The Idea of America: pop culture and geopolitical aesthetics

© Reinhold Wagnleitner

Reinhold Wagnleitner, "The Empire of the Fun: pop culture and geopolitical aesthetics" in Kurt Almquvist and Alexander Linklater (eds.), On the Idea of America: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar 2009 (Stockholm: Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2010): 79-93.

No commodity is quite so strange As this thing called cultural exchange. Louis Armstrong, from the song "Cultural Exchange"

As we entered the world stage in the First World War, simultaneously we entered the world as conquerors through silent movies, something no one could have calculated or had ever happened before. Movies will be the only thing the United States will ever be remembered for. It was a lucky coincidence that as we became number one in the world militarily, the movies were there for us to use, to make propaganda with, to express ourselves, to sell the world a lot of bills of goods. We're still doing it. We fight our war in Vietnam which we then lose. And over a number of years, we now make movies about it, in which we are making back in the world box office what we lost during the war, naturally. Gore Vidal, from The San Francisco Bay Guardian, July 11, 1990

"Ideals," said Casey, "are the principal produce of America. That's why we had to invent salesmanship and publicity. Without them we should never have been able to make the ideals racket pay."
Eric Ambler, The Dark Frontier

"Let's start with the premise that America is a film with German subtitles… This is America made in Germany." These lines are part of the poem Monopoly written by the West German poet, Wolf Wondratschek, in 1972. Wondratschek belongs to my generation, a generation which, like no other before, did not only experience the stupendous success of the idea of America transmitted by US pop-culture messages but also actively partook in creating this success. The vast majority of humanity has been exposed to the idea of America predominantly through the products of US pop. Since the 19th century, most debates about popular culture have been debates about America, and the battle cries against liberated American women and "effeminate America" corresponded with ceaseless accusations against the insanity of the US cult of disobedient youth and the infantilisation of culture for more than a century before Bob Dylan broadcast "Forever Young" as the new global anthem of the US in 1973.

Why is American popular culture so popular?

The attraction of US pop for the (forever) young is contained in its rebellious, liberating image: a rebellion against the tastes of the parental generation, politicians, priests, officers, and teachers. It is an attraction that is largely counter-cultural, sub-cultural and subversive. Besides this generational gap, the global hold of US culture also evinces a time-lag between urban and agricultural areas and reveals considerable educational, class and gender differences. Berndt Ostendorf posed a seemingly redundant but actually fundamental question in an essay of 2001: "Why is American Popular Culture So Popular?" By identifying popular sovereignty "as the socio-political engine of the encompassing cultural project", he argued that "the success of American popular culture lies not in any one of its individual formal or aesthetic properties, but in its overall design which is that of a consciously constructed, liberal new world utopia."

In analysing the global success of US culture we are dealing with one of the most important chapters of contemporary history. This is particularly compelling because we are not only confronting a cultural process in the narrow sense, but also economic, social and political phenomena: the realms of symbolic hegemony, the power over cultural capital. We may understand the USA as the original version of modernity, whereas Europe only represents the synchronised narrative - a paraphrase with subtitles, as Jean Baudrillard put it. But, equally important, we may also perceive America as an artefact of European expansion, note that the American dream was originally dreamed in Europe, and register that the idea of America is fundamentally rooted in transatlantic discourses.

America has always meant more for the rest of the world than the rest of the world has meant for America. For centuries, the term "America" has been ambivalently placed in the landscapes of the mind. On the one hand, it has represented the prime example of modernity, a laboratory of global social change. On the other, it has stood for a nostalgia longing for a pioneering past, freedom and individualism. The list of the appropriation of assorted modules of "typical American" images and their rearrangement by Europeans and others is endless. America has functioned as a distorting mirror in which social, economic, political and cultural changes were reflected and (mis)interpreted. European dreams and nightmares about America are as old as her discovery. They clearly predate the foundation of the United States but were later projected onto the US after it had assumed a hegemonic position - first in its own hemisphere and then globally. It is important to recall that, until the 18th century, the idea of America in Europe mostly signified Central and South America, only to be slowly appropriated by the USA after 1776. These changes of meaning and transpositions of power manifest the mystique of America as a construct. They also reveal that to name is to take over. Clearly, discovery and conquest were accompanied by a simultaneous invention of "America".

