World-Serious: American Culture in a Global Age

Coby Lubliner

I am writing these notes in the aftermath of a classic event in American culture: the final series of games in the playoffs for the championship of professional baseball in North America. The series pits the champions of the American League (this time, as many times before, the New York Yankees) against those of the National League (for the first time, the Arizona Diamondbacks). Each league has one Canadian team (since 1977 and 1969, respectively, though one of them may soon be gone), all the rest being in the United States. The series is called the World Series, and the winning team (the Diamondbacks) can call itself the World Champions.

I was a baseball fan in my teens, when, as a newcomer to the United States, I wanted to steep myself as deeply as I could in the culture of my host country. Since then, my interest in the game has largely waned, and I have returned to following the sport of my European childhood, a sport in which the world championship really does represent the world: soccer. But my attention to baseball does revive somewhat during the last days of the pennant races if one of my hometown teams (the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants) is involved; my recollection of the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 is indelibly colored by the fact that it happened just as the third World Series game between these very teams was about to begin. And this year some additional import was provided by the presence of a team representing the wounded but defiant city of New York, whose heroic figure of a mayor, Rudy Giuliani, is the Yankees’ most prominent fan. What’s more, the 2001 Series turned out to be one of the most dramatic in history.

As I was learning American English, I would sometimes quiz teachers and others about the relevance of the term “World Series” for what was then purely (and is now predominantly) an American competition. I never got a satisfactory answer; the one I remember best was something like “It’s the world of baseball, not the literal world.” But what about Cuba or Mexico? They play baseball, don’t they? “They don’t count; all the best players are here, even if they’re Cuban or Mexican.”

Identifying the United States with the world is an old American habit. Anyone, or anything, that is the best or the greatest of something in this country automatically becomes the best or the greatest in the world. The typical American’s lack of interest in, or knowledge of, the rest of the world (including world soccer) is notorious; whether this indifference or ignorance bespeaks arrogance or innocence is a matter of point of view. (Just to take English writers, the novelist John le Carré represents the former attitude and the historian John Elliott the latter.) Either way, it has long been the subject of jokes; Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad is just an extended joke on the subject. More recently, however – in an age of globalization, in which America has become the globe’s leading political, economic, military and cultural power – it has become the cause of exasperation.

There is no doubt that American culture (and I use “culture” in the broadest possible sense) is, along with many other national cultures, nationalistic. But it wouldn’t be correct to call it insular. If nationalistic cultures can be divided into open or universalizing ones and closed or insular ones (not counting those that don’t fit either extreme), then England, Japan and Germany, whose cultures are permeated with beliefs about the singular nature of their peoples, are of the insular type. American culture, however, is based on the belief that it is available to the whole world. On the one hand, any immigrant can become a great American by practicing the American way, and even the association with American geography – the frontier mythology, the image of the wide, open spaces – that some propound is tenuous at best; witness the joke, quoted by Harry Golden, that “only in America can a Jewish boy become Lord Mayor of Dublin.” On the other hand, if foreigners don’t come here, then we’ll send our culture to them.

When U.S. Marines would invade a Caribbean island, they would matter-of-factly teach the natives to play baseball, as did the U.S. Army in post-war Japan, and it is not the least bit jarring to Americans that some of this most American game’s greatest practitioners come from the Caribbean basin (and, of late, from East Asia). This is not the same as the dissemination of cricket in the British Empire, which was consciously meant as a symbol of British civilisation, and so was limited to the highly Anglicized native upper crust that was half-heartedly admitted to gentleman status. Even Robert Mugabe, who led Zimbabwe’s fight for independence from the Empire, said, “Cricket civilizes people and creates good gentlemen.”

At the same time, American culture absorbs what immigrants bring with them and makes it its own. Take Latin American writers as an example. The fact that, say, Isabel Allende lives and works among us is known and celebrated; though she continues to write in Spanish, she is an integral part of the American literary world. By contrast, the London residency of Mario Vargas Llosa and Guillermo Cabrera Infante has virtually no impact on the English (or British) cultural scene, except in Hispanist circles.

