CULTURE WAR, OR JUST DEMOCRACY IN ACTION?
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
FRANKFURT, Germany - The question for today is why we - Europeans and Americans alike - have trouble respecting each other's rights to make choices in movies or sandwiches or politics. The following are musings by a naive tourist as to television and music, peace and war.
Back home, Americans are vaguely aware of the term "cultural imperialism." It is meant to signify the takeover of traditional European cultural institutions by those upstart Americans and their pop culture. We have been accused of overrunning their movies and television and finally - the ultimate insult - McDonald's moving into European cuisine.
As a naive wanderer I discovered a little about what this means in practice as I looked at cable tv, checked out movie theaters and shopped in department stores. In Nurnberg, I talked to a ticket seller at a movie theater. He explained that with the exception of one new German film, the selections were American. You could see "The Island," "Herbie Fully Loaded," "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," or "Madagascar." At least "Herbie" involves a Volkswagen.
In other theaters, the whole range of American first-run films were showing, ranging from the new Star Wars episode to the German showing of "Crash," which has been retitled "L.A. Crash." It is a curious experience to look at a German ad for that film showing the view from Gaffey Street, San Pedro, just blocks from where I live.
The posters in front of theaters mainly advertise American films, whose titles have been translated into the local language.
There are quite a few other films, ranging from French and Spanish dramas to German comedies, but the overwhelming blanketing of the first-run film market by Hollywood products is clear.
I walked into a McDonald's and ordered a Greek salad. It took a bit of doing because my German is awfully rusty but the many locals were having no problem. Burger King has now joined McD's in the cultural culinary wars. Both appear to be popular with the locals; I saw no picketing agricultural lobbyists protesting this latest incursion, just lots of people buying hamburgers in their native tongue.
It's when you click on the tv remote control that the American incursion becomes most evident. "Alf" (as in Alien Life Form) is followed by Donald Sutherland and Nicholas Cage, followed in turn by Tom Selleck and then other crime serials. "Beverly Hills 90210" was a big hit in parts of Europe in times past, as explained to me once by a young man who couldn't quite pronounce "Hills" in our dialect (he pronounced it more like "eels") but who loved the show.
This is not to say that German television is monopolized by American shows. There are many local programs with a wide range of styles and topics. But there sure are lots of American dramas with dubbed dialogue going out over these European cables.
It is a situation quite different from our American experience. Most of our programming is home-grown, with the odd English comedy cropping up on PBS every now and then. Europeans seem to accept a sizable proportion of American product in their television and movies.
A visit to a German department store underscores these observations. DVD's for American films fill the shelves: "Kill Bill Vol. 1 and II," "Wall Street," various films by John Wayne and Jim Carrey are all in there competing with the native fare. When it comes to DVD collections of television shows, the American influence is strong. Here are a few selections of American shows dubbed or subtitled for the German consumer: "Sex and the City," "ER," "M.A.S.H.," "Charlie's Angels," "The Golden Girls," "Magnum P.I.," "Dallas," "Quincy," and "Ally McBeal."
In an area of the world renowned for its long-enduring culture, the art forms of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries are dominated by American products. We may ask whether this actually represents some sort of cultural invasion and if so, whether this is necessarily a bad thing. There are at least a couple of lines of argument in opposition.
For one thing, this so-called cultural invasion of ours is awfully superficial. Fast cars and smoking guns and the odd outer-space alien do not make for an attack on the European culture. They can't, because they don't actually represent any real form of life or culture. They are the personification of comic book culture.
As Americans, we recognize that most television drama is just that - overly dramatized fiction that no more represents the way we live than "Popeye" or "Superman." In a cultural milieu that goes back a thousand years and has its own super-hero myths, our tough-guy private eyes and metropolitan homicide detectives are not that much of a threat to cultural underpinnings that go back to the Edda and the Nibelungenlied.
To the extent that American television represents real cultural change, for example the Sexual Revolution or the wider acceptance of religion in political life, the Europeans have been ahead of the American curve. At this level, the American presence in European mass media doesn't represent cultural imperialism so much as it reflects shared trends common to both sides of the Atlantic.
We even have a clue that our cultural invasion, if it be such, is less than overwhelmingly successful. As one example, American mass media are particularly obsessed with the car culture and scenes featuring gas guzzlers chasing each other at insane speeds. But any five-minute walk in a European city will make clear that Europeans have not adopted any part of this fantasy, either in the designs or the makes of their automobiles. Neither cars nor machine tools nor high fashion follow the American lead.
So we are left with the observation that Europeans watch a lot of American television and film even as they go their own way in most other matters. This leads to a couple of conclusions that may be either captivating or disturbing to people on both continents, depending on their various prejudices.
If Europeans are capable of making choices on their own, as they surely are where it comes to cars and fashion, then we should interpret their propensity to watch American television and movies as the exercise of free choice by people living in democratic societies. We like BMW's and Rolex watches (or would if we could afford them), they happen to like "90210" and "Dallas." I happen to like operas by Puccini and Wagner, and some Europeans obviously like "Magnum P.I."
In this sense, the concern of "cultural imperialism" is simply the bleating of ethnocentrics about competition in the entertainment marketplace. Maybe, when you get right down to it, the Americans just put out a better product when it comes to television sitcoms and police shoot-em-ups, and European consumers respond accordingly. Americans who have enough money do the analogous thing when they buy that BMW. It is the exercise of freedom in the consumer space.
This view of freedom as applied to the European consumer has one corollary that is strongly political. If we defend the principles of democracy and apply them to all, surely the freedom to choose which movie to see is among the least important; if other democracies are sovereign and free, we must respect their decision to join us or not in our latest war.
And that is the strongest reaction that I take from European media and people in their home region. These are countries and peoples that by history and geography identify themselves with their own native lands, not with America.
It couldn't be more obvious when you think about it, but the American political climate doesn't require us to and usually we don't. But by not thinking about it, we keep making political mistakes that may cost thousands of lives and create deep rifts between us.