Pop's push 'n' pull, and other messy concepts

After the Second World War, only one country had all the necessary ingredients, as well as the energy and verve, to win the cultural struggle for its version of modernity in the ruins of Europe. The United States had both the political missionary zeal for the ensuing crusade for the American way of life, combined with enormous material resources, and a popular culture with mass appeal transcending many national and ethnic cultural tastes and differences. Otherwise that popular culture would never have had a chance to become popular within the USA in the first place. In 1945, more than ever before, the United States signified the codes of modernity and promised the pursuit of happiness in its most updated version: as the pursuit of consumption. Whenever real consumption climbed into the ring, chances were high that real socialism had to be counted out. But modernisation and consumption are not particularly American, and although they took on an increasingly US appearance in the 20th century they were mostly of European origin. After all, America is the result of the Europeanisation of the world: before America could consume Europe, Europe had already consumed America (and Africa). Frederic Jameson's definition of globalisation as the insertion of the American perspective into the rest of the world is plausible, though no more so than the assumption that it actually represents the terminal version of the Euro-Americanisation of the world. Indeed, globalisation may typify the last illusion of the enlightenment, as William Pfaff put it - a further phase of the capitalist world system where "the West" is no longer the centre of the world.

US pop has become the second culture of nearly everybody (to adopt or rebut), and English has, in Todd Gitlin's phrase, grown into "the most torrential language". Americanisation, Euro-Americanisation, westernisation, globalisation, modernisation, rationalisation, standardisation, homogenisation, individualisation, Coca-Colonisation, Disneyfication, McDonaldisation, Microsoftisation, Sili-colonisation - all of these concepts are markedly messy and the resulting ambivalences may best be termed "creolisation". They go well beyond pop, fashion and lifestyle. Whole structures of scientific theories, techniques and practices have been exported by the United States as well as the personalisation of politics; the grammar of TV, radio, and the internet; debates about business and trade unions as well as university and school reforms - for example, the Bologna process with its new BAs, MAs, and PhDs inaugurated by the European Union. At least until recently, the neon-model of the USA shone brightly. These ideas - either genuinely US-American or perceived as such - drastically transformed the global system of politics, economics, society and culture, from production to management, from advertisement to sales practices, in all areas of public discourse, communication, the arts and even religion. It goes without saying, that cultural products and ideas may change their meaning by crossing borders, sometimes radically. As the old adage goes, what sells soap in Indiana may un-sell democracy in India.

Americanisation was not achieved simply by osmosis, despite the free market mantra. The success story of the idea of America discloses quite another dimension: the massive championship by all US administrations of the export of US cultural commodities. This unfaltering support was pivotal: since Benjamin Franklin, the USA has never accepted an ideological ten-mile zone. US entertainment has always been serious business - there is, indeed, no business like show business. At least since the 1920s, Washington has always understood that the export of US culture was by no means only a by-product of political, economic and military strategies, but an extremely important, if not the decisive channel for the establishment of a Pax Americana. The push factors for US popular culture have been formidable: the Creel Committee in the First World War, the motion picture section of Herbert Hoover's Department of Commerce, the intimate ties between Washington and Hollywood during the Second World War, the immense political clout of the Motion Picture Export Association (Hollywood's Department of State), the Marshall Plan, countless bi-national treaties all insisting on the free flow of US-cultural products, the official mission of the United States Information Agency, and the unofficial one of the CIA (which acted like a major publishing house and booking agency for musicians), the State Department, the US Agency for International Development, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Pentagon, the Open Source Centre, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and, finally, the World Trade Organisation. Hollywood had close ties with Washington long before Ronald Reagan became, in Gore Vidal's words, "our acting President."

The imagined global community of US pop

Jacques Barzun once observed that of all the books it is impossible to write, the most impossible is a book trying to capture the spirit of America. So let us embark on this mission impossible and look for the idea of America in the imagined global community of US popular culture.