The notion of America as a homogenized concoction of its immigrant ingredients is at least as old as the past century, and has been expressed in various metaphors, from the metallurgical one of Israel Zangwill (“America is God’s crucible, the great melting pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!”) to the photographic one of Mary McCarthy (“The immense popularity of American movies abroad demonstrates that Europe is the unfinished negative of which America is the proof.”). That the focus is on Europe, rather than the world, reflects a myopia that was typical of the first three-quarters of the century; even in the 70s one would be hard-put to find in, say, Gourmet magazine a mention of Asian cuisine, now ubiquitous.

It was different in the 19th century, or at least in the period preceding the 1880s, the decade in which, on the one hand, the United States first experienced large-scale immigration from elsewhere than Germanic (or Germanicized Celtic) Europe, and, on the other hand, many of the features that characterize what we think of as the modern age – the telephone, the automobile, the skyscraper, international sports competition – first arose; most, though not all, right here.(1)

During its first century, the culture of the United States was fairly parochial and idiosyncratic, and most of the phenomena that were born during that period – revivalism and temperance, hoedowns and roundups, cowboys and vigilantes, baseball and (American) football – have had only a limited spread around the globe; they may be familiar to the world through the medium of Hollywood, but are viewed as quaint, “typically American,” and have not taken root worldwide. Now, these are precisely the elements that American nationalists of the nostalgic variety perceive as the most traditional, “good old American” values, and that have given birth to most of this country’s national metaphors (with the curious exception of apple pie, which in fact is as European as anything can get).

* * *

A few years ago I took a trip through East Germany (not “the former” East Germany; it may be the former German Democratic Republic, but as far as I could tell it’s still firmly in Germany’s eastern portion). While visiting Dresden I happened upon an article by a guest columnist in a local newspaper that was fairly critical of the anti-American stance that is still fashionable among his country’s (and, I might add, many other European countries’) intelligentsia. While avowing no great fondness for flat cakes of ground meat between halves of soft white buns or for sweet, brown, fizzy beverages, the writer pointed to the fact that the products of American mass culture and high culture seem to find ready acceptance among consumers in the world’s many cultures because the place they come from is itself a multicultural one. That is, the author seemed to imply, these products – foods, drinks, movies, blockbuster novels – already have to appeal to people of diverse cultural backgrounds back home in North America.

I was reading these ideas while seated, on that cool spring day in 1997, on a concrete bench in the open mall that had recently sprung up over the ruins of the old Prager Straße, the boulevard leading from the city’s center to its main railway station. The mall features three huge hotels (all belonging to the same chain), several department stores, and branch stores of nearly every conceivable consumer chain. The omnipresent McDonald’s is there of course, but so is a complex that is becoming almost as ubiquitous an outlet of American food marketing: Pizza Hut/Taco Bell (or is it Taco Hut/Pizza Bell?). Now the hamburger, though vaguely North German in origin (bœuf de Hambourg is already mentioned in Brillat-Savarin’s gastronomic treatise of 1826, Physiologie du goût), is acknowledged the world over to be as American as... well, a hamburger, as the writer of the article implied. But pizza and tacos are known even by Americans to have distinct geographic origins, and both the advertising of these products and the decor of their outlets tend to draw on stereotypical motifs of their home countries, including green-white-red flags.

It is, however, the American (per)versions of these delicacies, rather than their original forms, that are finding their way around the world. When it comes to pizza, even in Italy it is now difficult, except in and around Naples, to get the real thing, made not with sauce but with fresh tomatoes, fresh basil leaves, and fresh mozzarella. And nowhere outside of Mexico does one encounter that almost lascivious experience of the taco as a tiny, freshly made tortilla that just fits in the cup of one’s hand and that one holds with the crisper side down (to do otherwise is a grave breach of manners) in order to cover it – in moderation – with one of dozens of possible fillings, from stewed cactus to barbecued lamb tongue, then gently folds, and at last, carefully, brings the to one’s mouth to enjoy. Taco Bell indeed!

