A world without America would be hardly worth living in, argues Peter Conrad in his survey of the vast cultural reach of the US
Everyone can recall their first encounter with America, whether it was watching Gone With the Wind or Dumbo, the death of John F Kennedy, the resignation of Richard Nixon or, more recently, the election of the Barack Obama. But what does such exposure to the world’s most powerful place actually imply? For some, the result is dashed expectations or disapprobation. For others, such as Peter Conrad, it is the opening act in a lifetime drama.
Conrad is one of a glittering generation of Australians cast on to the seas of world culture in the 1960s. He first encountered America through its movies, and here he examines the way the country has both interpreted itself for the rest of the world, and has in turn been half-understood by countries on which its huge footprint has strayed. America can’t help but affect us all. We cannot not be affected by America. That is the principal message of this fitfully personal, occasionally randomly incomplete, brilliant essay. In conclusion, wrestling with symptoms of decline, Conrad reaffirms his obsession. “I am not ready to be cured,” he says. “A world without America would be a dull, constricted place, hardly worth living in.”
Modern America, Conrad suggests, sprang into being via the egalitarian impulses of mass culture. “The whole fucking world is going 100% American,” Henry Miller wrote. ‘It’s a disease.” We begin with the 1941 boosterish essay of Henry Luce entitled The American Century. The son of a missionary, Luce grew up in China. Time Life was the Google or Facebook of its day and Luce thought the United States, confronted by a chaotic, wayward world, should “take charge”. But Luce wasn’t talking about an official, state-inspired culture. Making its own way was what America would do.
Conrad has watched enough US movies to fill more than a lifetime. Lost gems such as The Americanization of Emily (1964), and Giant, the adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel, are eloquently reclaimed. Immigrants who made remarkable American films, such as the Viennese Billy Wilder and the Parisian Louis Malle, finally get their due. One must be grateful to Conrad for having got through not just the airport blockbusters of James Michener, but also the unreadable doorstop paranoid fantasies of Ayn Rand.
Among the omissions are Dwight Macdonald, who came up with the vocabulary used by Conrad, and Dr Strangelove. I missed the huge role of American journalism – via such stalwart institutions as the New York Times, and that of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon papers, surely among the most important Americans of the past half century. There is nothing about such distinctive creations as the Ford Foundation. And television doesn’t get a look in, which is odd.
However, Conrad understands how the counterculture was part of the impact of the US, and there are good pages on the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Henry Miller. “Jasper Johns may have been suggesting that America, too, is a fantasy, a shared delusion,” Conrad remarks about the enigmatic flag paintings. The indeterminate, temporary nature of America, he suggests, explains why we keep coming back. What’s not to like about a scene that changes every time you blink?
Many intellectuals didn’t appreciate the sheer profusion of unsolicited American gifts. Simone de Beauvoir complained about the use in hotels of noisy vacuum cleaners, preferring the humble French broom, and Sartre found his beloved existentialism upstaged by the real choices available to rootless and mobile Americans. However, anti-Americanism proved to be a losing game because so much of American influence was inseparable from the wider world project of modernisation.
In a downbeat coda, Conrad concludes that our world has become “so Americanized that we no longer need to venerate the United States”. I am not sure that I wholly agree. To be sure, the past decades have provided many grounds for rejecting the vision of the future supplied by the US, and these days the American constitution looks less admirable than it did when Luce heralded the new century. No shortage of those prepared to say that America’s global sway is at an end can be discerned.
Nonetheless, we do well to recall that almost every significant innovation in the information economy began somewhere in the United States. So, too, did the process known as globalisation whereby such ideas are immediately disseminated throughout the world. The Austrian emigre economist Joseph Schumpeter described American capitalism as obeying the principle of “creative destruction”. What Hollywood movies and Luce’s publications did for the 20th century, Google, Twitter, Facebook and Netflix are doing now.
The new Americanisation is different from the old one, less picturesque, to be sure, but probably more life-altering in the transformative freedoms it offers. It has its boosters, such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, its counterculture heroes, among them the whistleblower Edward Snowden, and of course its villains, consisting of governments wishing to subvert or block freedoms – not least, as it would seem in the case of the NSA, that of the United States itself. This is the true outline of our times. Does anyone really believe that the American century is over and done?
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