In March 2009, in Hanover, at the opening of the leading business event for the digital world - CeBIT (the German "Centre of Office and Information technology") - German Chancellor Angela Merkel was hailed by California's Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. "I've heard that they even make Barbie dolls after her," Schwarzenegger declared. "Wow, that's really a sign that you have arrived, let me tell you." Of course, Merkel was immediately ridiculed as Bundes-Barbie (Federal-Barbie) in the German media, but the critics were clueless. Had they known that Barbie originated as the German cartoon Lili created by Reinhard Beuthien and published by the paper Bild between 1952 and 1961; had they known that puppets of Bild-Lili were discovered by Ruth Handler, one of Mattel's owners, on her European trip in 1958 - they probably would have understood more about the global matrix of pop.

It is worth noting that Donald Duck's 75th birthday on June 9, 2009, provoked scores of congratulations in the European media but went largely unnoticed in the USA. No doubt, Carl Bark's Underduck epitomises the animalistic incarnation of Everyman and resembles the greatest achievement in duck history. Donald's irresistible drive to risk danger and not to back down, his eternal misfortune and constant indebtedness, his inexhaustible rage confronting the worst nightmares of what Pierre Bourdieu termed the "precariate", are always coupled with an indestructible optimism and indefatigable resilience, and thereby interpreted as "typically American" by his global following.

Yet, no success story comes without setbacks. Disney Comics, which sold a couple of million copies in the US market during their heyday, recently stopped publication in the United States because the readership had plummeted to less than 5,000. Not so in Europe, where a couple of million copies are sold every week. The global production centres of Disney Comics moved to Scandinavia and Italy years ago. Even in Germany, which has been rather comics-resistant, 250,000 copies are sold weekly. Carl Bark's suggestion that no US-American existed who could not identify with Donald Duck obviously no longer holds true. The suspension of Disney comics in the USA was hardly lamented or even noticed. In the global matrix of pop, the "German" Barbie morphed into an American while the "American" Donald transmuted into a European.

And what about one of the major contributions of US architecture to the contemporary world, the shopping mall? In 1956, Victor Gruen designed the Southdale Centre in Edina, Minnesota, a fully enclosed, introverted, multitiered, double-anchor-tenant shopping complex with a garden court under a skylight - and today virtually every shopping mall in the world looks the same. By designing the prototype of the mall, Gruen became one of the most copied architects of the 20th century. As Viktor David Grünbaum, he had grown up and studied architecture in Vienna. A part-time cabaret artist and full-time socialist, he was forced to leave Vienna in the same week as Sigmund Freud. Although highly successful in the US, he became completely disenchanted with his shopping malls - which he assailed as bastards - and returned to Vienna. "What he found south of Vienna was a mammoth mall - in his own anguished words, a 'gigantic shopping machine'. He was devastated. Victor Gruen invented the shopping mall in order to make America more like Vienna. He ended up making Vienna more like America." 1)


Are Barbie, Donald Duck and the shopping mall that far off from the "idea of America"? Let us take the no-nonsense approach and look at neo-liberal economics. After its dismal crash, critics, most of them just a wee bit late to be sure, all of a sudden rounded on the seemingly inherent follies of the typically Anglo-American business greed of casino-, jungle- or turbo-capitalism. It is correct that latterly we have experienced a new fundamentalism, the gospel according to Thatcher and Reagan, which was blasted by a neo-liberal media carpet-bombing of unprecedented proportions. Still, the Chicago School of Economics did not materialise from outer space. Neither did the sermon on the count, which mistakenly labelled privately owned markets as free and propagated deregulation, the code word for corporate unaccountability and irresponsibility. On the contrary, the Chicago School, Milton Freedman and Alan Greenspan are deeply indebted to the Austrian School of Economics, most prominently Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich August von Hayek. As John Kenneth Galbraith quipped during a lecture at the Viennese Bruno-Kreisky-Forum: "Do you know why Austria has become so prosperous in recent decades? You exported all your Austrian School Economists to Chicago".

So let us return to the really serious business of pop - and Keith Richards' claim that "music has probably had more effect on pulling down the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union than all the rockets and all the politicians" put together. I agree, and not only because the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution was named after Velvet Underground. The Yeah-Yeah Virus by Yury Pelyushonok told it like it was:

While in the West the Beatles stepped on all the rules,
The 60s beat was echoing through all the Soviet schools.
Every Russian schoolboy wants to be a star,
Playing Beatles music, making a guitar.
Teachers looked upon all this as if it were a sin,
We were building Communism but the Beatles butted in.
"Nyet!" to Beatles music. "Da!" the students said.
Even Comrade Brezhnev sadly shook his head.

