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Canadian Review of American Studies/ Revue ca11adiem1e d'etudes amerrcames Volume 2.7,Number J, 1997, pp. 85-98 The Atlantic Gulf of Comprehension: European Responses to American Media Imperialism David Hutchison 85 It is against the United States that the charges of economic imperialism, cultural imperialism, and media imperialism are most often levelled, although other western nations also find themselves in the dock. It is certainly true that in the 1990s the Americans have sought to eliminate trade barriers worldwide, and it is far from clear that weaker economies necessarily benefit in the short or medium term from being exposed to the full blast of free competition, although in the longer term there may be substantial payoffs. When it comes to culture generally and the media in particular, the issues for debate are relatively dear-cut, whatever the time scale: does access to the culture of the United States necessitate the weakening or destruction of the cultures of other less economically powerful nations, and if it does, is 1t a price worth paying? Some snapshots: winter, 1991, in Moscow, not long after the failed coup agamst Mikhail Gorbachev, across the street from the uninspiring state restaurant, ,l huge queue has formed outside of a recently opened pizza par- 86 Canadian Review of American Studies Revtte canadienne d'etudes ameru:aines lour; summer, 1993, in Prague, facing the beautiful art nouveau Municipal House, a colossal billboard shows the location of the city's new and forthcoming McDonald's restaurants; summer, 1996, outside of a little cinema on Lake Balaton, the posters announce current and forthcoming attractions , only one of which is Hungarian. Readers can no doubt supply their own examples of the process which is at work here. And eastern Europe is a fascinating place to observe it, for, because of the relatively closed nature of most of the societies there until very recently, American culture was not nearly as prevalent as it was in the rest of Europe. In a sense a dam has burst, and what was once forbidden has been leapt upon and devoured, literally and metaphorically. However it is highly unlikely that McDonald's and assorted pizza chains will eliminate either authentic Russian or Czech restaurants, no matter how popular they are with the young. The success of these fast-food companies, sometimes in the most improbable places, is due not just to the menus they offer, nor their marketing skills, but owes much to the kind of symbolic transaction which takes place every time a young Russian, Czech, or indeed Briton, buys a Big Mac: it is not only meat, flour, and potatoes which are being consumed, but also the very image of America, the land of opportunity, the land of immense wealth, and the land which has produced the most exciting and vibrant popular culture in the world. The young dream rather more than the middle aged, who have been forced by time and circumstance to grapple with reality, and it would be surprising if their dreams were not full of images and sounds from across the Atlantic. That surely is a problem only when it becomes impossible to dream in any images other than those provided by the American media industries. So it is not difficult to be sanguine about the impact of fast-food chains on the ways of life of the world outside of the United States, for they have arrived at the end of culinary histories that may be thousands of years old, and although these histories may change they are not going to vanish. When it comes to the media-and cinema and television in particular-things are a little more complicated. Unlike high culture, which in most countries-like cooking-enjoys a long lineage, the media are modern in origin. As every student knows, early on in its existence cinema was organised in the United States on an industrial basis with division of labour and large production lines. Like the motor industry, 1tenjoyed a huge home market which enabled David Hutch1so11 I 87 1tto spend generously on product development with a reasonable expectation of a return on investment, and, like the motor industry, it used that home market...


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