But that seems to be precisely the point. The authentic forms of cultural artifacts, be they food or drink, music or dance, folk tale or garment, are usually too exotic, too weird for most people outside the given culture (and even for many inside it) to enjoy without self-consciousness. The American form is, in a sense, predigested. It is homogenized, so that no single jarring element protrudes. Just as the diaphanous ingredients of the Neapolitan pizza have been replaced by sauce, so has Cuban dance music, with its immense variety of rumba, mambo, son, guaguancó and so on, been homogenized in New York and Miami into a sauce, duly baptized salsa, under which form it is now sweeping the world. (In Cuba, in order to accommodate tourists, the word salsa has been adopted, but, at least for the time being, Cubans still play and dance the old way). And, since the products have already been field-tested on a people that is itself highly heterogeneous, they are perceived as safe for the world.

In the summer of the following year I was staying in an Istanbul hotel where a wedding party happened to be taking place. The music was provided by a very skillful singer-keyboardist, a master of several styles, which he presented in this order: international pop, Turkish pop, and finally Turkish folk, specifically çifte telli, during which I was entertained by vigorous belly dancing by members – of both sexes – of the wedding party, including the bride in resplendent white gown. The first section included not only Anglo-American standards but also such classics as Bésame mucho and Les feuilles mortes; but these were sung in English, in the syrupy Hollywood versions, and Les feuilles mortes was of course “Autumn Leaves,” without the introduction (O je voudrais tant que tu te souviennes..) that gives the song its poignancy.

Only a few nights later I was at the Hotel Trimontium in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, where in the garden restaurant, on a lovely summer evening, a local band was playing for the guests, mostly members of a Danish tour group. With an excellent woman singer and three men playing kaval, gadulka and tapan, the band performed typical Bulgarian folk-dance music: dajchovo, rachenitsa, pajdushko... But after a break the same three men returned playing keyboards, electric guitar and drums, and the woman, with her rich beautiful voice, sang 50s and 60s rock and country classics as well as any American club singer, with the accompaniment up to snuff as well. After “Diana,” “Bye-bye love” and other standards came “Tennessee Waltz,” which segued into “La Bamba.” But of course it was “La Bamba” as popularized by Pete Seeger, the one with the added “Bamba, Bamba” refrain.

I greatly admire Pete Seeger as a human being and a performer of American folk songs. I also respect his intentions in popularizing songs of other nations. But his eagerness to do so sometimes transcends his grasp of the cultures they represent. La Bamba is a song from Veracruz, in the traditional form of coplas that are improvised on the spot, often as part of a contest. And in this form each copla is begun as soon as the preceding one ends, that is, each singer must think up his words while one of his rivals is still singing. And so the added refrain, by softening the competitive edge, goes against the very grain of the tradition. Of course those who sing it the Seeger way, from Ritchie Valens to the Plovdiv band of 1998, have not improvised coplas but sung some set lyrics (in Spanish!). But what is sad to me is that even Mexicans, except traditionalist Jarochos, have adopted this version.

I suppose that Seeger intuitively felt that his American audience needs a break from the relentless intensity of the authentic performance. It’s true that a large part of the enjoyment derives from understanding the lyrics and appreciating their spontaneous (and often slyly salacious) cleverness. But Americans are in general averse to listening to songs in foreign languages, and the success of La Bamba (as sung by Ritchie Valens) was very much an exception. In the 1970s Julio Iglesias was already the world’s most popular singer, but was all but unknown in the US until he began to sing in English.

I believe that a significant part of Americans’ ignorance of the world is due to a confusion between the Americanized versions of the world’s cultures that are represented in the United States and what those cultures are in their home countries. Most Americans are surprised to find out that no parades are held in Ireland on Saint Patrick’s Day or in Italy on Columbus Day, or that burritos are not normally served in Mexico, nor pastrami sandwiches in Israel.