When we discover Cairo Metal-heads, Palestianian MCs, Iranian Iron Maiden fans, Moroccan thrash girls and Dubai Goths as well as Arabian youth following an Israeli death-metal band called Orphaned Land, anything seems to be possible. 2)

Let us revisit a moment of true symbolic power, the meeting of Elvis Presley with President Richard M Nixon in the White House on December 21, 1970. During this extraordinary encounter, Elvis indicated that he thought the Beatles had been a real source for anti-American spirit. According to Elvis, the Beatles came to the US, made their money and then returned to England where they promoted an anti-American theme. The president nodded in agreement but also expressed some surprise. Part of Nixon's bewilderment, I am sure, had to do with Elvis' sober offer to act as an anti-drug fighter as well as with the idea that making money could be anti-American. But what was Elvis really referring to? Was it the youth rebellion for which he himself had been one of the most important male icons during the 1950s? Or was it John Lennon when he parried the question, "Do you plan to record any anti-war songs?" with "All our songs are anti-war". Certainly the most stunning exchange already had occurred during the first US press conference on February 7, 1964, when the Beatles were asked whom they most wanted to meet. John replied "Muddy Waters". "Where's that?" asked the US-reporter.

Jazz: the classical music of globalisation

Indeed, the waters are muddy. Liverpool becoming the principal metropolis of the 1960s pop universe reflected the fact that its port had become part of the global naval web of the US empire, where Liverpudlians were exposed to large numbers of African-American servicemen and their music. It was a form of poetic justice that these encounters materialised in a port which had been one of the most vicious European slave harbours of the 17th and 18th centuries. The blues, which the Beatles and the British invasion brought home to the US middle class, had merely returned to one of its original sites. Before the blues reached North America it had already had a mobile home in Europe.

Jazz - the classical music of globalisation - is the most original and important contribution of the USA to 20th century culture. 3) The music represents a central paradox of modernity: it stands for one of the most radical concepts of freedom and, at the same time, is deeply rooted in the worst form of modern rootlessness, in slavery. During the first period of the globalising economy, the most important source of profit came from trading humans. Most people are quite oblivious to the fact that until the beginning of European mass emigration in the late 1820s, at least six times as many Africans had been forcefully shipped to the Americas as Europeans. The pinnacle of the slave trade was reached in the 18th century - an epoch otherwise characterised as the period of enlightenment. This unholy alliance between the enlightenment and colonialism was the base for the creation of the so-called arts of darkness "which shaped a powerful counterculture of western modernity". 4)

In the first broadside against jazz - an editorial article, entitled "Jass and Jassism" in the New Orleans Times-Picayune of June 20, 1918 - the music was denounced as an "indecent story, syncopated and counterpointed". This indecent story became the basis of the global success of US popular culture. Since the prehistory of the diffusion of US pop, certain tone and topics were set, starting with the European mania for James Fenimore Cooper in the 1820s, which launched a massive wave of western novels written by Europeans, the travelling minstrel shows, and Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows, which specialised in demonstrating the defeat of all "inferior races" by "whites" (from the Wild West to the Boer War to the Boxer Rebellion in China). So the "empire of race" became encoded in entertainment.

Since the 1920s, jazz (and its derivatives) became a litmus test for the global fundamentalist international. As a mixture of African, European and American musical elements, jazz has epitomised the most hated cultural force for the racist international. Jazz embraces the American dream as well as the nightmare. It is highly ironic that the creators of the "Sound of Freedom", who won sympathies for the US the world over, were not only branded un-American at home but for a long time experienced apartheid in their own society. The decisive contributions of US pop culture in general, and African Americans in particular, to the global success of the idea of America and the process of democratisation outside as well as inside the USA are still largely underrated. In "Elvis: American David", a 1995 poem by U2's Bono, we find the line "Elvis the Pelvis, swung from Africa to Europe, which is the idea of America". But is it?

