We used to love America
On cultural hegemony
I think I was five years old. Went to the clearing in the woods a stone’s throw from our house, sporting a toy Colt pistol, dad’s old leather holster, and a black little cowboy hat. May or June, bright light through the pale green birch leaves. Even the older kids I sometimes used to hang out with approached me with some sort of reluctant admiration.
And I recall that distinct feeling, an almost unadulterated experience of just being cool. Of being shrouded in society’s symbols of authority and power, unspoilt by all later conscious discrepancies between how I presented myself and my actual social status or self-image.
It’s astonishing how deeply rooted the images and trappings of the dominant culture was even at that age, and in that place and time. I mean, none of us were avid media consumer as toddlers. My parents actively reduced TV exposure as much as they could, yet the whole country basically had just two channels, both state enterprises, which were completely ad-free. There was almost no children’s programming, save for a quaint little kids’ theatre with a bunch of mainly Scandinavian and British cartoons thrown in. I think it was on once or twice a week. We played video games, sure, but they were almost all Japanese.
And yet I was a cowboy, just like George Bush. Not a Viking, carolingian or cossack.
The mythology and these pregnant symbols of power associated with US military dominance were already under my skin. The frontier legend of the Faustian West already in my blood.
I guess it was a bit different for girls. I remember discovering how a couple of them used to reenact the scripts of Melrose Place throughout our… Puppy love relationships.
Preschool children, for instance, have trouble differentiating between commercials and regular programming on television. Slightly older children can make the distinction, but they are concrete thinkers, tending to believe what they see in a fifteen-second commercial for cookies or a toy. Until the age of about eight, children can't really understand the concept of persuasive intent—that every aspect of an ad is selected to make a product appealing and to convince people to buy it. Older kids and teens might be more cynical about advertising, but their skepticism doesn't seem to affect their tendency to want or buy the products they see so glowingly portrayed all around them.
I recently sat with a group of elementary school kids who all told me that commercials do not tell the truth, yet when asked, they all had strong opinions about which was the "best" brand of sneaker. Their opinions were based not on their own experience but on what they'd seen on TV and in magazine ads. Advertising appeals to emotions, not to intellect, and it affects children even more profoundly than it does adults (Susan Linn, Consuming Kids, 2004).
For several decades now, they’ve actively targeted even infants through advertising with the purpose of inculcating brand recognition and thus life-long “consumer loyalty”. It’s just a matter of course.
Today, in the supermarket checkout, there was a “Disney princess” electric toothbrush at half price. Not like “Ariel” or whatever character name you could think of. Just generic “Disney princess”, in some sort of tired invocation of the entrenched cultural template.
Through middle school, me and my friends grew up play-acting USAF pilots. We were enchanted by the drama, glory and heroism of particularly the pop culture’s Vietnam War narratives, and we internalized the occult and thrilling authority of the US deep state through The X-Files (which incidentally also begot a certain basic skepticism). Somehow, the myths and the symbols were generally centered around state projection of violence, authority and discipline. Not quite so much geared towards discovery, exploration and science as perhaps were the case for previous generations.
I started sniping birds with an air gun around the age of ten.
Seemed natural. Almost wholesome.
And that’s why our children were taught when they went out to hunt: “Never kill out of anger, nor for sport to see how many animals you can kill. Take just enough for survival and always be respectful of the four-leggeds. If you must kill, present an offering and talk to the animal, explaining, ‘I need you for my family.’ ” (Bear Heart, Molly Larkin, The Wind is My Mother, 1996)
If the culture industry anywhere testifies to the transformations in the organic composition of society, then it is through the scarcely concealed confession of this state of affairs. Under its lens, death begins to become comic. The laughter which greets it in a certain genre of production is in all likelihood ambiguous. It still registers the fear of something amorphous under the net which the society has spun over the entirety of nature.