At the same time, much of what the various cultures of the world produce for external consumption is, in a certain sense, Americanized. In the Western World (by which I mean not only the so-called First World but also much of Africa and Latin America) the American influence has penetrated so deeply, at least since 1945 (it was in 1941 that Henry Luce proclaimed “the American century”), that it is taken for granted, with its (pseudo-)Americanness often lost sight of. For example: the Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo first achieved fame with her tradition-inspired performance of African folk songs, but in time shifted to a more pop-like style which, while still undeniably African, fits far more comfortably with the “international” sound. I have heard Ms. Kidjo say that the traditional style was a kind of sellout to a condescending Western neocolonialism, and that for her, a middle-class city girl who had gone to university and grown up listening to Jimi Hendrix, the pop style actually felt more authentic. I believe it’s significant that the East German writer’s aforementioned observation was made in a country that, until fairly recently, had been more or less shielded from this pervasive influence of American culture, so that its irruption could be consciously perceived.

Americans, as a result, don’t get much of a chance to learn about the rest of the world unless they go there and make a point of staying away from made-for-export (or made-for-Americans) presentations, which many of the world’s peoples have become quite good at. Many a disaster of American foreign policy was caused by America’s politicians and diplomats taking at face value the posturing of foreign leaders, be they Arabian princes, Latin American oligarchs, or African colonels. All these worthies, often American-educated, know how to talk to Americans, especially to their fears (of oil shortages, of communism, of terrorism). And those Americans – there are many – who really know something about the world are not heeded in time.

* * *

There is a similarity between the present-day near-universality of American culture and the one that French culture enjoyed in the past. French culture is also of the open or universalizing type. No specific genius is ascribed to the ethnic hodgepodge that is the French people, which includes more or less Gallicized Basques, Germans, Flemings, Italians, Jews, Africans and others in addition to those who can legitimately – and not facetiously – invoke nos ancêtres les Gaulois. Indeed, the very ethnic diversity of the blue-jerseyed soccer team (les Bleus) that won the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 Europe Cup has been a source of great pride to the 85% of the French people who are not followers of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his ilk.

The French believe their culture to be based, above all, on the blessings that flow from the divine gift that is the French language, and the worldwide network of the Alliance française is meant to spread that gift generously to that portion of mankind that is unfortunately not yet francophone. With some success; it’s hard to think of a language in which so many outstanding poets who were not native speakers have plied their art: the Cuban Heredia, the Greek Moréas, the Flemings Verhaeren and Maeterlinck, the Italian Apollinaire, the Wolof Senghor; even Rilke and T.S. Eliot made their contributions. And while the heyday of French influence is long past, official France hasn’t given up, and it’s no coincidence that France is the only country on the continent that tries to make (heavily subsidized) blockbuster movies on the Hollywood scale (examples: Cyrano de Bergerac, The Horseman on the Roof, Queen Margot), based of course on French history but intended for worldwide consumption.

At the same time, France has long welcomed foreigners to participate in its cultural and social life. Among the pillars of French classical music are the Italian Lully and the German Jews Meyerbeer and Offenbach. The Paris School that dominated European painting and sculpture in the middle of the 20th century was composed mainly of immigrants such as Picasso, Miró, Modigliani, Chagall, Soutine, Brancusi, Lipchitz, Giacometti. And, stepping outside the arts, the man whom many French people over the last two centuries have regarded, for better or for worse, as the greatest Frenchman of all was an ethnic Italian: Napoleon Bonaparte.(2) The sense that the French have of their culture’s universality does not prevent them, however, of being acutely aware of their Frenchness – of those elements that distinguish France from other cultures, subsumed under the concept of l’exception française, and described by adjectives such as the mildly facetious franco-français or the frankly derogatory franchouillard. This awareness – along with its converse, an interest in and knowledge of the rest of the world(3) – is no doubt reinforced by the fact that France shares land borders with six countries (not counting Andorra or Monaco), borders that hardly ever coincide with traditional cultural or language boundaries, except for a few stretches along the crests of the central Pyrenees and of the Cottian Alps.