Even if we consider the Elvis-Nixon meeting as superfluous, we must still appraise the fact that, of all the requests made each year to the National Archives for reproductions of photographs and documents, one item has been requested more than any other. That item, more requested than the Bill of Rights or even the Constitution of the United States, is the photograph of Elvis Presley and Richard M Nixon shaking hands on the occasion of Presley's visit to the White House".

The Empire of Fun

Once upon a time, the Habsburgs controlled the empire on which the sun never set. In 1925, looking at the demise of many European empires, Edward G Lowry quipped in The Saturday Evening Post: "The sun, it now appears, never sets on the British Empire and the American motion picture industry". After 1945, the sun finally set on all European empires as well as on the Japanese Empire of the Sun being replaced by a new kind of supremacy, Hollywood's empire of fun. This celluloid empire produced the meta-text of cultural power during the American century.

Today, a scarcely measurable one per cent of all movies in the USA come from the rest of the world, while between 70 and 90 per cent of the world's screens are occupied by US movies. US film and television programmes cover about three quarters of the global market. Of the 75 most successful films produced in Europe between 1996 and 1999, the Austrian Radio and Television Corporation (ORF) showed exactly one: Emir Kusturica's Underground (or two, if we count a UK-US co-production, the James Bond movie Golden Eye). 44 of the 50 most successful movies in German cinemas are US movies. Between 1999 and 2000 alone, the market share of European films in other EU markets fell from 29 to 22.5 per cent, while the market for US films increased to 73.7 per cent.

In 2007, Europe represented more than half of total international theatrical revenue (53 per cent) for US films, the Asia-Pacific region brought in 25 per cent, Latin America 11 per cent, Canada 8 per cent and the Middle East/Africa 3 per cent. While the privatisation of European TV channels and new technologies approximate a coup de grâce for European production, these developments resulted in a bonanza for US-media conglomerates. In 2006, the German director Wim Wenders demanded the foundation of a European cultural soul, an idea of Europe created by movies: "Why is it that today, not only in Europe, but all over the world, 'going to the pictures' is synonymous with 'seeing an American film?'" he asked. "Because the Americans realised long ago what moves people most and what gets them dreaming. And they radically implemented that knowledge. The whole American dream is really an invention of cinema, and it is now being dreamed by the whole world." No wonder British Oscar Winner David Putnam characterises US-European film relations over the last century as an "undeclared war".

In 1996, cultural-industry sales (of film, music, television, software, computer games, journals, books etc.) became the United States' largest export, ahead of aerospace, defence, cars, and farming. Between 1977 and 1996, US cultural industries grew three times as quickly as the overall economy. US production has been adjusting away from an agricultural and manufacturing base to an ideological one, creating a virtual empire of signs and myths. In no other field is US cultural hegemony as visible as in the area of film. Film history is world history and nowhere else has the American century become so much a "reality" as in the collective subconscious of the US movie empire, where reel history becomes real history. Hollywood movies and their paraphernalia have established themselves as, in Frederic Jameson's term, the cultural matrix of geopolitical aesthetics, in which the parochial universe of US film sites trans-morphed into a global landscape for representing the universal kaleidoscope of human emotions.

The imprints undoubtedly run deep. When Julian Rosefeldt systematically examined the visual language of 34 soap opera series in cultures as different as Addis Ababa and Alma-Ata, Oslo and Yaoundé in his project "Global Soap", his findings suggest the existence of a global behavioural repository, a common repertoire of human gestures, a universal human language which seems to be self-evident. While strikingly demonstrating that humanity is one family, this also hides the implication that all values of that family are of western origin (and thereby only follows the visual hegemony of European painting in the ascendancy of European imperialism). As Zbigniew Brzezinski laconically states, "the global implementation of American culture as universalism via mass media is an integral part of the hegemony of a new type." This global cultural power of the idea of America does not simply rest on market forces. Quite to the contrary, even Thomas Friedman affirms that "the hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps."

The Marilyn Monroe doctrine

Who, after all, needed the Monroe Doctrine, when the Marilyn Monroe doctrine, the pursuit of happiness as the pursuit of consumption, seemed so much more desirable? When Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign policy spokesman, Gennadi Gerassimov, was asked about the validity of the Brezhnev Doctrine in the light of the crumbling Soviet empire, everybody understood his answer: "The Brezhnev Doctrine is dead. We now have the Frank Sinatra doctrine. I did it my way." During the last decades US symbolic power has reached such proportions that it is often overlooked as if it were a natural part of the global environment. The sway of "soft power" has reached its highest degree of subtlety when an ideological and symbolic superiority is installed as quasi-natural, although in reality it rests on economic, commercial, military, and financial power.

