Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Post-American World

The Post-American World (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008) is the characteristically outstanding work I have come to expect from Fareed Zakaria. Prognostication is always a dangerous business, but, if I were required to place bets, I would sooner place them with Zakaria than with anyone else. More importantly, I always learn plenty from him about the here and now. Even when he says things I already know (or at least agree with), he has a way of expressing them that makes me see them in a new light. One small case in point, his dissection (almost as an aside) of the idea that there is something inherently American about the shallow mass-consumerism that is supplanting high culture throughout the world:
What is vanishing in developing countries is an old high culture and traditional order. It is being eroded by the rise of a mass public, empowered by capitalism and democracy. This is often associated with Westernization because what replaces the old—the new dominat culture—looks Western, and specifically American. McDonald's, blue jeans, and rock music have become universal, crowding out older, more distinctive forms of eating, dressing, and singing. But the story here is about catering to a much larger public than the small elite who used to define a country's mores. It all looks American because America, the country that invented mass capitalism and consumerism, got there first. The impact of mass capitalism is now universal. The French have been decrying the loss of their culture for centuries, when, in fact, all that has happened is the decline of a certain old and hierarchical order. Did the majority of French people, most of whom were poor peasants, eat at authentic bistros—or anywhere outside their homes—in the nineteenth century? Chinese opera is said to be dying. But is that because of Westernization or because of the rise of China's mass culture? How many Chinese peasants listened to opera in their villages decades ago? The new mass culture has become the most important culture because, in a democratic age, quantity trumps quality. How many listen matters more than who listens. (78)
Nicely put.

1 comment:

Steelman said...

"You'll never go broke appealing to the lowest common denominator."
- Lisa Simpson