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What Americanization Has to Do With America

By Tim Snyder / April 29, 1998



The American flag had pride of place in Prague, even before the Velvet Revolution brought an end to communism in 1989. Flying from an outpost of the US Embassy overlooking the city center, it was visible for miles around. In the 1980s, concerned American diplomats polled the locals, fearing that this display was overbearing. No, said ordinary Czechs, that flag stands for the freedom we deserve. Please keep it where it is. And did you know, the Czechs sometimes asked with a smile, that if you look from a certain angle the flag seems to be flying from the Prague Castle itself?

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Today as disillusion accompanies deeper acquaintance, the embassy's flag is no more than a curiosity. In 1989, America was a model of a democracy and rebellion against imperial power. As an American I was asked about Paul Revere, Thomas Jefferson, and the Constitution. In 1998, I'm asked about Paula Jones, William Jefferson Clinton, and the Fifth Amendment. Precisely because Czechs and East Europeans expected so much from American politics, their disappointment is painful to observe. But US policy is friendly to new democracies and in certain countries the prospect of NATO enlargement has restored some of Uncle Sam's old charm.

But life, as the Czech writer Milan Kundera reminds us, is elsewhere. Politics is not the center of everyday experience, and it is in quotidian life that East Europeans' image of America has changed the most. The US flag has descended from the Olympian heights of symbolic politics to the banality of consumer culture. It is available, on orange juice or cigarettes, at the corner store. The result is "Americanization," the popularity, across the region of a narrowly commercial idea of the American dream.

A few examples help distinguish what we sell from who we are. Take Bucharest, Romania, in July 1993, as my friend Danny and I stumbled through unfinished sidewalks. Stopping to take a picture, we were reprimanded by a Romanian who said that Americans brought out the worst in his country. We were puzzled: What did he know about us? Well, he knew about American products, and about American movies. Bruce Willis's "Hudson Hawk," a bomb at home, was well on its way to turning an international profit in Bucharest's box offices. Danny and I turned our heads from the violent American movie at the restaurant where we ate lunch.

Hollywood is hard to escape. In February 1998 in Kiev, I was buttonholed against a pillar in the lobby of the Hotel Ukraina by a critic of "Independence Day." A bad movie, I agreed, but not totally corrupt. It expresses, I said, three typical American values: patriotism, solidarity with those in need, and sympathy for the underdog. When I point this out, my interlocutor saw what I meant, though the movie itself left him cold. The values we understand implicitly may not register abroad.

Mass culture must appeal to a lowest common denominator, to something everyone can understand. When mass culture is international, the denominator is lower still. This is particularly true in the case of advertising. Commercials would probably seem strange to us if we had not grown up with them. East Europeans, confronting them for the first time, are often puzzled or even offended. Why must there be ugly billboards in beautiful cities? Why must advertising's neologisms invade national languages? And what does "Always Coca Cola" mean?

Americans have answers to all of these questions, even the last one. Coca-Cola is, for us, an old product with a proud national tradition. But in another environment, such as that of Belarus in November 1996, our associations bubble away. Coke's partner McDonald's was then about to open its first restaurant in Minsk. The grand opening, as it happened, coincided with the corrupt referendum which inaugurated Belarussian dictatorship. The new restaurant was across the street from the government building where brave young people gathered to protest the president's usurpation of power. On my side of the street, militiamen videotaped those brave enough to speak. Across the way, their colleagues kept the hamburger line in order. Here, someone spoke of the eternity of the Belarussian nation. There, someone ordered Always Coca-Cola. I left ill at ease.

But should I have been? What, after all, does Americanization have to do with America? Our culture passes through so many filters as it crosses the ocean - filters of language, values, references - that what East Europeans are receiving is far from what we think we are sending. To see America through a television screen or a shop window is to see through a glass - as in darkly. But although we cannot be held responsible for what others choose to buy from us, we should know that we are stereotyped before we ever leave home: as shortsighted, spoiled, and shallow.

Hundreds of thousands of us will visit Eastern Europe this summer. In person, do what you can to prove this stereotype wrong. And if you should happen to look up toward Prague Castle and see Old Glory, think upon what you would like those stars and stripes to mean to our East European friends - to those who have known oppression and are working through their idea of freedom.

* Tim Snyder is a historian at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. He is living in Prague.