While most empires have, deservedly, vanished into the dustbin of history, a few questions remain in the Empire of Fun, the essential one being, fun for whom? Just as the power base of the British Empire rested on the military control of global shipping lanes, the massive, unprecedented and unparalleled military build up by the USA, as well as the rapid exploitation of global natural resources, make up the material core of the US-American Empire of Fun. As Thomas PN Barnett argues in The Pentagon's New Map, the mission of the American military today is to close the gap between those countries connected to international financial flows and the rest. All regions which are not connected through globalisation, which is dominated by the US economy, present a distinct security risk and are therefore a case for the US military. And the present US military doctrine of "full spectrum dominance", adopted in 2000, clearly tallies full spectrum dominance in the electromagnetic spectrum with space, sea, land, and air.5)

The vast majority of humanity has been exposed to the idea of America solely through the products of US pop culture, if not the US-military. US media industries - with the market for computer and video games recently having overtaken film and television - have become the real heavy industries of the present. The internet, despite growth of traffic in Europe, Asia and Latin America, has essentially remained a virtual American space, not only because US citizens are the only ones not having to produce a passport (their country suffix) when logging on. 90 per cent of all information stored in computers globally is stored in English. Of the thirteen central root servers, ten are located in the US (one each in the UK, Sweden and Japan). Root name servers may also be run locally but they have to be synchronised with the US Department of Commerce root zone file as published by ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). The buck stops at the central root server at Dulles, Virginia, which is directly operated by VeriSign for the US Department of Commerce. Bill Clinton characterised the internet as the battlefield of an economic world war, which the United States planned to win.

The Geopolitical aesthetics of America TM

The control of communications channels makes cyberspace the first perfect space for the global extension of capitalism, which informs human experiences worldwide. Needless to say, this kind of over-whelming, stunning, and mind-blowing control of human communication is without precedent in history. There is no doubt that we are confronting the most effective and fine-tuned advancement of earlier forms of dominance in which the media industries - as technological parasite and ideological apologist of the military-industrial complex - have metamorphosed into the most significant instrument of power in our epoch of virtual reality. Our everyday language is beautifully clear when the most important tool is termed - remote control. In a wonderful cartoon in the International Herald Tribune on November 17, 2005, Patrick Chappatte has Uncle Sam sit in front of screens monitoring the globe, his fingers close to the nuclear button as well as the World Wide Web Switch. But all power is problematic. The question that presently engrosses military planners globally, more than anything else, is to locate the Maginot Line of cyberspace.

Since the 19th century, most debates about popular culture have been debates about America, and the development of modern mass culture has meant the adoption or repudiation of US cultural practices. America first and foremost signifies newness, wealth, power, youth, change and success. In the culture of capitalism, in which the marketplace is promoted as the highest cultural value, the market has become the supreme cultural good, the quasi-fetish and mantra of cultural globalisation. It is self-evident that the culture of capitalism must by definition be popular culture, and pop connotes the US. Until recently, it was not only the centre of the capitalist culture of consumption, but itself its most successful product. In semiotic terms, America no longer stood for a country in any classical sense but rather represented a multi-trillion-dollar brand.

In the age of hypercapitalism, cultural capital has been morphed into capitalised culture. The media giants have become the global controllers of access to the whole spectrum of cultural experience: tourism, theme parks, entertainment centres, fashion, food, sports, music, film, television, books, journals, newspapers, and the internet. But while the empire is global, the fun itself has been kept well inside a circle of a comparatively small minority of the world's population. For the majority of humanity, westernisation does not mean democratisation but physical exploitation and cultural humiliation. Until not so long ago, AmericaTM was predominantly associated with catchwords such as "democracy," "opportunity" and "freedom." As a result of the aggressive unilateralism of the administration of President George W Bush, the United States' standing in world opinion plummeted to new lows. Eventually, even the Voice of America had to concede, that "our chief public diplomacy these days is war… People in the rest of the world think of the US in terms of 'cowboy diplomacy' and building an American empire." The paramount symbol of the USA, the Statue of Liberty, was supplanted by images from Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo - the white noise of the orange-clad prisoners in Camp X-Ray nearly drowning out the heavenly voice of Brother Ray.

