing culture, but surely we could see how any government seeking to expand would be sure to push the boundaries of that culture with them. For culture more fully than anything else (nationality, race, gender) unites and consolidates a people.

Rothkopf explains how culture can be used, both for good and for evil. “Culture is used by the organizers of society — politicians, theologians, academics, and families — to impose and ensure order, the rudiments of which change over time as need dictates. It is less often acknowledged as the means of justifying inhumanity and warfare. […] cultural differences are often sanctified by their links to the mystical roots of culture, be they spiritual or historical. Consequently, a threat to one’s culture becomes a threat to one’s God or one’s ancestors and, therefore, to one’s core identity. This inflammatory formula has been used to justify many of humanity’s worst acts.”

He reminds us that “one need only look at the 20th century’s genocides. In each one, leaders used culture to fuel the passions of their armies and other minions and to justify their actions among their people.” I do not think we need to provide specific examples of leaders using dominant national cultures to crush minority or foreign elements.

Rothkopf expands on the idea of the “blob” of culture, spreading dominant, mainstream and established culture while devouring or slowly smothering the opposition. “Successful multicultural societies, be they nations, federations, or other conglomerations of closely interrelated states, discern those aspects of culture that do not threaten union, stability, or prosperity (such as food, holidays, rituals, and music) and allow them to flourish. But they counteract or eradicate the more subversive elements of culture (exclusionary aspects of religion, language, and political/ideological beliefs).”

Creating a country with a cultural balance not intent on spreading its seeds requires a delicate balance that monolithic superpowers have little patience for. “History shows that bridging cultural gaps successfully and serving as a home to diverse peoples requires certain social structures, laws, and institutions that transcend culture. Furthermore, the history of a number of ongoing experiments in multiculturalism, such as in the European Union, India, South Africa, Canada and the United States, suggests that workable, if not perfected, integrative models exist. Each is built on the idea that tolerance is crucial to social well-being, and each at times has been threatened by both intolerance and a heightened emphasis on cultural distinctions. The greater public good warrants eliminating those cultural characteristics that promote conflict or prevent harmony, even as less-divisive, more personally observed cultural distinctions are celebrated and preserved.” Rothkopf rightly points out the American ideal of tolerance, though we recognize that tolerance is often a last resort — we would rather change those unlike us than accept them. Only when change becomes impossible, such as the case of excluding or integrating homosexuals into heterosexual culture, does an acceptance of “alternative lifestyles” become the norm.

Locally, nationally and internationally the struggle persists between a dominant culture (mainstream America, for example) and various subcultures and countercultures. Sometimes the minority cultures find ways to successfully integrate and maintain their traditional existence, but more often we see them fade away. One is reminded that Christian missionaries, without need of an army, were able to bring “primitive” people closer to European society long before the actual takeover, simply by use of cultural force.

Case Study: McDonalds

Of all the American companies that are synonymous with American culture, McDonald’s ranks at the top of the list. And if any company has reached global dominance, it’s McDonalds, with restaurants found in 120 countries and territories on six continents (excluding, of course, Antarctica), serving nearly 54 million customers each day.

McDonalds has changed its menu — such as by removing pork — in various countries to fit in with local customs, religious practices and palettes, but the American way is still finding its way in foreign lands. Interestingly, the most popular McDonalds in Southeast Asia can be found in Karachi, Pakistan. This restaurant is said to have over fifty counters and a sizable children’s play area. The meat has been modified to halal standards for Muslim customers.

Anthropologist James L. Watson, in a study called “Gold Arches East”, looked at the effects of McDoanlds on culture in East Asia. Watson points out the effects are not all bad — the Hong Kong store opened in 1975, and was the first restaurant to offer clean restrooms, leading customers to expect similar conditions in other restaurants. The inherent class conflicts of some Asian cultures, notably India, has decreased in McDonalds. With all food items being similarly priced, there is no shame in ordering a cheaper meal and no honor in ordering a more expensive one — the differences in cost are so slight as to be non-existent. But the restaurant has also eroded local customs, which many people see as an unwanted change. Watson’s study shows, for example, that the popularization of the “fast food” meal eliminated such taboos as eating while walking, a traditional sign of rudeness in Japan.

