Cultural Imperialism as Idea & Meme

From: Dace (
Date: Tue 17 Jun 2003 - 17:52:26 GMT

  • Next message: Wade T. Smith: "Re: Cultural Imperialism as Idea & Meme"

    I've recently come across a book, *Why Do People Hate America?* (Ziaudden Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies, New York: Disinformation, 2002) that ought to be required reading in every high school and college across the land. I can't imagine any people on earth more in need of self-reflection than Americans. But this book is also highly relevant to memetics, due to a particularly brilliant chapter entitled, "American Hamburgers and Other Viruses."

    Sardar and Davies contrast traditional imperialism with the American-led version known as globalization. The basic difference is that imperialism was always a fully conscious and intentional act, whereas globalization is more akin to a viral infection. Thus we can say that traditional "cultural imperialism" is an ordinary idea while "globalization" is a memetic idea. This is a very illuminating example of the difference between ideas that passively replicate via human consciousness and self-replicating (memetic) ideas. Here's an excerpt, pp 130-132:

    "It will be wrong," says Steve Fuller, the American academic who occupies the Chair of Sociology at the University of Warwick, "to think of American-led globalisation as a form of cultural imperialism. The idea of cultural imperialism implies a much more planned and directed impact on the native culture-- what used to be called 'ideological warfare,' in which people are explicitly told, or forced, to give up their traditional customs and adopt Western ones. But this is not really America's style. Indeed, unlike European cultural imperialism, the US government is rarely directly involved in the most pervasive forms of cultural terrorism, such as McDonaldisation." The desirability of American cultural products-- which are perceived to be superior, modern, the wave of the future-- means that the "victims" themselves play an important role in the spread of American culture. Fuller sugests that to really understand what America is doing to the rest of the world, we need to think of US cultural practices in terms of
    "bioterrorism," which is almost the exact opposite of the classical form of warfare and cultural imperialism.

    "First, [bioterrorism] has no clear goal or point. One does not win a bioterrorist campaign: one simply hopes that the spread of the germ or virus will be as disruptive to society as possible. This may then lay the condition for achieving some other goal. Second, the bioterrorists themselves only start the campaign. Most of the actual 'warfare' is conducted by the victims themselves, who infect each other with the germ or virus in their day-to-day interactions. Third, as the bioterrorist campaign spreads, and the effects of the germs and viruses are combined with other effects, it becomes virtually impossible to find any single responsible agent, since by that point almost all the victims have become complicit in its spread.

    "McDonald's illustrates this sense of cultural terrorism beautifully. Consider the sign in front of every Golden Arches: 'Billions served.' Notice it is not: 'Billions fed.' From a marketing standpoint, this is a very striking slogan. It points to no goal other than the proliferation of burgers, and it makes no reference to the response of those to whom the burgers are served. But, as we know, the proliferation of burgers has had a devastating effect on most of the world-- from forcing natives to adopt the practices of American culture to blighting their cultural and physical landscapes. In fact, when the natives start behaving more like the burger giants, and start infecting themselves with their attitudes and behaviour
    (impatience, obesity, heart disease, etc.), they become even more susceptible to even more American interventions. By the time serious damage has been done, enough of the natives will have personally benefited from the intervention that it will be very difficult to undo."

    While the "biological terrorism" of the ubiquitous hamburger culture has reduced the cultural geography of the world to a totalising American space, killing the languages, architecture, film industries, television programming, music and art of most of the developing world, American cultural space itself is free from all "contamination." The "free trade" in the cultural sphere is purely one-way.

    If we conflate all culturally-transmitted ideas with memes, then we have no way of distinguishing traditional from American-style cultural imperialism. The model of memetics is useful only to the extent that it clearly demarcates memetic and non-memetic cultural transmission.

    While I'm at it, here's another excerpt, pp 134-136:

    Thus, while the rest of the world is suffocating under the weight of American cultural products, Americans themselves are totally insulated from non-American cultures. "The musical scene is almost as uniform as its televisual cousins-- an unbroken vista of American pop, hip-hop and country broken only by the occasional breakthrough of a big British band. Mention Om Kalsoum, the transcendent Egyptian singer beloved throughout the Arab world or Lata Mangastar, the Indian female vocalist who has sold more records than anyone ever, including Michael Jackson and the Beatles, and the average American music lover will stare in blank incomprehension," says
    [Margaret] Wertheim. Of course, this situation is not restricted to America-- it is symptomatic of a more general problem in the West as a whole, where this is little awareness of non-Western arts and cultures. But America seems worse because it is in a dominant position to export its culture-- and it is, moreover, as ignorant of European culture as it is of any other.

    This is one reason why many Americans cannot imagine the depths of resentment they evoke. As Wertheim notes: "They seem not to be able to imagine life itself in any guise other than the one they themselves are enmeshed in. And how could they, when their cultural landscape is so thoroughly mono-toned? It is quite unrealistic to expect that someone brought up on a diet of exclusively American media should comprehend the dynamics of Arab culture or appreciate the struggle needed to survive in an African village. If we have here a failure of the collective American imagination, that lack has at least some of its roots in the abject failure of the American cultural production industries which resolutely refuse to open their doors to anything foreign." In short, Americans themselves become the victims of, and are strangulated by, American cultural hyper-imperialism.

    The question thus arises: if the majority of Americans are ignorant of other cultural possibilities and modes, are they therefore innocent of their own culture's increasingly virulent hyper-imperialism? What, then of US innocence? Are US citizens any more culpable than HIV, a wholly insentient life form? Can the ignorance of American citizens of the bioterrorism of their culture be excused? Ignorance here is essentially wilful. As Margaret Wertheim points out: "Too few Americans seem to want to know about other cultural options; too few are prepared to engage with other people's choices, others' ways of being. In the land of the free, the underlying eithic of too much discourse is that one is free only to do things 'our way.' As Henry Ford said of his motor car: 'You can have it in any color you like as long as it's black.' In this case, of course, the singular option is white. Ignorance may be bliss-- though in the wake of 9-11 even that old faith has been called into question. As American-led globalisation decimates the cultures of the world, the responsibility rests with American citizens to preserve what we might call cultural biodiversity. American citizens can no more evade that responsibility and retain moral integrity than they can evade their duty to participate in preserving actual biodiversity. Continued evasion can only result in more hatred abroad and more retaliation at home."

    In standard cultural imperialism, there's a clear-cut division between aggressor (domestic) and victim (foreign). But in the mindless, memetic version, the aggressors themselves are merely the first line of victims, whose infection is the most virulent and implacable of all the victims.


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