Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Desruction of the American Century

If one is a student of history, one realizes that over the centuries, various nations have risen to dominance only to later slide into decline.  Think of ancient Egypt, the Persian Empire, the Roman Empire, China in the first millennium, Spain at its height, France, the British Empire, and then there's America.  Sometimes decline comes from internal forces - e.g., Christianity's undermining of the Roman Empire or Britain's failure to modernize its industrial base - while other times imperial over reach and prolonged wars have sapped nations' finances, and yet other times challenges from rising nations trigger decline.  A piece in Salon looks at how the champions of American exceptionalism, typically Republicans, have undermined America and hastened the destruction of the so-called American Century.  Much like the most strident Christofasists who are killing Christianity even as they claim to be working to save it, today's pro-endless war, pro-discrimination Republican Party and its hate and fear motivated base are giving America an ugly face around the world and re-enforce the very stereotypes that our enemies use against us. Here are article highlights:
The news that an al-Qaida recruitment video prepared in Somalia refers to anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States and includes footage of Donald Trump shows the profound damage that the Republican front-runner is doing to America’s international image. Trump’s bearing is all swagger, but he and his zealous supporters project a weak and defensive stance to the world. They have redefined the United States as hostile and fearful.

Unwittingly, these right-wing champions of American exceptionalism have brought about the end of the American century. They announce the end of an era in which America offered a positive image of openness, possibility and the potential of the individual.

The “American century” names an intimate connection between the international reach of American culture and the global power of the United States in economic, political and military terms. It is based on the idea that the popularity and attractiveness of American culture has positive political benefits for the United States.

But because of the global reach of U.S. culture and media in the digital age, Trump and his disaffected supporters’ message of rage and intolerance has become the new face of America.

Conspiracy theorists, racists, anti-Semites, haters of Islam, and misogynists, these Americans are fueled by a combination of disorientation and resentment. The world has left them behind. They do not speak its languages and barely recognize their new surroundings. The familiarity of stereotypes and hate-filled slurs is their comfort.

They fashion themselves as a cultural right wing and defenders of American values. They support Trump, but other Republican candidates would like their endorsement.

Bringing down the American century is not something you can do by yourself.  This militia of the marginal used the greatest creation of the American century to bring about its downfall—the Internet.  

The American century was built on a positive aura, not hate. From the romantic comedies of classic Hollywood to Coke’s “I’d like to teach the world to sing,” America exported the promise of love.

In Henry Luce’s influential 1941 essay “The American Century,” the publishing magnate argued that American culture had a crucial role to play in world politics. Luce argued against the isolationists and the nativists when he suggested that we were already an international power: “American jazz, Hollywood movies, American slang, American machines and patented products, are in fact the only things that every community in the world, from Zanzibar to Hamburg, recognizes in common.”

But the ingenuity of American creativity and the positive message could inspire and empower too. And some of our greatest corporations, including Google, Yahoo and eBay, were founded by immigrants to the United States.

Luce’s sense that the international reach of American culture had a role to play in creating and maintaining the conditions for the political supremacy of the U.S. was soon taken as a truism.

As the Cold War wound down, much of the state-funded cultural apparatus was dismantled. The U.S. Information Agency, which had been created in 1953 to prevent cultural programs from seeming like propaganda, was dissembled finally in 1999. The Cold War was over. We thought we had won.

In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, some commentators argued that we should bring back our Cold War cultural diplomacy, that in the battle for hearts and minds, we had a great tool.

From Fez to Tehran, young Arabs and Iranians are intimately familiar with American popular culture. As I argue in my new book, “After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East,” a newer generation across the Middle East and North Africa made a distinction between America as a creator of cultural products and the United States as a geopolitical entity. That meant that through the 1990s and 2000s, they could continue to enjoy and consume our attractive culture without contradicting their increasing dismay regarding our policies in their region. But as the Internet has developed as a space where comment boards and hate speech flourishes, that gap is closing.

Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim comments —and the massive support they are receiving—are heard loud and clear in Muslim majority countries. Whether it is Trump’s, Rubio’s or those of the American governors who deny Syrian refugees entry to their states, these voices wipe out State Department efforts to convince the world that the war on terror is not a war on Muslims.

Supplemented by thousands of hateful comments by the militia of the marginal, and paired with massively influential products such as the hateful “Innocence of Muslims” video from 2012, the new American discourse of hate and fear wipes out decades of more hopeful and inspiring American cultural products.

Can we still harness the positive attitude of optimism, hope and ingenuity that represents the best of the previous era and restart a new relationship to the world based on respect, trust, and partnership?
Over a decade ago when I was in British Columbia when George W. Bush was running for re-election, I heard a number of times warm feelings expressed towards Americans even as derogatory remarks were made about Bush and America's ill advised Middle East attempts at conquest.  Now, the picture of Americans that many foreigners see is that of the racists, white supremacists and lunatic "militia" crowds of the GOP base.  The warm feelings I experienced are being slowly and steadily killed the images being broadcast abroad.  Back in May in Paris, we did our best to not come across as being Americans and the result was that we were treated very warmly.

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