What the Nazis perpetrated on millions of human beings, the modeling of the living on the dead, then the mass production and cheapening of death, threw its shadow in advance on those who are spurred to laugh at corpses. What is decisive is the assimilation of biological destruction in the conscious social will. Only a humanity, which is as indifferent to death as to its members – one which itself has died – can administratively inflict death on myriads (Adorno, Minima Moralia).
The dream of the West is really an opium of the masses in Marx’ sense. It’s paradoxically both proximate to the process of alienation, and a sort of refuge from it. It’s a story of redemption, rebellious liberty and endless possibility, ironically coupled with a narrative of paternal state and mechanical corporate power guided by an enlightened elite.
For Scandinavia, it goes back at least to the emigration era of the 19th century, and really picked up speed around and after the Second World War. My grandfather subscribed to Reader’s Digest (the CIA propaganda organ) for half a century. Sitting in his lap at the age of three, he taught me the names of US presidents. In my grandmother’s view, America embodied modernity, class (in the adjective) and refinement. The singular trailblazer towards the bright future, far away from poverty and backwardness.
In the West, adoration of the United States functions as a sort of cohesive meta-collective identity on top of the eroded national and regional cultures. When the majority party leader Mona Sahlin or the Scandinavian Airlines maintained that there is no such thing as a Swedish culture, it was against the backdrop of a US cosmopolitanism, it was in emulation of American civic nationalism.
Out on the peripheries of Empire, all of this is profoundly alienating.
The situation not only undermines any sort of robust local culture like the ideological apparatuses of any state are wont to do, but also deprives you from any real participation in the compensatory substitutes. One is never really engaged in the circuses and spectacles of the dominant culture. Always on the outside, looking in.
So this faux-American brand marketing and identity formation is basically set up to enable a global jingoism of capital and “progress”, all of which contributes to a mental template, a worldview which renders us (or at least enough of us) basically unable to consciously accept more than the most superficial criticism of the Western imperial machinery with the US at its helm.
This is partly why any attempt to nuance the Ukraine situation comes off as shilling for the Russian Federation.
The phenomenon is in sociological circles even argued to function as a form of pseudo-religion, that a sort of
… non-sectarian religious faith exists within the United States with sacred symbols drawn from national history. Since the 19th century, scholars have portrayed it as a cohesive force, a common set of values that foster social and cultural integration. Its current form was developed by sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967 in the article, "Civil Religion in America". According to Bellah, Americans embrace a common civil religion with certain fundamental beliefs, values, holidays, and rituals in parallel to, or independent of, their chosen religion (ibid).
I would argue that US cultural hegemony and its national mythologies indeed operate as part of a substitute religion, a sort of modernist composite that in concert with the progressivist and scientistic narratives of redemption functions as distraction and existential consolation.
When I was eleven, I even had a printout of the US national anthem on my bedroom wall.
They say that we Christians tend to project a father figure upon the blank canvas of the universe. We don’t. He’s already there.
But that sort of Freudian reductionism has a point, insofar as we approach it as a rejection of alienating ideology. Of watered-down religion exploited as anaesthetics. As criticism of the infantilizing libidinous attachments of mass society, and of the modern crowd’s abdication of reason and responsibility.
And of our catastrophic lack of connection to the real world around us.
All ancient and indigenous peoples said that they learned the uses of plants as medicines from the plants themselves. They insisted that they did not rely on the analytical capacities of the brain for this nor use the technique of trial and error.
Instead, they said that it was from the heart of the world, from the plants themselves, that this knowledge came. For, they insisted, the plants can speak to human beings if only human beings will listen and respond to them in the proper state of mind (Buhner, The Intelligence of the Heart, Bear & Co 2004).
I sometimes think it would be a relief to be able go back to that place where I could rely on society and the state as some parental figure and stop struggling. To just go with the flow and bleat with the herd throughout our designated five-minutes’ hate. To forget oneself in the machine and fully subject to authority.
But I can’t. I’m not a cowboy anymore.
I grew up to become an indian.