mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


Global Image Problem

For Malcolm Adams, as for most people around the world, America is
more a mental image than a real place. I met Malcolm in June 2001,
when he was driving a long-distance bus along the southern coast of
South Africa. When he learned I was from the United States, his eyes
lit up with glee. America is the idol for many people in South
Africa, he said.

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His clothes made the point. With a Jack Daniel’s baseball cap, black
jeans and a blue ski jacket with puffy sleeves, he would have fit
right in on the streets of St. Louis or Brooklyn. Age 32, Malcolm said
that he and his friends knew about America from songs they heard on
the radio, movies rented at the video shop, TV shows carried on South
African channels; The Bold and the Beautiful was a particular
favorite.

Did you know that every township in South Africa has two street gangs
named for your country? Malcolm asked with the same enthusiasm he
showed for anything American. One is called the Young Americans. The
other is called the Ugly Americans.

What’s the difference? I asked.

A wide smile. The Young Americans dress like Americans. The Ugly
Americans shoot like Americans.

America: a place that is very rich and shoots lots of guns. It’s not
the most sophisticated analysis, but it’s a fair shorthand for how the
United States is seen by many people overseas.

I spent six months traveling around the world, both before and after
Sept. 11, interviewing people in 15 countries about their impressions
of the United States. I spoke with retired Islamic terrorists in
Egypt, starry-eyed teenagers in Japan, struggling peasants in southern
Africa, multilingual business executives in Europe. Time after time, I
was struck by how elites and ordinary folk alike tended to fear
America for its awesome military power even as they were dazzled by
its glamour and wealth.

Foreigners’ perceptions are based partly on the statements and
policies that emanate from Washington — especially now, as the Bush
administration presses its case against Iraq — but they are also
powerfully shaped by the cultural products of Hollywood. The export of
American movies, music, television shows and software yields great
economic benefits to the United States and gains us countless overseas
admirers like Malcolm Adams.

There are less comforting consequences as well, however, and it is
urgent to reckon with them. One consistent theme of Osama bin Laden’s
anti-U.S. diatribes, for example, is our culture’s supposed
immorality and debauchery, to quote his recent Letter to the
American People. And there has been a string of bombings of
McDonald’s outlets around the world in recent months, many apparently
the work of Islamic extremists.

Just as ominous as the culture war with Islamic fundamentalism (though
less discussed) are the environmental implications of America’s global
reach.

As conveyed by Hollywood, the American way of life is a glorious
summer of self-indulgence based on mind-boggling material abundance.
If you walked down the street here and asked people what their
immediate impression of America is, a young engineer named Hany told
me in Cairo, most of them would say, ‘That’s the easy life I want.’

It’s only natural that foreigners want to taste the same luxury that
America’s cultural exports celebrate. But on a finite planet, this
sows the seeds of ecological catastrophe.

What the media call globalization is in fact largely Americanization,
and it producing a world that looks more like the United States by the
day.

The speed of the transformation is stunning. During a previous trip
around the world during the early 1990s, I sometimes spied wall
posters of Michael Jackson and Madonna in poor countries in Africa and
Asia, but only in big cities. Now, Hollywood icons are found even in
very remote rural villages.

The village of Mpande is at the southern edge of Transkei, the South
African region where Nelson Mandela was born. It has no telephones, no
running water, no electricity. Nevertheless, when 15-year-old twins I
met there learned I was American, they instantly began shrieking, R.
Kelly! R. Kelly! It turned out they had seen the young American
singer on MTV while visiting their older brother in Port Elizabeth, an
industrial city 200 kilometers away, and they yearned for him as only
teenage girls can yearn. The louder of the two proudly declared, I
will marry R. Kelly. American pop culture looms even larger in
technologically advanced countries.

In Japan, a land with one of the most delicate culinary traditions on
Earth, the top two restaurants in sales volume are McDonald’s and Kentucky
Fried Chicken. Twenty-four-hour convenience stores are sprouting up in all
the major cities, and the creations of Hollywood are revered.

In Kyoto, an art historian named Haruko attached almost religious
significance to the Star Wars movies. She had seen them countless
times, monitored the relevant Web sites and looked forward to the
Japanese release of Attack of the Clones as impatiently as a child
waits for Christmas morning. I am very eager for this movie to come
to Japan, she said. I must see — how can that nice blond boy turn
into Darth Vader?

The modern American empire colonizes minds more than territory. It
does so through its dominance of perhaps the most important
nonmilitary technology of the past 50 years: the screen. Once upon a
time, the outside world learned about the United States mainly on
movie screens. Later, movies were supplemented by television and then
video, which reach more (and more remote) places and can operate 24
hours a day. The same two advantages adhere to the Internet, which
links computer screens around the world.

Americans are the best marketers in the world, and the screen is our
most powerful tool. Via the screen, we persuade others to want what we
specialize in producing: a consumerist definition of happiness. Our
primary targets are the world’s youth; 1 billion of the world’s 6
billion people are teenagers. MTV, probably the single vehicle most
responsible for homogenizing tastes and boosting consumption among
youth around the world, was an American invention. There isn’t a lot
of angst. It’s just unbridled consumerism, MTV’s chief executive
officer, Tom Freston, has said, describing the content of MTV India.

The screen, however, may also prove our undoing. Humanity has been
divided into rich and poor for thousands of years, but a crucial part
of the dynamic has now changed: Television makes today’s poor much
more aware of how poor they are and of how much luxury they are
missing. In China, a former coal miner-turned-capitalist implored me,
America has had the market economy a long time. You must tell me its
secrets. I want to be rich like you.

You can’t blame him, but the prospect is unsettling. If all 6 billion
people on Earth copied current American production and consumption
patterns, humanity would need three additional planets to supply the
necessary natural resources and absorb all the pollution produced.

The 21st century holds an even greater challenge for us than
terrorism. Thanks in part to American cultural messages beamed onto
television, movie and computer screens around the world, the poorer
half of humanity is certain in the years ahead to strive for the
glamorous life that is constantly dangled before it.

Somehow the world must accommodate this mass ascent from poverty while
preserving the natural systems that make life on Earth possible in the
first place.

Meeting this challenge will require enormous changes in our
technologies as well as our habits, beginning with a rapid shift away
from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources. This
transformation could improve rather than diminish both our economy and
the world’s security (though it’s hard to imagine the current
administration in Washington realizing it).

A global green deal, modeled on the race to the moon and aimed at
environmentally retrofitting modern civilization in rich and poor
countries alike, would fight poverty, produce jobs and create more
business opportunities than our current, environmentally destructive
policies do.

The challenge ahead is daunting. Yet we are scarcely aware of the
peril we face, much less talking about how to respond. It’s as if our
own pop culture fantasies have tranquilized us into thinking there is
a free lunch after all — that our glorious summer of carefree consumption
can go on forever, without anyone paying the bill.

It’s not called the American Dream for nothing.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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