Culture

The Increasing Implausibility of Cultural Imperialism

|

George Mason University economist, NY Times columnist, and occasional Reason contributor Tyler Cowen draws a bead on the common argument that American cultural products crush, kill, destroy local efforts around the globe:

The complaint of "cultural imperialism" is looking increasingly implausible….the funk of James Brown helped shape the music of West Africa; Indian authors draw upon Charles Dickens; and Arabic pop is centered in France and Belgium. Western cultural exports are as likely to refresh foreign art forms as to destroy them. Western technologies—from the metal carving knife to acrylic paint to digital filmmaking—have spurred creativity worldwide.

Culture is not a zero-sum game, so the greater reach of one culture does not necessarily mean diminished stature for others. In the broad sweep of history, many different traditions have grown together and flourished. American popular culture will continue to make money, but the 21st century will bring a broad mélange of influences, with no clear world cultural leader.

Read more here.

Hat tip: Cafe Hayek.

I interviewed Cowen in 2003, when his excellent book-length treatment of globalization's impact on culture, Creative Destruction, came out. Check it out here.

NEXT: IP Imperialism: A Roundup

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Tyler still has a lot of ground to make up after questioning why there was still a market for porn.

  2. Acutally the techno music that comes out of the Middle-East is pretty cool and a lot better than most of what the U.S. and Europe produces. If there is any cultural imperialism going on it is that American culture and pop music is being pulverized by Hip Hop.

  3. I can’t stand hip hop at all. It’s like a revolution that gets institutionalized because so many people are making money. It’s the worst kind of revolution: one where the revolutionaries become everything they claim to despise.

    On the issue of imperialism, I tend to think that a free (e.g., unrestricted) exchange of ideas and art is a good thing, regardless of whether money is changing hands and regardless of which direction that money goes.

  4. So I guess Cowen and his admirers dont have a problem with the creative destruction of the English language, as it grows together, flourishes, finally resulting a new melange of Spanglish.

  5. “So I guess Cowen and his admirers dont have a problem with the creative destruction of the English language, as it grows together, flourishes, finally resulting a new melange of Spanglish.”

    Well, what we speak today is just Old English after it grew tofether with Norman French. Changes happen. That said, it is harder for languages to change in this day and age. They add new words but changing in structure and turning into completely new languages the way Latin did is a lot more difficult because of mass communication.

  6. It always astounds me that the “cultural imperialism” debate is framed in Western domination. Any American with eyes to see can attest that American culture has imported as much as it has exported throughout its history. For example, my girlfriend and I might eat chicken tikka masala (Indian cuisine) while watching Sabado Gigante (Latino variety television) before the Montreal Canadiens-New Jersey Devils hockey game (an originally Canadian sport). I simply implore that those denouncers of “cultural imperialism” admit that their anti-globalization stance is based on nativist bigotry as much as it is on ‘preserving the integrity of unique human cultures.’ Even then, they implicitly treat these ‘victims’ of “cultural imperialism” as endangered species rather than people like the remainder of us, who, now more than ever, are able to enjoy the creativity of a single, diverse human community.

  7. Chris it is a lot darker than that. A lot of it is about keeping brown people in some kind of a zoo like state of “native cultures” so rich Westerners can visit them. I am serious. There are people out there who actually lament electricity coming to poor African villages because there used to be such a great communal life before electricity and now everyone just stays in their homes and watches TV. It is bizzare.

  8. Yes, the persistent ideal of the “noble savage”: conceived to allay both disappointment with Western ‘decadence’ and guilt for Western ‘imperialism.’ Now, to be fair, much exists throughout Western modernity about which to be disappointed and feel guilty, but to rely on this “noble savage” rather than correct the situation at home is lazy, at best, and cowardly, at worst. In assuaging this decadence and guilt, Westerners simply perpetuate it.

  9. There are people out there who actually lament electricity coming to poor African villages because there used to be such a great communal life before electricity and now everyone just stays in their homes and watches TV.

    Jesus H Christ on a popsicle stick…for once, John and I agree on something.

    Yeah, I’ve always found this logic absurd. I mean, it’s one thing to study primitive tribes for awhile fo anthropological value. And if they want to stay primitive that’s cool too.

    But it’s another thing entirely to want or try to keep them that way out of some misguided notion about progress in general or your own culture in particular.

  10. What was the name of that MTV show with Cameron Diaz or Drew Barrymore or some other non-entity flinging shit at native huts in Africa? I’m sorry I never got a chance to catch it.

  11. There are people out there who actually lament electricity coming to poor African villages…

    And how many of these people are there, actually? In a world of billions there you are bound to find a few cranks who believe this, but you’re talking the same magnitude as the-moon-landings-were-a-hoax people.

  12. Culture is a zero sum game. There are only so many hosts to culture (aka people). There is only so much mindshare to go around.

    There is value in diversity, and when another culture adopts Western artifacts it becomes less novel. If every person in the US was a Beyonce fan it would be just as deplorable as if they were all Tom Waits fans, regardless of the relative merits of the entertainers.

    But we’re not talking about the relative merits of native prairie grass vs. scotch thistle and purple loosestrife. People have a right to freedom, and freedom means getting to choose. People integrate foreign cultures into their own because they find utility in them. Hindering the process of cultural drift lowers the sum. While it’s a loss to the world whenever a craft or a dance or a language dies out, nobody should be forced to perpetuate one.

    One could argue that Western culture has some of the characteristics of an attractive nuisance. Maybe we can’t put down the crack pipe called TV, but we can council against others using. But ultimately foreigners aren’t children. They will decide for themselves.

  13. “There is value in diversity, and when another culture adopts Western artifacts it becomes less novel.”

    While living in South Korea, I preferred ‘their’ Lotteria to ‘our’ McDonald’s, because a bulgogi burger drenched in soy barbecue sauce and mayonaisse was, to my initial surprise, delicious. When “another culture adopts Western artifacts,” it does not become “less novel;” it becomes more creative (for another example, consider pizza in America).

    “One could argue that Western culture has some of the characteristics of an attractive nuisance. Maybe we can’t put down the crack pipe called TV, but we can council against others using.”

    I suppose that we should consider Telemundo in America as a nuissance, in addition to recordings of Koranic recitations at falafel stands. Maurkov, while promoting the liberty of cultural exchange, you, nonetheless, repeatly regress towards cultural self-consciousness. The freedom to acquire culture should be celebrated not only in what we can receive, but in what we can offer, as well. If only we perceived our cultures as products to be shared, rather than contrived identities to be protected, I believe that the world would be a much more humane and peaceful place.

  14. In the broad sweep of history, many different traditions have grown together and flourished.

    And some of those traditions have been purposefully supressed (though never completely – as the celebration of Saturnalia, er, Christmas, illustrates). The way any two or three or four or etc. cultures interact is always a mixed bag.

  15. Nick Gillespie,

    In other words, it isn’t that cultural imperialism is implausible – human history is replete with examples of it after all – it is that it isn’t a process that leads to uniform results, or results which are necessarily terrible outcomes. Nor is it always successful.

  16. Pardon, but the argument about an exclusive allocation of “mindshare” is just incomprehensible.

    My first thought here is, what do you want? Are you seriously suggesting that a given mind is better being able to intellectualize but not synthesize two approaches to culture?

    Also, is you culture ever a choice in the sense that you get to pick between exclusive concepts?

    The argument here is that more content to synthesize is better, while the counter argument seems to be that ignorance of western alternatives empowers you to choose your culture somehow.

  17. None of us should advocate for “cultural imperialism”: it is the intentional act of one culture to dominate all other cultures as a policy of preservation–thus, displaying the inherent insecurity of that culture. Neoconservatism and Islamicism are examples of such: convert or die. Of course, such movements have arisen throughout history because human beings are inclined naturally to relate to their born identity (absolutely no pun intended) more than their, while different, nonetheless fellow men and women. Now, if it were these groups–in addition to the anti-globalization warriors of the status quo–were to accept free cultural exchange instead of cultural institutionalism, we would be a much more conscience, secure species, indeed.

  18. Chris,

    Chicken Tikka Masala is actually an English creation spun off of the popularity of Indian cuisine in the Isles. Some are calling it the “national dish of England”.

    It’s kind of like General Tso’s Chicken in America.

    Lends credence to what you said later about Korean burger joints.

    Hell, even at a McDonald’s in the Middle East, you can find the McArabia Meal – basically kofta wrapped up in sandwich form. Pizza there is also unique – all pepperoni/ham/sausage is beef-based (which gives it a very distinct flavor – sausage is dissapointingly a lot like bologna). Also, pizzas where I’ve been are ALWAYS served with ketchup packets.

  19. Chris, I’m just curious about whether you would regard an attempt to displace an insular, tribal, violently militant culture with one that was basically open and inclusive as a reprehensible act of “cultural imperialism.”

  20. Timon19,

    Thanks for correcting my ignorance regarding chicken tikka masala. Like you posted, it simply is another example of cultural exchange, synthesis–and the free market that promotes its possibility. Thanks, again!

  21. R C Dean,

    Yes, I would. Many people worldwide consider the attacks of September 11, 2001, to be a reaction to American cultural imperialism–but the attackers and their supporters themselves were not reactionaries: they were radicals who believed in the supremacy of their culture and in its time being nigh. The reaction of many Americans afterwards was similar: it would not be enough to pursue, capture, prosecute–and execute–those criminals who actually committed to the attacks; we must transform the entire region into an Americanized democracy, the supremacy of which should be obvious and welcomed by the majority of the region’s inhabitants. Now, I prefer American democracy to the alternatives that the region present–and I certainly believe that we should advocate for tolerance and liberty in the region–but the critical consequences of America’s imposition are not only obvious in their arrogance: they advertise our ignorance and hypocrisy. We do more by denouncing the imprisonment of that Egyptian student than we would by destroying the entire Maghreb.

  22. The premise was absurd on its face to begin with, simply because foreign culture so massively impacts American culture that it’s always been clear that an exchange of ideas is occuring rather than the squelching of ideas.

    I mean look at someone like Quentin Tarentino, he hops about from the Japanese filmmakers to Sergio Leone to Americans like Peckinpah.

    Hell, I recently saw a Chechnyan movie where the lead actress played a Chechnyan mental patient who believed she was dating Bryan Adams (who had the good taste to actually be in the movie).

    But I guess the socialists never could conceive of exchanges benefiting both parties, whether of goods or ideas.

  23. Chris it is a lot darker than that. A lot of it is about keeping brown people in some kind of a zoo like state of “native cultures” so rich Westerners can visit them. I am serious. There are people out there who actually lament electricity coming to poor African villages because there used to be such a great communal life before electricity and now everyone just stays in their homes and watches TV. It is bizzare.
    I think it has more to do with the shame the anti-impieralists feel for their own culture; they despise our evil, materialist culture, and don’t like to see that nautre spread onto other cultures.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.