- Somewhat Like Us
For two different sorts of tourists there are two dramatically different nightmares about Europe. The first is ages old and teeming with surly French waiters, incomprehensible languages, uncomfortable and cold hotels, bizarre plumbing, crowded trains, and unrecognizable food. To others there is the frightening vision of a Europe lying supine before an American invasion of vulgarity: marauding legions of hamburger patties and tidal waves of Coca-Cola. For those Americans and Europeans who want Europe to be different, the seductions of American mass culture, from action films to “Baywatch,” fast food to rock ‘n roll, are a grand and bitter disappointment. Richard Pells understands these reactions well, although it is the latter that he finds most interesting and important. In assessing what “Americanization” means and how it has affected various European societies, he has written a superbly sensible and intelligent essay. And his conclusion is a surprise: despite the amazing changes in European society since 1945, it has not become just like us—the Golden Arches and Euro Disney to the contrary notwithstanding.
Who has a stake in this debate about difference; where does the concern come from; and why is it so powerful and persistent? There are, first of all, tourists who voyage to Europe in search of difference and quaintness—for the experience of being not-American. This is a complicated gesture based as much on American fantasies, popular culture, and nostalgia as anything else. As with tourists everywhere the “differences” are often planned, stereotyped, and controlled. Too much difference would be incomprehensible and frightening; too little would make Europe appear too American. For very different reasons, there are other groups that wish to make Europe more American. On occasion, as after World War II in Germany, American policy was designed to transform German values and political institutions into practice derived from the American experience. This democratic instruction was sometimes even projected into relations with other European countries during the Cold War years. Still other groups, particularly in the business community, hoped to [End Page 674] transform European tastes and purchases, to direct them toward American commodities and consumption patterns. These include manufacturers, agricultural producers, and film and television studios. For these groups, Americanization means the consumption of American culture.
Nonetheless, a large group of American and European critics views all this as an assault upon tradition, variety, and elite culture. Aside from tourists in search of difference, there are Americans who loathe their own mass culture and see European nations as the bastions of tradition and values. To them, the invasion of film, television, rock ‘n roll, and American sports is nothing more than an extension of the corruption already dominant in the United States. Many Europeans agree and believe that American mass culture represents a dire threat to valuable traditions. From this position of cultural nationalism, various individuals and governments have attempted to establish cultural tariffs and other forms of limitation on imports from America. The result is a powerful revival of nationalism in places like France, Germany, and England designed to face down what has been called American cultural imperialism.
While Pells is sympathetic to all of these groups, he is really more concerned with assessing the reality of their fears. Is Europe becoming Americanized? Is modernization the same as Americanization? How have Europeans responded to the influx of American commerce and culture? What has changed and what has not? Do persisting differences constitute real difference?
Behind much of this musing is an assumption that a great many European critics of the American invasion steadfastly hold to. This is the notion that modernization, social improvement, democratization, even revolution, should extend the privileges of cultural elites and the treasures of Western civilization to the masses. Many European political and cultural radicals have long assumed that improving the lot of the ordinary European worker or peasant meant increasing their exposure to this elite culture. Imagine their dismay when that cultural democracy has brought rock ‘n roll, Mickey Mouse, Terminators...