August 23, 1999
Volume 52, No. 1
In European, USA cultural swap, who's coming out ahead?
No American traveling abroad this summer can avoid hearing criticism about the threat that our popular culture poses to the rest of the world.
Whether it's controversy about the new Disney theme park planned for Hong Kong, concern about Burger Kings and McDonald's on the Champs-Elysees, or the fear that American movies such as Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace will obliterate indigenous film industries with the flash of a light saber, people around the globe are increasingly troubled by the American cultural juggernaut.
Yet amid this concern about the Americanization of global culture, one important fact seems to have been ignored--that when cultures collide, the ripples from the resulting impact never go in just one direction.
Consider just a few examples of what might be called the Europeanization of American culture.
Thirty years ago, one could drive around almost any American city and rarely find people eating in sidewalk cafes, even in cities that have climates well suited to dining alfresco. Indeed, in the 1960s, sidewalk cafes were seen as a uniquely European phenomenon, something Americans would describe in postcards they sent home from Paris or Milan.
Today, restaurants with outside tables, the American version of the sidewalk cafe, have becomes fixtures in major cities across the country. For example, driving through Virginia-Highland or Little Five Points on a balmy night, you will pass dozens of restaurants, bars and coffee shops whose outdoor tables are often filled to overflowing.
And on those tables are other signs of Europeanization. As often as not, you'll find people sipping a glass of cabernet, chardonnay, merlot or pinot grigio. Thirty years ago, Americans seemed quite content drinking beer and hard liquor. Yet between 1966 and 1996, American wine consumption increased by almost 70 percent while liquor consumption fell by a third.
If Americans aren't drinking wine at those outdoor tables, then they're likely to be sipping cappuccinos, espressos or lattés. We do have a long history of coffee drinking, but in the past decade under the influence of Starbucks (whose shops were deliberately designed to resemble Italian coffeehouses), European coffee culture, complete with a whole new vocabulary, has entered the American mainstream.
Of course, it can be argued that Americans are very good at assimilating foods and culinary fashions from other cultures and that such assimilation has little significance. Eating pasta does not make one Italian.
But the Europeanization of American culture includes other trends that suggest some deeper changes are taking place in American life.
If we return to those cafe tables and listen in to the conversations in recent weeks, we would probably hear people discussing the victory of the U.S. women's soccer team in the World Cup. This victory is one of the most exciting sporting developments in years, not just because the U.S. team won but also because 90,000 people jammed into the Rose Bowl to witness it and an estimated 40 million more cheered the women on in front of their TVs.
In the past decade, soccer, the most popular sport in the world, has become as American as lattés and chardonnay.
But probably the most important manifestation of European culture in an American context occurred in a very different domain: politics.
During the past year, as we wrestled with the Lewinsky scandal, Europeans marveled at how much time and energy we wasted on what they dismissed as a private and not terribly important issue. As an elderly British couple I met in Brussels put it, "We don't understand you Yanks. This isn't a matter of state. The only people who should be concerned are Mr. Clinton, his wife and his minister."
The surprising thing about our response to the scandal was that most Americans agreed with that assessment. We separated our judgment of Clinton's behavior as president (which we generally believed was laudable) from his personal behavior (which we generally agreed was deplorable).
This is something new in American politics, a more nuanced and mature way of looking at our political leaders. And, as the song goes, it is also quite continental.
From this perspective, concerns about the Americanization of world culture look somewhat different. While we have been vigorously exporting Mickey Mouse, Whoppers and The Force, we have also been quietly importing outdoor cafes, wine culture, wonderful new coffee drinks, soccer and more complex ways of viewing our political leaders.
Perhaps what is really troubling people around the world is that we are so clearly getting the better of the deal.
Jeff Mirel is director of the Division of Educational Studies. This
article first appeared in the Aug. 2, 1999, issue of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.