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What’s Wrong With American Popular Culture? – OpEd

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Cheap Chinese goods and American popular culture especially in the areas of music, films and sitcoms have taken over the world in the past thirty years or so. Of course American films have been dominating the world since at least the end of World War II. About Chinese goods made from the shameless exploitation of the Chinese poor and the shameful destruction of small scale industries everywhere, little needs to be said. This is not to forget that cheap Chinese goods have generously contributed to garbage and every rubbish dump in the world must have more than a tiny corner dedicated to stuff coming from China. I am sure that some of the space debris is also made in China. This is in addition to the pollution of the ponds, rivers, lakes and oceans that fifty years ago were still salvageable.

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There is a context to American popular culture that one needs to be aware of. 

Referring to a drone strike that killed 10 civilians which included 7 children, in September 2021, the US Marine General Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, called it a “tragic mistake”.  He further added: “At the time of the strike, I was confident that the strike had averted an imminent threat to our forces at the airport. It was a mistake, and I offer my sincere apology.” Needless to say, the apology too came only after indisputable evidence to the contrary, as to what was believed to be an “imminent threat.” Let us also not forget that in the suicide bombing at the spot leading to one of the gates to the Kabul airport 169 Afghans were killed along with 13 American military personnel. Assuming that the American military wanted to hit back, they ought to have remembered the 169 Afghans who also were the unfortunate victims of the bombing.

Imagine a reverse situation: Afghan general orders a drone strike that killed 10 American civilians which included 7 children. The Afghan general called it a “tragic mistake” and a “horrible mistake.” Trust me. The repercussions of that situation cannot even be imagined. Every media outlet in the US would be bristling with rage and indignation, for all the right reasons. Phrases such as “tragic mistake” and “horrible mistake” would be thrown out of the window. 

This is only an extreme example of the kind of rigid structure that works like an iron frame for a liberal democracy which offers a great degree of freedom to explore ideas and individual selves. The burden of maintaining the frame is often on the individual citizen. Prima facie, what America has to offer the world is the gift of “freedom”; and it is no mean gift either. As human beings we aspire to be free from tyranny and oppression. China has no such gift to offer to its own citizens let alone to those who come to make a living. China does not believe in freedom in the same way or in the same sense that the US does. 

Since I live in the appearance of a democracy, where power in the form of wealth, influence and status are everything, I have a reason to think that what the US has to offer the world is something to be cherished. It offers immigrants the right to be themselves. I understand why the US continues to be the favored destination for peoples across the world, especially from the global South. It is not just the dollar or the stable life that is attractive, but the opportunity for ordinary citizens to be able to express themselves and be creative without fear of being repressed in any manner. The quality of the work produced under freer conditions shows in every area that one can think of, from literary writing, scientific progress and one’s social and political life. In which country of the world can the daughter of immigrants rise to be the Vice-President of the nation! And not just any nation, but the most powerful nation on earth! For all its institutional limitations owing to white majoritarianism, American democracy makes something like this possible, and therefore deserves to be admired. 

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What makes one skeptical is that, from a value, freedom whose political embodiment is democracy, ends up becoming a commodity that you can buy through a lifestyle which is about the house you own, the clothes you wear and the car you drive. This is something that is sold across the board. Films, sitcoms, songs and speeches are all about the same thing; how you can be free, how you should be free, how you need not compromise with anything that comes in the way of your freedom. 

When we examine it closely, you realize that this is a form of extremism, where you are “forced” to be free or else your existence doesn’t matter. Freedom that is a compulsion is a source for the worst kind of conformism.  Not everyone is planning to “get laid” and getting laid is not the only way to resolve existential crises. This profound misreading of Freud is the essence of most popular films and sitcoms, that everyone is looking for a relationship or just wants to have a good time. Some people do things out of love even when it means putting themselves in a weak and defenseless position. Some people also want to change the world, irrespective of whether they get laid or not.

American popular culture is an ideological instrument to conquer the world through a commodity called freedom. True that freedom and democracy are important; but all of them do not have to be the American version of it. My point is that people cannot be “freed” against their will and you cannot control the flow of ideas globally by controlling the instruments of production. A world that does not believe in change is a world doomed to extinction. Powerful American interests, in the name of freedom and democracy, have made it impossible for any scope of real difference. Children grow to become adults as a rule of nature and must be treated as such. You cannot treat them like children when they are already grownups. You cannot treat them as grownups capable of making choices while they are still children. In the process you end up creating a nation of ungrownups. 

You just have to watch sitcoms like Seinfeld and the even more popular FRIENDS or Big Bang Theory. Says everything. I noticed that these sitcoms are usually popular with exactly the kind of people who have left growing up far behind or who have no interest in the world apart from their own petty selves. And this is from someone who enjoys watching these sitcoms. I don’t deny their entertainment value. What I refuse to ignore is how successful they are in turning people into self-interested zombies, by choice. This lack of involvement with the lives of the common masses or simply people around you, comes from this idea that we don’t owe the world anything and we are under no obligation to make it better. This is the kind of freedom that I have serious issues with; it actually creates serious mental health problems, often unsolvable. 

Where people do not think that they have to take an interest in the world around them, you can be sure that they are locking themselves in a prison cell of a fort on the top of a hill and throwing the key into the sea. The freedom to buy things without a human person in sight is a suicidal freedom. Space is not a commodity. Everyone cannot have their own space in the American sitcom sense of space. We need one hundred more earth-like planets for that kind of space. We have to learn to accommodate and share resources, which is the freedom that is possible, almost everywhere. Freedom cannot be separated from well-being. In principle, I like the idea of individuals living on their own. This is however possible only for those who are economically privileged. Tragically this is the sick version of freedom that is popular with the bourgeoning, self-centered middle classes in the third world.  

I like the fact that American popular culture has given a vocabulary to common aspirations. Students, especially if they are youth from lower-middle class backgrounds looking to progress in life, take hope from the language given to them by American films and songs. The language is simple and accessible and not pretentious and somber like the stuff produced on the Continent. One of the really great animated sitcoms of the 21st century, Family Guy, which makes fun of almost anything and everything, would not be possible anywhere except in the United States. 

The American genius for entertainment is also a genius to make the world a bearable and more than that, a lively place. The dark side of the entertainment is that there is no real space for difference. It is local to the point of being provincial and limited by its own claims to be global. Hence, the need to challenge the American culture industry on all fronts because it disguises nationalist aspirations in that so-called global mission to make the world freer and more democratic. The cultural colonization of the world through one version of freedom and democracy is at the heart of American imperialism and has to be systematically argued against. 

In summary, the Afghan general, if, in a hypothetical scenario, would have been responsible for the deaths of innocent Americans, then he ought to be put in jail for the “tragic mistake”; the same should apply to the American general as well; if he made the blunder that lead to the murder of 10 Afghan civilians, let there be a trial and if proved guilty let him be sentenced accordingly. You cannot kill people in cold blood and tell their families that you are sorry for it. If America must protect its idea of freedom, it must apply the same rules everywhere, whether in Kabul or in Washington. You cannot be exporting your version of what the world should be like without applying the rules uniformly. Questions related to freedom cannot be separated from questions related to justice and equality. 

Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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