Cultural Imperialism - Three trends of cultural transfer

Cultural Imperialism Three Trends Of Cultural Transfer 4135
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Cultural transfer does not represent a single, static trend or a set of criteria. Most historians of cultural transfer probably would deny that they all belong to one school. The specific meaning of the term is neither timeless nor free of ideological underpinnings. Instead, each meaning is generated out of its various discourses, its use. Since World War II, the study of cultural transfer has developed in cycles. Hence, its significance must be interpreted through historical lenses. First, the cold warriors deplored the absence of an active and forceful cultural diplomacy among U.S. officials. In contrast, their descendants, the critics of cultural imperialism, described the export of American culture as thinly veiled global capitalist exploitation. Finally, a third group of countercritics challenged the concept of cultural imperialism with a variety of different arguments. At the turn of the twenty-first century, a rather heterogeneous group of scholars argued that local resistance either modified or completely stymied imports as part of a global process. Begun as a purely political debate, the discussion has expanded into an increasingly academic dispute over culture as an instrument of power that either "functioned" or "did not function."

Scholars of U.S. cultural transfer are primarily concerned about U.S. cultural influence in the world but also deal with foreign influences in the United States. In contrast to their peers working in the field of political history, they look beyond the level of decision-making processes to figure out how culture, especially the export and osmosis of culture, can be explained as an instrument of political or economic power, a tool of international communication, and a dynamic force on its own. In particular, they seek to find out how governmental and nongovernmental actors exerted power abroad by importing and exporting material goods and ideas as well as by creating international networks and organizations. In this context, culture, and American culture in particular, does not connote a specific meaning but rather a conglomeration of aspirations, emotions, and identities shared by human beings living within a geographically and politically defined area. "Culture," contemplates Akira Iriye (1997), "determines what the ends of a nation are; power proves the means for obtaining them."

Cultural imperialism is based on the assumption that one nation tries to force its culture, ideology, goods, and way of life on another country. In the United States, critics of cultural imperialism as an instrument of diplomacy study the extent to which American culture reached and influenced foreign shores under governmental and private auspices. On one end of the spectrum, historians interested in cultural imperialism argue that postwar U.S. policymakers made a conscious effort to export American culture abroad in order to gain access to raw materials, cheap labor, and new markets for U.S. consumer products. On the other end of the spectrum, scholars have proposed to supplant the notion of cultural imperialism with cultural transmission, which seeks to deemphasize the question of agency and, instead, admits a more fluid concept of interaction.

In the past the idea and study of cultural transfer has appealed to many audiences outside of the academic world. It is this appeal to both scholars and the broader public that distinguishes the significance of cultural imperialism and cultural transmission from most other theoretical concepts discussed among diplomatic historians. Whether they liked it or not, since at least the early days of the Cold War, journalists, politicians, and intellectuals have fretted over the power and meaning of American culture abroad.

Since at least the 1960s, cultural imperialism has proven to be a tremendously popular and enduring concept. It has introduced culture as a variable into the study of foreign relations and thereby has significantly broadened the field. It has built the foundation upon which more than two generations of historians have based their research strategies and arguments. It has penetrated many academic disciplines, including musicology, sports, sociology, and political science. And it has left a long-lasting mark in the public arena; politicians the world over, for example, lament the manipulative influx of U.S. movies. Tiny nations, remote people, and unknown tribes find their way into the headlines of international journals through their outspoken protests against Western cultural imperialism. From Iceland to Latin America, Central Africa to the Philippines, local spokesmen presumably mourn the decease of their indigenous mores and traditions that is coupled with the rise of Anglo-American television and culture.

In harmony with the public debate, several generations of academics have struggled with questions of cultural transfer. Despite the scholars' intergenerational hostility and despite historians' increasing urge to defy old approaches for new configurations, students who desire to labor in the vineyard of cultural transfer need to know these interpretations. Each of the three principal trends still finds its way into early-twenty-first-century historiographical debates—and rightfully so. For despite all the ideological baggage, each trend offers viable methodological insights for research related to the meaning of American culture in the international arena.

In the years following World War II, policy-makers and intellectuals began to believe that cultural diplomacy and cultural images made a difference in global politics. This assumption seemed radical if not revolutionary for most observers at the time. In 1938, when the State Department established the Division for Cultural Relations, many U.S. officials still criticized the use of culture as a diplomatic tool. Their reluctance reflected a consensus that culture belonged to the realm of creativity, public taste, and free enterprise. How and why should one win diplomatic negotiations by invoking art, music, books, and theater performances? On a more basic level, cultural programs were costly and there were no voters abroad to legitimize such investments.