Geopolitical aesthetics have their costs. They even got Superman! On the Fourth of July weekend in 2006, Superman returned triumphantly to US movie screens, talking about truth, justice, and all that stuff. All that stuff? Whatever happened to "the American way"? As the London Guardian asked: "Is 'American' now such a toxic adjective in the global movie marketplace? Is it an indication of how much the world has changed since Christopher Reeve hung up his cape and unitard a couple of decades ago that the makers of Superman Returns found it necessary to distance themselves from the very name of their home country?" Has America, has the idea of America, which itself represented one of the hottest products of global popular culture for a century, turned into the proverbial box-office poison? When the film was released even the Hollywood Reporter conceded that, "Superman eschews long-time patriot act: While audiences in Dubuque might bristle at Superman's newfound global agenda, patrons in Dubai likely will find the DC Comics protagonist more palatable. And with the increasing importance of the overseas box office… foreign sensibilities can no longer be ignored."

As former US Ambassador Ted Kattouf, who had been posted to Syria under President George W Bush, indicated in an interview with the
Voice of America on February 7, 2007, cosmetic changes will not suffice to improve the situation. No matter how skilfully the United States attempts to polish its image, "America's global reputation stands or falls not on its words, but its deeds. It is the policy. What is wrong is not that we do not know how to market ourselves, or that we do not have any good brains in the US government who know anything about public diplomacy. But the fact of the matter is that we have done tremendous harm… You can't put lipstick on a pig."

All of this despite the fact that the USA spends about $1 billion a year on international broadcasting and PR run out of the State Department while the Pentagon also directs its own information and psychological operations. The USA does not only run half of the world's military but also half of the planet's advertising budgets. 1984 may have never really arrived, JG Ballard wrote in 2002, "but Brave New World is around us everywhere. The Machiavelli of the mid-20th century will be an advertising man; his Prince, a textbook of the art and science of fooling all the people all the time."

Global sensibilities can no longer be ignored. As a result of the world economic crisis, for which the United States carries the major blame, the "fun" has rapidly become an unobtainable luxury for many even within the empire's boundaries. Whether the massive collapse of the global image of the USA (and the idea of America) during the first decade of the 21st century, which has been accelerated by the disastrous performance of the US economy, will be redirected by the policies of President Barack Obama in an endurable way is open for future debate.

At least in the realm of pop, not all seems to be lost yet: in 2003, the domestic box office brought in $9.2 billion for US studios, while foreign markets generated $10.9 billion. In 2007, domestic was $9.6 billion, while international rose to more than $17 billion. As the New York Times, reporting the dramatic increase of US programmes on major European networks from 214,000 to 266,000 hours between 2000 and 2006, headlined its article of November 30, 2008: "World Falls for American Media, Even as It Sours on America".

As Emily Rosenberg observed, the two most explosive equations of the 20th century may well have been E = mc2 on the one hand, and American products = American life style = freedom on the other. For over a century, the United States of America has been the largest emitter of signs and by far the most audible and visible country in world history. But despite the best amplifiers and loudspeakers, one wonders whether Uncle Sam is sometimes not rather in need of a hearing aid.

1) Malcolm Gladwell, The Terrazzo Jungle: Fifty years ago, the mall was born. America would never be the same.The New Yorker, March 15, 2004

2) See Gillian Tett, Fool’s Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets and Unleashed a Catastrophe (Little, Brown, 2009)

3) Mark Levine, Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Three Rivers Press, 2008)

4) Reinhold Wagnleitner (Ed.), Satchmo Meets Amadeus (Innsbruck, Vienna, Bozen: Studienverlag, 2006)

5) Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness (London: Verso, 1993)

6) The label full spectrum dominance implies that US forces are able to conduct prompt, sustained, and synchronised operations with combinations of forces tailored to specific situations, and with freedom to operate in all domains > space, sea, land, air and information.