But, since the border regions often share large parts of their culture (dialect, cuisine, customs) with the neighboring regions across the border, it is inevitable that Flemish, German, Italian and Spanish tints have seeped into the French fabric. France’s long involvement in Africa, especially the Maghreb, has also had its consequences on French culture, and even English influences can be found. There are even great cultural differences among the regions that have been “French” for a long time, as the French historian-anthropologist Emmanuel Todd has pointed out. All of these features give French culture a great richness and variety.

This variety is, however, in a constant state of tension with the unifying, centralizing tendency, often called “Jacobin” (but in fact going back to well before the Revolution, at least to the time of Louis XIV). Perhaps it is the very fact of the border regions – or immigrant groups – sharing traits with foreign lands that instills a fear of splintering in the champions of French unity (who like to call themselves Republicans), be they on the right or (like the former minister, and current presidential candidate, Jean-Pierre Chevènement) on the left. But in fact any differential trait is threatening to them. Cultural regionalism and a limited use of local languages may be tolerated, but only as folklore.

Americans are quite used to hearing, when telephoning an American company’s customer service, a voice saying “To continue in English, press one” immediately followed by another voice saying “Para continuar en español, oprima el dos.” I am not aware of any objections to this practice. I am quite sure, however, that if its equivalent (with, say, French and Arabic) were to be heard in France, a national scandal would result.

Just the other day, the conservative-dominated French Senate greatly weakened the left-dominated National Assembly’s bill granting Corsica a very limited degree of autonomy. The relationship of Corsica to France can be compared, roughly speaking, to that of Puerto Rico to the United States. But while the American body politic is quite comfortable with a special political status(4) for an outlying island with a language and institutions different from the mainland norm, such an exception is intolerable to the self-styled Republicans of France. If there’s going to be any decentralization, they argue, then, parbleu!, it should apply to all regions, not just Corsica.

* * *

The wake left behind by the 2001 World Series is, of course, but a small track in a far larger, more turbulent wake: that of the September 11 attacks. If these events have shown one thing, it is that the United States must give up its view of itself as insulated by geography from what goes in the rest of the world (except Latin America). The oceans are so easily crossed by air and by telecommunications that virtually every country in the world must be regarded as a neighbor. In this regard, therefore, the United States is not as different from France as it once was, and may well learn from the French example – without falling into franco-français extremes – that a nation can hold its values in high esteem while remaining open to the world. Among the many American reactions to the attacks and their military aftermath, one of the most voiced has been a feeling that the country has lost its innocence. To the extent that Americans’ frivolous or naive outlook on the world is (or was), indeed, caused by innocence, this outlook might well change to a more serious one. To put it conversationally: it’s time for Americans to become more world-serious.


1. Almost the entire “modern” age, with the important exception of broadcast television, was created between about 1880 and 1925, with only refinements and extensions to follow, and with the unprecedented result that at the end of the twentieth century many objects created at its beginning were still experienced as modern, and that the oxymoronic notion of postmodernism had to be invented.

2. That a Corsican like Napoleon would be viewed as Italian by his contemporaries is apparent from Balzac’s story La vendetta, whose heroine, a young Corsican woman living in Paris, is repeatedly referred to as l’Italienne, and it doesn’t matter that Balzac was forced to use this designation for linguistic reasons – a reference to la Corse would create confusion over whether “the Corsican [woman]” or “Corsica” is meant.

3. It is characteristic of French movies, for example, that non-French characters almost invariably speak in their own language, unless they have a valid reason to speak French.

4. Puerto Rico’s status is often referred as “commonwealth status,” a misleading and meaningless designation, since the term “commonwealth” by itself conveys nothing about the political nature of the status; Massachusetts and Virginia are also commonwealths, after all, not to mention England under Cromwell. The Spanish designation Estado libre asociado (associated free state) is much more apropos.

August 8, 2002

© 2002 by Jacob Lubliner

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