After 1945 the situation changed as both U.S. diplomats and intellectuals began arguing that the United States needed to sell the American way of life abroad. Public figures as well as policymakers, such as the State Department consultant Arthur W. MacMahon, media czar Henry Luce, and Senator William Fulbright, encouraged governmental authorities to make more of an effort to influence foreign nations through culture around the world. In the early Cold War years, consequently, the American government created a number of organizations and programs, such as the United States Information Agency and the Fulbright exchange program, that sought to sell American culture—including literature, music, and art—abroad. The USIA was founded with the specific purpose of developing a cultural propaganda program for audiences abroad and to develop them with a full and fair picture of American life, society, and culture. The Fulbright program was created right after World War II to enable foreign students (notably German students) to study in the United States and become acquainted with the American way of life. Likewise, the program sent (and still sends) U.S. academics abroad to learn about cultural differences but also to act as informal ambassadors of the United States.

Designed in 1950, the "Campaign of Truth" was supposed to represent a psychological counterattack against Soviet indoctrination. Employing books, brochures, exhibitions, and lectures, the campaign was aimed at public opinion leaders and other "multipliers."

One might wonder why policymakers grew so interested in the American way of life. Why did they suddenly seek to impart American culture to others? First, on the ideological level, American culture was dizzily democratic; anything was allowed. American culture also seemed essentially resistant to autocracies on the left or the right, as reflected in the postwar consensus on liberalism manifest in the writings of intellectuals like Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Daniel Boorstin, and Louis Hartz. Consequently, U.S. policymakers and scholars were convinced that the promotion abroad of an enterprise-based culture would help to spread democracy around the world and contain fascism, communism, and other repellent foreign ideologies.

Second, and on a more practical level, communist regimes, above all in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), made Bildung (knowledge, education) and Kultur (high culture) pivotal points of their own propaganda. The GDR government claimed to be a democratic institution and it attacked American culture as a manifestation of a degenerate democracy. Communist officials knew that Europeans identified strongly with their high culture. Public opinion polls taken between 1945 and 1950 revealed that many Germans dreaded the adaptation of democratic values at the expense of their cultural heritage. Communist propagandists had convinced German audiences that they could be communists and, simultaneously, admirers of high culture, such as the romantic music of the nineteenth-century composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky. According to their propaganda, democratic audiences in the Western world, in contrast, supposedly "drugged" their minds with jazz.

Third, in the decade after World War II many Americans felt a deep apprehension over what they saw as their worsening reputation in a world of cultural diversity abroad—new cultures, new nations, and new arms. Shortly after the Soviets launched the satellite Sputnik, Franz M. Joseph and Raymond Aron edited a collection of articles under the telling title As Others See Us (1959). In this book, some twenty representatives from all over the world portrayed their countries' impression of American society. The French, Aron asserted, detested America's "big industry, mass production, the lowering of standards in favor of the masses," as well as its race problems, superficiality, "industrial barbarism," and "the intellectual fodder offered to the American masses, from scandal magazines to digests of books." In the end, the book represented a most depressing analysis of America's image abroad. Most people believed that "Americans had done remarkable things in production and they had technical 'know-how,' but America itself was … [a] giant with the head of a lout."

Academic and journalistic investigations of American cultural transfer abroad in the late 1950s and 1960s underlined the prevalent belief that American information and exchange efforts represented a timid reaction to the Soviets' dynamic propaganda. "America is the greatest advertising country in the world," the journalist Peter Grothe complained in 1958. "Yet when it comes to the most important advertising campaign of all—that of advertising ourselves and the democratic way of life—we run a poor second to the Communists." Grothe reproached U.S. policymakers for not having made the most of cultural relations programs after World War II, blaming the small-mindedness and indifference of the president, Congress, and the American public. And sociologists like Princeton University's W. Phillips Davison demanded more effective programs with clear-cut values, detailed purposes, and a rigid selection and training of personnel. They urged policymakers to employ American books, films, and information programs as instruments to acquaint people the world over with U.S. history, politics, and culture. All people, in short, needed more American culture, and it was the government's task to export it abroad.

The men and women who took part in this debate, it should be added, employed a rather unspecific idea of American culture. Historians investigating the United States Information Agency—designed in 1953 to convince people abroad that U.S. goals were in harmony with their hopes for freedom, progress, and peace—have underlined the uncertainty to define the core and the ins and outs of American culture. As Laura Belmonte and others have shown, USIA's programs focused on areas that were regarded as representative of American culture and society, including consumer products, high living standards, and the advantages of a free-market economy. But throughout the 1950s the agency was hampered by conflicts over the content of its agenda and its mission. Michael Krenn has shown that at the World's Fair of 1958, endless debates over how to deal with the United States's "Achilles' heel" of race relations inhibited the entire organization of the U.S. exhibit.

In sum, until the 1960s the debate over the export of American culture remained primarily a political one. Its participants were civil servants, writers, and journalists who viewed the government's developing cultural programs abroad as worthy although insufficient weapons to contain totalitarianism in the world. These men and women did not ask whether foreign audiences would welcome such messages.

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