Romania: Second Hand American Dreams

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23 Jan 2002

About 8 or 10 minutes into performing Alice's Restaurant  🔗, having told the whole story about Thanksgiving at Alice's and his arrest and his trial, Arlo Guthrie says, "But that's not what I came here to talk about. I came to talk about the draft."

As most of you know, I've written 13 emails about what it's like visiting and working in Bucharest, about the joys and frustrations of expat life, and so on. But today, that's not what I came here to talk about. I came to talk about cultural hegemony.

Most Americans would have a hard time naming a Romanian other than Dracula and maybe Nadia Comaneci. [Want to know some more famous and infamous Romanians 🔗? Some of these you've probably heard of, but never knew they were Romanian.] Most Romanians could name 20 Hollywood movie stars and would have as good a chance as an American of naming 20 members of the US Congress (which is to say that, like most Americans, they could probably name 5. And they don't even have one of their own to name). Most educated Americans still couldn't place Romania on a map or name its capital. Most educated Romanians would feel slightly embarrassed if they couldn't name which US states are on the West Coast. Most Americans couldn't identify Romanian music if they heard it. Most Romanians (at least most Romanians under 30) can tell Britney Spears voice from Alanis Morisette's (OK, Alanis is Canadian) in 5 seconds or less. And perhaps most important, no American, unless he or she were headed for Romania or ating a Romanian, would consider an ignorance of Romanian language and culture to be even a slight problem, but almost every Romanian with even the slightest pretension to upward mobility learns English, and around here that means American English. Hell, most Americans probably couldn't even tell you that Romanian is a Romance language. The people in my office seem mildly surprised (even given that my stay is not brief) that I have an interest in learning Romanian: "Everyone you'd ever want to talk to speaks English, don't they?"

Even if their view of America is sometimes limited (You mean not everyone loves Bill Gates? You mean there really are as many homeless people in an American city as in Bucharest? You mean there are really hundreds of religious denominations in America and not every church is on the political right? You mean Americans can be as skeptical about their government as Romanians?), they have one. They tend to have a certain doublethink going (America the dream vs. America the land of drug gangs and race hatred), but then don't most Americans have the same?

Why am I thinking about this? Because last night, on Romanian television, I saw (in English, subtitled) Indicted, a rather good HBO movie about the McMartin Preschool case. (I'm sure there is a lot of info about the case easily to be found, but here is a good primer for anyone unfamiliar with the case 🔗.) The very well made film stands firmly on the side of the defendants (I happen to agree with the filmmakers that the case was a total witchhunt, as was the similar case in Wenatchee, WA, but that's not my point.) My point is that this very thoughtful film about issues ranging from the practice and malpractice of law, about the legal procedures and the politics and the horse trading involved in a major trial, about how children are handled and mis-handled by investigators, about how religion and madness and press hysteria and so on played out to mangle the lives of dozens of Californians (and not a bad English-language lesson either) was available to anyone in Romania who wanted to see it. As was silly fluff like Zoolander and Legally Blonde (currently doing well in the cinemas here), and all points in between.

There are several consequences of this sort of hegemony (warning: dialectical worldview ahead).

  1. First and most obvious, there is the short term economic advantage (plus a certain convenience) to the hegemon. There is a guaranteed market for American cultural products (film and music, of course, but also Big Macs, American-branded clothing, anything that can be tied to America). Because the nature of the advantage centers on branding, "import substitution" (making the goods in your own country or region instead of importing) is only partly possible. Turkish jeans, Romanian fast food, etc. will never have the same cachet. And part of the economic magic is that it is all in the brand: you take those same Turkish jeans and slap (the late) Perry Ellis's name on them, they can be worth 10 times as much. Hence the US's current emphasis on protecting such intangibles under international law.
  2. Similarly, though a bit less obvious, Americans (and by extension other English-speakers) can go almost anywhere and even if not everyone speaks their language, they at least can find a readily available interpreter. The French have been particularly pained by this aspect of English-language hegemony eclipsing their former role. Here in Romania the French are holding on with a close second - for example "Les Enfants du Paradis" ("Children of Paradise") was also on Romanian TV the other night, French TV5 is standard cable fare here, French food (along with Italian) carries more prestige than American (but seems somehow less, shall we say, au courant). Still, the pattern is clear: older Romanians are more likely to speak French, younger ones English. And while the race may not always be to the swift, the future is always to the young.
  3. For the Romanians, the short term economic liability is clear and the only short term economic gain I can see is that the existence of a single clear cultural hegemon at least makes it easier to place a single educational bet: learn English, no need to hedge. Romanians and other people in poorer countires are perhaps made to take less pride in their own culture, because they are inundated with expensive, well-made images of American (and to a lesser extent other Western) culture. However, I think it's easy to over-estimate that: in this country, even with a lot of problems (especially economic ones), there will continue to be a local culture. It will be distinctively Romanian. Romania has survived hegemony of Turks, Germans, Hungarians, and Russians, it has picked up plenty from all of them, but after a generation or two the result is unmistakably Romanian. Sure, a bunch of young Romanian bands are imitating American rap music, but consider what happened in the 60s when a bunch of Brits started imitating Rhythm & Blues. This sort of thing is not all bad, as long as the imitation is not just slavish reproduction.
  4. Generally less discussed, but I think more dramatic, Americans do not have comparable opportunity to learn about foreign cultures; at most, Americans have a few chances to see French or Italian or British (or even occasionally lately Mexican - back to that in a moment) films/music/etc. There are a lot of cultures out there which are forming a clear (even if occasionally flawed) image of us whereas we mostly don't know fact one about them.

America has long benefited from multicultural exposure through immigration, and I guess that presents the best counterbalance to this last point. The one contemporary immigrant group with enough sheer mass to keep America out of simple cultural complacency is the Latino influx. Americans may not properly understand the diversity within this influx: how many American Anglos can identify Cuban vs. Mexican music (I'm picking music because it's been the strongest cultural suit of the Latino ingress)? Maybe a quarter? How many fewer have any idea which music comes from Colombia or Panama or Peru (even though at least in the cities they have probably heard some). Think Dan Quayle. (Think, Dan Quayle. Think? Dan Quayle? Oh, never mind.) Still, it's something. In the long run, we benefit greatly from our hegemony not being absolute.

Well, that was different! Next time I'll try for (paraphrasing the words of the late Steve Goodman, channeling and improving upon Jimmy Buffett) "some words you can dance to and a melody that rhymes." (The phrase is from a song Goodman wrote about American expats in Latin America, which also contains the lines, "Down in the Banana Republics / Things are not as warm as they seem / None of the natives are buying / Any second hand American Dreams.")

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Originally written: January 23, 2002

Last modified: 24 February 2021

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