What Americanization Has to Do with America

Article excerpt

The American flag had pride of place in Prague, even before the Velvet Revolution brought an end to communism in 1989. Flying from an outpost of the US Embassy overlooking the city center, it was visible for miles around. In the 1980s, concerned American diplomats polled the locals, fearing that this display was overbearing. No, said ordinary Czechs, that flag stands for the freedom we deserve. Please keep it where it is. And did you know, the Czechs sometimes asked with a smile, that if you look from a certain angle the flag seems to be flying from the Prague Castle itself?

Today as disillusion accompanies deeper acquaintance, the embassy's flag is no more than a curiosity. In 1989, America was a model of a democracy and rebellion against imperial power. As an American I was asked about Paul Revere, Thomas Jefferson, and the Constitution. In 1998, I'm asked about Paula Jones, William Jefferson Clinton, and the Fifth Amendment. Precisely because Czechs and East Europeans expected so much from American politics, their disappointment is painful to observe. But US policy is friendly to new democracies and in certain countries the prospect of NATO enlargement has restored some of Uncle Sam's old charm.

But life, as the Czech writer Milan Kundera reminds us, is elsewhere. Politics is not the center of everyday experience, and it is in quotidian life that East Europeans' image of America has changed the most. The US flag has descended from the Olympian heights of symbolic politics to the banality of consumer culture. It is available, on orange juice or cigarettes, at the corner store. The result is "Americanization," the popularity, across the region of a narrowly commercial idea of the American dream. A few examples help distinguish what we sell from who we are. Take Bucharest, Romania, in July 1993, as my friend Danny and I stumbled through unfinished sidewalks. Stopping to take a picture, we were reprimanded by a Romanian who said that Americans brought out the worst in his country. We were puzzled: What did he know about us? Well, he knew about American products, and about American movies. Bruce Willis's "Hudson Hawk," a bomb at home, was well on its way to turning an international profit in Bucharest's box offices. Danny and I turned our heads from the violent American movie at the restaurant where we ate lunch. Hollywood is hard to escape. In February 1998 in Kiev, I was buttonholed against a pillar in the lobby of the Hotel Ukraina by a critic of "Independence Day." A bad movie, I agreed, but not totally corrupt. It expresses, I said, three typical American values: patriotism, solidarity with those in need, and sympathy for the underdog. …