Saturday, March 08, 2008

America: Stupid, Unclultured and Backwards

Whether it’s true or not, it’s said and repeated de rigeur. James Harkin writing in the FT thinks otherwise:

If distinctively European thinkers such as Isaiah Berlin and émigrés from Europe to America such as Hannah Arendt had dominated the battleground of ideas during the age of ideology (defined, by the British historian Eric Hobsbawm, as the years between the first world war and the fall of the Berlin Wall), one of the oddities of this new landscape of ideas is that Americans seem to be much better at generating them. There are still some heavyweights around in Europe with novel things to say - Jürgen Habermas in Germany and Slavoj*Zizek in Slovenia, for example - but they are few and far between.
This might seem like an exaggeration until you look at the figures that pop up in the yackity-yack-arati are small in number and recurring, regardless of the size of the population. It’s also not hard to picture Europe’s not so distant past it was characterized by a large, difficult, ungovernable population being made into a passive, insatiable, debilitated large population thorough the horrors inspired by a small intellectual elite.
When France's Jean Baudrillard died in March last year, at the age of 77, it seemed to signify the close of an intellectual era. In any case, Baudrillard was canny enough to know which way the intellectual wind blew. For all his criticism of American culture, he was enchanted by this place he called "the original version of modernity". France, he pointed out, was nothing more than "a copy with subtitles".
Which brings us to WHY Baudrillard would have to put it in this way. The double standards are so pervasive and the habits are so deep as to even require an admired public intellectual figure to have to salve a statement with something that indulges the foregone conclusions accepted by the wider public.
However, America's dominance in the new global landscape of ideas is not only a matter of resources. Americans have also become expert packagers of ideas. American writers and thinkers seem to have acquired the knack of explaining complex ideas in accessible ways for popular audiences. The success of idea books such as The Tipping Point and Freakonomics and a rather depressing glut of books about happiness has signified to cultural commissars a thirst for good ideas clearly expressed. It helps that journalism in America is taken more seriously than it is in most other countries; its newspapers and magazines have been happy to whet the public appetite for interesting ideas, clearly articulated.
Which is a foregone conclusion, unless the way you see the world and roles people play in it as fixed.
Assaulted by this battery of sometimes flaky new ideas, it would be easy for European thinkers to sit back and sniff. Some of it is mere gimmickry - zappy headline titles that seem to capture the essence of a complicated idea while intriguing the reader enough to read more.
Which used to give rise to the tired saw du jour that Americans were obsessed with health and exercise and seemed to know the terminology inside out. The slag then moved on to computing and finance. But perhaps between the best-seller list and the dominant themes of the insults, we have a sort of contrarian way of seeing things as they really are.

No comments: