Culture Wars and International Affairs

Russia’s absurd portrayal of itself as some sort of Christian champion in Ukraine – even as it slaughters thousands and destroys whole cities, has gotten me thinking about something I’ve been ambivalent about for many years: the effect of American popular culture on the rest of the world.

I love America. And like all sane people who do, I, therefore, come close to hating much about our current popular culture – starting with the fact that we even have it here at home to export. But there are some crucial distinctions to draw about that now-global U.S. presence. And we should not allow to go unanswered those who want to use the decadent elements of American and Western culture and even Western Christianity – which exist beyond all doubt – as an excuse for nefarious purposes.

I was in San Paulo, Brazil a few years ago, speaking to a group broadly sympathetic to the kinds of things we write about here at TCT. After my talk, a Brazilian who identified himself as a friend of America – he was happy that two of his daughters, with their families, lived here – rose to comment that the one thing he would change about the United States, if he could, was our popular culture, which even then was everywhere. “What are you Americans going to do about your popular culture? You’re making the abnormal normal.” In a carnival culture like Brazil’s, which is hardly puritanical about the usual sore spots, that hit me as quite a statement. And I’ve never forgotten it.

Americans, of course, know that our popular culture, our prestige media, and our academic institutions don’t much reflect the nation anymore. We are still quite a religious people and attend church in far higher percentages than in other, what are now called WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) countries. But you would never know that from most of our films, music, magazines, and internet sites.

Only occasionally does something else seep through. I remember my great surprise once when I was in Santiago, Chile. When I finally got to my hotel room, out of sheer weariness, I turned on the television and was pleasantly shocked to see that the channel that came on was broadcasting Mother Angelica, dubbed in fluent Spanish. EWTN is admittedly an outlier in America, but it’s the kind of counter-cultural outlier that doesn’t much exist with such scope anywhere else.

Since I’m in Rome, I’ve been following some of the developments in Ukraine on Italian television. When the news isn’t being broadcast, the shows are almost always American. An episode of the Simpsons dubbed in idiomatic Italian about starting a gay bar. An original Italian-produced show about a teacher counseling gay students to accept themselves behind the backs of their parents. Even an Italian version of Judge Judy. Most of the entertainment is American. Such broadcasting as there is of Italian origin might as well have come from the lower reaches of American pop culture – i.e., music, sex, violence, and,  above all, arrogance,

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Most American adults either don’t watch this sort of sewage or can more or less ignore it. But I have to keep reminding myself not to underestimate how potent this kind of thing is coming from the North American superpower. Italians and the other Europeans I see in the street these days are indistinguishable from people the same age in the United States. I even notice a lot more Italians with dogs, rather than children. Imagine, Italy without children.

None of this justifies, of course, Putin or Kirill in Ukraine. I seriously doubt whether they believe in this Western cultural threat anyway. Russia has the highest abortion rate in the world, a demographic black hole, a thriving gay scene in Moscow according to reliable reports, high rates of drug use and alcoholism, broad mistreatment of its own people, and vicious repression of anything the regime doesn’t want people to see or hear. (Pray for the protesters and honest journalists in Russia today.) Oh, and by the way, pressure on Catholics is a longstanding practice in Russia.

Beyond the decadent part of our culture, it’s also not easy to appreciate just how much U.S. power influences the rest of the world, for good and bad. Many people don’t see, for example, the combination of fear mixed with gratitude that other nations feel towards us. Since I’m in Rome just now and there are ambivalent statements coming out of the Vatican about Ukraine being a war between America and Russia, the European example is sharp in my mind.

Americans who interact with people in Europe – even relatively friendly England – often encounter the kind of anti-Americanism that stems from people in other nations who are – quietly – happy not to have to think about defending themselves because of American power. At the same time, they’re fearful because they have little control over the large military and political decisions that America makes. That this is a love-hate relationship is a gross understatement.

NATO was created, as the line went back then, “To keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Note that sequence. Even at the outset, the greatest worry was Russia, only then followed by keeping America engaged. Germany had been so destroyed that it would be a long time before it would be strong again.

It worked. And it eventually led to the downfall of the Soviets, but it also resulted – as many Americans have lamented – in the Europeans not having the readiness or, frankly, the defense expenditures needed to be serious partners in NATO. Pope Francis has said he’s “ashamed” that some nations are now planning to live up to their NATO commitments of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense now that Russia is again a serious threat. But how ashamed would Europeans be not to make the sacrifices needed to stand with Ukraine?

I’m with the realists in this. A weak West would invite further Russian aggression. And who knew – Putin’s mistake – that America and Europe would hold together and support resistance to attacks from the East at this late date. There may still be something unsuspected and still alive and kicking in our beloved but also ailing West.

I’m leaving Rome today and we’ll be back with The Vatican Thing when the time is right.

 

*Image: Demonstrators outside the White House in February [Shuran Huang for The New York Times]

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