America's 'soft power' triumphs

How US consumerism changed the face of European civilization.

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America the ebullient likes to hold up its sweeping cultural influence as the clearest sign that foreign disdain for its megabrands and powerhouse pop culture is patently faux. Come back with your criticism when you're not wearing Levi's.

It's a fair point. Culture is a free-market sell; America's über-blend simply sells like no other.

Still, the world's leading exporter of aspiration gets its back up from time to time, as when the world - hating hegemony - seems not to be sufficiently appreciative of America's gifts.

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Some of the best efforts to sort it all out occur far above the talk-show fray. Victoria de Grazia's "Irresistible Empire," a 480-page juggernaut in a mini-flotilla of recent books about "soft power," represents a remarkable, big-think undertaking two decades in the making, according to the author's acknowledgments.

It was worth the wait. De Grazia, a professor of history at Columbia University, describes her subject as "the rise of a great imperium with the outlook of a great emporium."

Her main point: The Americanization of Europe by way of mass marketing is no new phenomenon and, despite all of Europe's umbrage, its participation has been quite voluntary.

Today, as Europe endures turbulence over the state of its own union, de Grazia's book could not be more timely. Even as the continent wrestles with fundamental questions about its identity, it continues its odd push-pull relationship with American consumerism - now embracing it, now trying to hold it at arm's length, now launching its own discount chains in the US.

That de Grazia limits herself to the roots of American influence in Europe is a testament to her depth. But it is her robust writing, mastery of scene-setting, and deft deconstruction of illustrative events that move it from academic to accessible.

Not that the book isn't replete with history lessons. Anyone who didn't sleep though class probably equates the term "Wilsonian" with the notion that free trade is a liberalizing, even liberating force.

De Grazia's introduction puts the reader in Detroit in the summer of 1916, far from a war still contained in Europe. Woodrow Wilson is addressing the first World's Salesmanship Congress.

Among the words Wilson sends out over the packed hall: "[G]o out and sell goods that will make the world more comfortable and more happy, and convert them to the principles of America."

This evangelical approach would find receptive ears in Europe, which would quite willingly become, by the close of the century, as much a consumer society as the United States - a first-in-line buyer of the American dream, including its more vulgar and transient parts.

"Continental hauteur" initially stood in contrast to the back-slapping egalitarianism of an eagerly middle-brow America that de Grazia describes.

But Woolworth, abroad since 1909, had made deep inroads in Europe by the 1920s. And by 1986, she points out, a McDonald's in Rome would become the world's largest, seating 450 people not far from the Spanish Steps.

What's more, American consumerism's seductive dance had steadily altered Old World lifestyles.

De Grazia explores every wrinkle in the evolution. She details, for example, the startling early success in Germany of the Rotary Club, that Midwest-made symbol of middle America. She juxtaposes textual images of Duluth and Dresden at a point when the culture gap yawned wide but the seeds of mutually sought new standards of living had incongruously been sewn.

She shows the push of big brands and corporate advertising - led by Ford and General Motors - in the 1920s.

(By 1930, the J. Walter Thompson Agency had a military-campaign-type map showing its global reach on which Europe is more riddled with dots and stars than the US.)

Even when discussing America's cinematic output - a contributing factor in the global ascent of the US as imagemaker that has been widely worked over - de Grazia's writing adds dimension.

"American film introduced a world of sensory speedup, jam-packed with the props of everyday life," she writes. "There were no artificial conventions that excluded the common object - cans of corned beef, tins of shoe polish..... The point is not that so bountiful a vision created a desire for those goods.... But they did reinforce a new economy of desire for more details, more sights...."

De Grazia eventually gets around to the cold war, and the effects of the Soviet empire's fall on the empire of consumerism.

She borrows World War II imagery in describing the big-box stores' invasion of the Continent. By the late '90s K-Mart and Wal-Mart "rumbled into Europe," she writes - noting that "the opposition it faced was less vociferous than the opposition mounted in small Vermont towns."

Change has come so quickly and so thoroughly to Europe that someday de Grazia's book might be considered an essential account of a cultural assimilation so complete that it is all but invisible to future generations.

"Hardly a few decades will pass before it will take a sensitive archaeological eye to discern the traces left by the advance of the Market Empire in the stratifications of material culture deposited in the European area over the twentieth century," she writes. "Then it will be discovered that the most ancient layers of debris ... reveal astonishingly rich artifacts."

De Grazia's book sets them out in glass cases.

Clayton Collins is on the Monitor staff.

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