The “fast” in fast food is not only what the Japanese welcome, but what other cultures fear. Carlo Petrini, an Italian journalist, already noticed in the 1970s what Watson recognized later. Petrini embraced traditional Italian ways of life, what could now be called “slow food”. He came to prominence in 1987, after protesting the construction of a new McDonalds in Rome and issuing the Slow Food Manifesto. According to Petrini, “We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life.” Delegates from fifteen countries embraced the manifesto within two years, as (according to Eric Schlosser) “the destructiveness of a mechanized, industrialized food system became increasingly clear.” Slow Food International has amassed roughly 85,000 members in over 100 countries, all believing “a set of fundamental values that aim to distance its celebration of pleasure from mindless decadence.” [Schlosser 2008]

I wrote to McDonalds in order to get their input on cultural issues. Specifically, I asked “what are some examples of changes McDonalds makes to respect the cultures of foreign countries?” Nancy, a customer relations representative, responded informing me that “the information you are specifically requesting is considered proprietary business information. I’m sorry I cannot answer your specific questions.” Trying to get “specific” answers to general questions from McDonalds ended up being more difficult than one might think.

Case Study: Starbucks

Another ubiquitous chain store is Starbucks, the coffee shop. I contacted them with a similar request as I had with McDonalds, and received a similarly dismissive reply. Rachel A., from customer relations, tells me that “due to the volume of student requests we receive, we’re unable to grant interview or survey requests or provide information about the company beyond what we make publicly available.” Rachel did direct me to the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility annual report, press releases and SEC filings, but was unable to directly answer my inquiry.

Hollywood and Bollywood

The American film industry is not the only film industry in the world, though it would appear that way to anyone scanning through the weekly choices at a local theater. Hollywood’s blockbuster films dominate American screens and then continue around the world, selling millions more tickets. Yet, while the American fantasies are plastered on global screens, where are the foreign films showing up in America? The occasional English or Australian film might sneak through, and even more rare is the Asian film, but by and large the chance of a foreign film getting mainstream theater play is nil. Bollywood, India’s leading film studio, is internationally known, but even they haven’t been able to get films to the average American.

Television is much the same, with British shows sometimes working their way on to PBS, or Japanese game shows reaching America after humorous dubbing. But more often than not, if a show is successful enough to make it to America, the producers would rather recreate it than show the popular original, almost always weakening the original idea. Shows such as “The Office” or “Iron Chef” come to mind. Films also get remade. My expertise is in horror films, and can speak with authority — when Americans remake Asian horror films such as “The Ring” and “The Grudge”, the new product is a shadow of the original. Even Haneke’s “Funny Games”, remade shot by shot, fails to have the force in English that it had in German.

The Hollywood elite help keep foreign films out with the way they have set up the Academy Awards. If all foreign films could compete with American films for best actor or best director, we might start seeing non-American films getting nominations and more critical respect. Instead, they are left to be judged outside of the normal framework as though a “foreign film” isn’t made to the same standards as an American film. How is this different from having a “Best Actor” category alongside a “Best African-American Actor” award? Clearly we know that actors of any race can compete on level ground, and the same should be assumed of nationality. (It is worth wondering why there is a “Best Actor” and “Best Actress” category rather than combining them, as though the genders couldn’t compete evenly. Unlike sports, there is no biological reason that one would be superior at acting. But this is largely outside the scope of this essay and will not be discussed further.)

As a quick note, we may also mention music. If you do not speak English, your music will probably not be heard in America. Some exceptions apply here, as music is itself universal and can be appreciated without lyrics, but the rock or pop bands outside America, Canada, Australia and England will probably not be heard on the radio. This is the unfortunate case of American dominance — in order for such bands as the Scorpions to be internationally popular, they must forego their national language for English. Can you imagine an American band that wouldn’t write their songs in English in order to be popular overseas? It’s absurd.

