Academic journal article Policy Review

You Must Remember This; What's Right with American Culture

Academic journal article Policy Review

You Must Remember This; What's Right with American Culture

Article excerpt

When The Heritage Foundation asked me to address the subject, "What's Right About American Culture," I was particularly challenged by the idea. My wife, Diane, immediately commented "That will probably be a very short speech." Praising the current state of our national culture does not come naturally to me. I talk much more frequently about "What's Wrong with American Popular Culture."

But recently, I had the great privilege of giving a lecture in Warsaw. And what struck me there--as I think it strikes any Americans who travel in Eastern Europe--is the absolute fascination with all things American, the tremendous eagerness to learn about American culture.

And after all, let's understand that our popular culture, including many aspects of that popular culture that conservatives disdain, is hugely accepted, in fact enthusiastically accepted, around the world.


In every country on earth, the most popular form of movies is American movies. The most popular form of music is American music. And even when it comes to television, American television shows are disproportionately popular. Now, clearly, something is right about American culture, not only because of its popularity abroad but because of its impact on the wider world.

This is a point that Ben Wattenberg makes, with great glee, as a rebuke to those of us who criticize American popular culture. He offers a challenge: If this popular culture is so terrible, then why is it that the liberating force of American music, movies, and television helped to inspire, by all accounts, the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe?

We all remember the inspiring example of the "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia. Would that those young people in the streets who helped to bring that about were singing Dvorak or Smetana or Janacek, their great national composers.

But they weren't. They were singing American rock music. They were craving American jeans. They were interested in, God help us, Madonna and the rest of what we would call American trash culture. Somehow this popular entertainment, which seems to have such a negative and devastating impact here at home, has exerted liberating influence abroad.

So, how can that be? What, after all, is right about American culture?

There are three underlying themes that have always been part of the American experience, of our national culture, of that unique outlook that we would describe as American, and those elements are still palpably present in American popular culture:

First, an overriding and transcendent belief in self-improvement, in the ability of the individual to transform himself into virtually anything he wishes;

Second, a great emphasis on tolerance and diversity.

Finally, an underlying rude, rowdy, and very consistent disrespect for all established authority.

All of these tendencies have been present in this country and played a role in our national consciousness since colonial days. And all of them are still there, even in the sometimes frightening and barren worlds of popular music, television, and motion pictures. After sketching out how these cultural themes have helped to shape the country for the last 350 years, we also have to ask why their influence has become somewhat problematic for our society today.


The idea of self-improvement, the ability to transform oneself into something new, is almost a direct product of our unique geographical circumstances.

To get here, everybody had to cross an ocean at one time or another. That necessary voyage has always represented a defining experience. That act of crossing an ocean meant that you left your old world behind and came to a new world.

This inevitably conveys the idea of a fresh start, becoming a new person. Perhaps this nowhere is more dramatically illustrated than in the instance of Georgia, which, of course, a lot of us think of as the home of Scarlett O'Hara and Tara. …

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