America, the Pop Culture Superpower: Our Popular Culture Distorts Who We Really Are and Fuels Hostility

By Royal, Robert | National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2006 | Go to article overview

America, the Pop Culture Superpower: Our Popular Culture Distorts Who We Really Are and Fuels Hostility


Royal, Robert, National Catholic Reporter


My wife and I drove up Mount Zion toward Jerusalem a few years ago and got stuck in traffic. I was somewhat drunk on the Old Testament phrase repeating in my head, "I shall go up to Jerusalem." My wife turned on the radio, and what I can only call Hebrew rap music came on. We agreed that America was going to have a lot to answer for someday.

That day has, of course, long since come. We Westerners once thought modern communications were bringing the world closer together. Those hopes were partly correct, mostly among peoples who already shared a good deal. Yet they have also proved illusory. Some cultures encounter alien ways and are repelled. Others may envy and imitate. Still others may be threatened.

The United States is the sole remaining superpower in this realm too. In the postmodern international order, all three of these reactions to American culture--popular culture--profoundly shape the world's attitudes toward the United States.

Popular culture took on social importance in the reaction against an earlier form of globalization: the universal civilization promised by the Enlightenment. Among 19th-century German Romantics, the mores, folk stories, songs and beliefs of the people were values tied to a particular tribe or nation and resistant to France's claim to a universal civilization. Though Enlightenment universalism has self-destructed, we all still feel a tension between our desire for modern benefits that stem from global civilization and our natural attachments to beliefs and practices we regard as sacred and threatened.

An American, especially a Christian, will sympathize. We're sorry that we have the decadent popular culture we do at home, and we're even sorrier to be exporting it. There are two principal problems with American popular culture. First, American popular culture is corrupt and corrupting. There is no need to repeat the familiar litany of sex, drugs and violence. But these all-too-human elements also appear in the Old Testament. Our genius has been to glorify and glamorize bad behavior in music, films and television. Many other cultures, some decadent and some not, resent it bitterly,

The second problem involves what our exported culture leaves out. Any American who follows the trail will be shocked at how much never makes it through the pop culture filters. If you tell a group of foreigners, for example, that 90 percent of Americans are believers who practice religion, you will get wide stares: What about Britney and Madonna, Marilyn Manson and Mapplethorpe? Or you will get misinterpretation: We know your media and ours claim that your government is conspiring to impose a theocracy on America, convert Muslims in the Middle East, and bring about Armageddon in Israel.

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