Murdochian Anti-Totalitarianism

The most telling sign of America’s cultural dominance and ability to subvert the cultures of others may come from a sympathetic Australian, the newspaper and media mogul Rupert Murdoch. During an interview in 2006, Time managing editor Richard Stengel asked Murdoch a seemingly unrelated question, “You gave a speech a while back in which you said that the digital age would spell the end of totalitarianism. Do you still believe that?”

Murdoch replied, “It varies country by country. I would say that people in the Islamic world are not seeing enough images of the West and how we live and have ambitions. In Iran, where people do have channels coming in from the outside, you can see the people under their religious gear wearing designer jeans. But the problem is in other places, with the Jihadists and the Wahibi Sect of Muslims. Oil money is now spreading through Pakistan all the way down to Indonesia, Malaysia and Africa, helping establish madrassas. They’re teaching and brainwashing kids at a very young age nothing but their version of the Koran, hand in hand with terrorism and martyrdom.”

Rather than explain how “the digital age” could end totalitarianism by promoting democracy, getting news inside or outside a country or other means to create awareness among the average citizen, Murdoch explains that “freedom” is best achieved by the acquisition of “designer jeans” and other Western goods. Are designer jeans more “free” than fair elections or quality health care? The idea of a “free market” and “consumerism” being important are American traits, perhaps not best pushed on to other countries and cultures. Would it be better to help the Iranians acquire iPhones or to help them end hunger? Murdoch is correct in a sense; designer jeans do help create dissent from the powerful religious and political leaders in oppressive regimes, either in Iran or elsewhere. But is this what we consider political progress?

And while I don’t disagree with Murdoch of the immorality of “brainwashing” a child to accept terrorism and a particular religious outlook, I find it ironic that he fails to see in his own statement the encouragement of “brainwashing” people to want designer jeans, or a child to want a certain brand of cereal or tennis shoe. Is this different from molding them to hate America, the Great Satan? Certainly one is qualitatively worse, but isn’t the act of brainwashing itself morally reprehensible, regardless of what the outcome is, even if it were to indoctrinate a child to be good?

Murdoch, whether he knows it or not, is pushing the very idea of cultural imperialism or soft-toppling through culture. He wishes the corporations to do what the military no longer can. Napoleon’s next ride may not be with a battalion of soldiers but with a fleet of publicists.

Conclusion

America is the de facto leader of the world economy and military intervention is no longer needed for “winning hearts and minds”; they’re already bending to our beliefs. We have achieved virtual global domination through materialism (in the Madonna, not Marxian, sense) and consumerism, replacing traditional culture with American pop culture. Soon, with the continuation of cultural imperialism and general globalization, cultural differences will fade away and America will come out on top. McDonalds, Starbucks, Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola will rule the world. Be this good or bad, the outcome seems inevitable.

Sources

A., Rachel. “Response from Starbucks Coffee Company – Case # 4369249”. e-mail to the author received July 21, 2007.

“Hollywood, not nukes, gives US dominance: Lee”. Agence France-Presse, August 18, 2008.

McDonalds Corporation. E-mail to the author (via representative “Nancy”). July 13, 2007.

Rothkopf, David, “In Praise of Cultural Imperialism,” Foreign Affairs, Summer 1997, Volume 107, pp. 38-53. Available online at http://www.globalpolicy.org/globaliz/cultural/globcult.htm

Schlosser, Eric. “Slow Food for Thought”, The Nation. September 22, 2008.

Stengel, Richard. “10 Questions for Rupert Murdoch”, Time. October 16, 2006.

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One Response to “The Soft-Toppling of Culture”

  1. The Framing Business » Is Globalizaton Desirable? Says:

    […] I have tackled the Americanization of the world in other articles (most notably in The Soft-Toppling of Culture), I have never really put any focus on globalization. Globalization is inevitable, to be […]

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