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I love hate you
America's success has resulted in admiration, jealousy, and resentment

By Yahya R. Kamalipour
October 8, 1999
The Iranian

This article is based on Images of the U.S. Around the World: A Multicultural Perspective (State University of New York Press, 1999). Dr. Yahya R. Kamalipour is professor of mass communications and acting head of the Department of Communication and Creative Arts, Purdue University Calumet, Hammond, Indiana USA, where he has taught graduate and undergraduate courses since 1986.

In his 1840 classic book, Democracy in America, the French author, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: "A native of the United States clings to this world's goods as if he were certain never to die; and he is so hasty in grasping at all within his reach that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not living long enough to enjoy them. He clutches everything, he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications."

De Tocqueville's perception of early 19th century America was based primarily on his personal observations in a period when most of the contemporary communication channels, particularly the electronic media, did not even exist. Today, America's global images are largely based on the very cultural products (TV programs, recorded music, books, magazines, and movies) that are produced here and exported to the rest of the world. Although, in terms of dollars, culture is the second leading American export topped only by aerospace technology, the impact of culture goes far beyond money in influencing global life.

On the eve of the dawn of the third millennium, the United States not only dominates practically all aspects of global communication and entertainment, but continues to fascinate the rest of the world. In fact, America's cultural influence, coupled with its political and economic power, has inevitably resulted in admiration, jealousy, and resentment. A popular resentment throughout the world, even in such traditional friends of America, as France and Canada, is that the U.S., through its media conglomerates and cultural products, is threatening traditional or indigenous cultures. While during the colonial period, Western powers (the British and French) were physically present in the territories that they ruled, today they (particularly the U.S.) influence distant cultures through their global corporations and communications technologies. Hence, cultural imperialism has replaced colonialism.

Suffice it to say that the United States, which was once a British colony, has now quite literally conquered the United Kingdom through its globally pervasive consumer goods and services (McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Coca-Cola, Winston, Master Card, Ford) and through its cultural products, media, and icons (celebrities, movies, recorded music, novels, television, radio, the Internet). Consequently, "cultural imperialism," or "cultural invasion," has become a global controversy, often sparking heated debate. Even ex-Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau, once said: "Living next to the U.S. is akin to sleeping next to an elephant. You cannot help but be aware of its every movement." Furthermore, the French government is so concerned about the impact of American mass culture that it has imposed quotas on imported programming and has even threatened its citizens with fines if they substitute English for French words. Other governments, such as in Iran and Saudi Arabia, not only restrict American cultural products but have legally banned satellite receiving dishes. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan has even taken the extreme measure of declaring television sets illegal, in effect "throwing out the baby with the bath water."

In fact, global capitalism and global media have even penetrated the tribal way of life in the Amazon jungles via satellite-receiving dishes that adorn the elite's huts. Quite possibly, the tribal people may now dream of having a "Pizza Hut" and owning other goods, services, and ideas trumpeted on their TV sets. Perhaps some of them might even be wishing someday to visit the land of fantasy, intrigue, beauty, crime, drama, love, hate, glitter, celebrity, abundance, freedom, and opportunity-America-as it is portrayed on their television sets.

The global media and corporations have transformed the "Ugly American" cliché into a collage of contradictory images that are as complex and diverse as America itself. In general, "other" cultures characterize Americans as: selfish, materialistic, wasteful, spoiled, violent, over-sexed, over-fed, loud, unreliable, decadent, free, rich, generous, powerful, competitive, and friendly. Although the United States is associated with a representative government, most people throughout the world seem to make a distinction between the American people and the American government. Hence, their grudges are often against the U.S. government and its conduct of foreign policy, not against the American people per se. Furthermore, the mass media portrayals of Americans in a given country are inextricably tied to the United States' political relations with that country. In other words, if the political relations are favorable, the media portrayals also tend to be favorable and vice versa.

After the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and the demise of a bipolar world order, the U.S. became the "only superpower" and hence acquired a unique position to influence and shape the future direction of our world, for better or worse. On the horizon, lies a future that will be symbolically homogeneous, Westernized (read Americanized), corporatized, and somewhat culturally uniform. Clearly, the domestic and transnational communication media have become potent forces in reinforcing the old stereotypical images, while creating new stereotypical images of nations and cultures. These manufactured images serve the interests of global corporations by promoting a culture of consumption. Indeed, consumerism, the essential ingredient of the global economy, is encoded in practically every cultural product (news, entertainment, and advertisement) which is packaged and disseminated worldwide. In the process, according to most observers, the pervasiveness of American popular culture not only displaces indigenous cultural values in favor of materialistic values, but promotes "bad taste" in food, fashion, behavior, and attitude.

Welcome to the global village-a world of manufactured goods and images!

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