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Cultural Imperialism
September 4th, 2004

Gaelle Sevenier, French journalist





Costa Rica




Central America




English presentation

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Présentation en français

CV version word


Presentacion en español

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Gaëlle Sévenier
Final paper - Freedom of expression - Word Version


American Cultural Imperialism: Gift or Threat?


Cultural imperialism is a very old phenomenon. For centuries, countries imposed their cultural values on other nations. Today, as a global economic and political power, the United States is inevitably intruding into the cultures of other countries of the world. Some believe that the American's spread of culture is beneficial to the entire planet, while others consider this cultural imperialism a threat.

Social context

During the past five hundred years, European countries colonized southern countries in the name of "spreading" Christian civilization to the "primitive" people in other parts of the world, as well as securing resources and workers for economic production. As cultural imperialism occurs, it is said to be for the own good of the other, conquered civilization, to spread universal values, rights and standards of development. The United States are currently not the only cultural imperialists, but the spread of American values in the entire world is at the leading edge of a wave of spread of Western goods and consumerist culture. Today, the phenomenon might take a different form, as it is a lot more subtle and less brutal than the European colonization: it is being done in the name of freedom of the market and freedom of expression.

The propagation of the American culture seen as unavoidable and beneficial to the world

Through the media, the United States is spreading some universal values and human rights. To some authoritarian countries, it spreads ideas of freedom of expression, democracy, equality, and rights - concepts that should be, in some people's opinion, universal. Universality of some values may be possible - human nature is not that different from one culture to another, and many values are shared across cultures. However, the majority of the world's cultures undervalue women and children in practice if not in ethos. Finally, the majority of the world's people, regardless of the names given to governmental regimes by those with authority, continue to live without real participatory democracy. American ideals of equality, freedom, and democracy now available in the world may give more freedom to women, children, and to minorities in all cultures, and will promote anti-racist, anti-sexist or anti-authoritarian messages and regimes.

Irving Kristol, in "The emerging American Imperialism," presents imperialism as an unintended consequence of market expansion rather than a conscious goal: "one of these days, the American people are going to awaken to the fact that we have become an imperial nation." But he later argues that it is not something unintentional, but that in fact many nations have facilitated and welcomed American cultural values along with American products and ways of life: "it happened because the world wanted it to happen." To him, the American missionaries live in Hollywood, which is different from the Old European imperialism, which was based on bureaucratic colonial governments and resource extraction.

Christopher Dunkley, in "American Cultural Imperialism: No Bad Thing" says that "America provides some of the best available anywhere in the world." One of the reasons that American series are so successful in the world is that "thanks to its immigration policies, the US has a population with a mixture of Anglo Saxons, Scandinavians, Asians and so on that provides American broadcasters with a domestic audience which is, to all intents and purposes, international. Please the American audience and you can guarantee you will please the world."

Some theories of globalization see, instead of cultural imperialism, the movement of products and ideas from across national and cultural borders in ways that produce real changes in cultures like that of the United States. In 1994, MacQuail wrote in his book Mass Communication Theory that not only was United States influencing other cultures, but other cultures were also influencing the US: "While one-way flow may be evident in terms of information flows on an information theory quantitative estimate, the reality is that as media technology and economies become more intertwined, this seemingly one-way flow reverses itself into a two-way flow in which what sells abroad influences what Americans see at home." In that perspective, we can talk about an interpenetration of cultures instead of the invasion of American culture in the world.


The American cultural imperialism as a threat to other cultures

We should not forget that the differences in cultures make the world a rich and diverse place. Every individual of each country should have the right to express his or her own culture. A cultural uniformity would lead to the extinction of cultures and it would definitely represent a great loss.

However, the American culture is intruding on most cultures in the world, in many cases threatening their existence. Superman, Spider-man, and Batman replace local heroes; Pepsi and Coke replace local fruit drinks; and "trick or treat" begin to replace Dia de los Muertos. Perhaps more insidious, to compete with American cultural imports, local varieties and products begin to mimic American products. All the exportation of goods and information from the United States to the entire planet contributes to the exportation of the American culture.

Today, the spread of American culture goes through every communication medium: 90% of the information available on the Internet is in English, CNN is seen in 120 countries, Stephen King is the number one best seller in the world. Obviously, there is already a process of cultural uniformity going on, and this can be seen as a great loss.

The rise of English as an international language of trade and politics has been one of the strongest vehicles for the transmission of American culture. The place of English in the world has crystallized in the past decades - you can read signs in English in every capital, and fluency in English has become a taken-for-granted prerequisite for upper-level positions in international trade and politics. While the forces leading to the rise of an international language differ greatly from cultural imperialism, it would be difficult to separate the two. As English becomes a global language, it becomes clear that language and culture cannot be separated. The AP National Writer journalist Anthony Ted says "every one from the French to the Indonesians worry that where English goes, America will follow." Scholars Nye and Owen admitted that it is the goal of the United States to have English as the international language: "It is in the economic and political interests of the United States to ensure that, if the world is moving to a common language, it be English; that if the world is becoming linked by television, radio and music, the programming be American; and that, if common values are being developed, they be values with which Americans are comfortable." According to them, not only it is intentional, but also it is a "developing reality." If this spread of values, language, and information is purely because of economic and political interest for the United States, the well-being of other cultures and their freedom of expression are not taken into consideration except instrumentally - can they be bought and sold for a profit, or can they be used to political advantage - to the profit and advantage of the US.

We know that the United States is the leader in exporting its information. One problem is that the United States sells its information and media products so cheaply that it is impossible for the whole world to compete. The American producers budget to cover their costs within the US market and can consequently sell at unbeatable prices internationally. A consequence is that it is much cheaper to buy, for example, a blockbuster Hollywood movie made in the United States than to make a less expensive local production in another country.


The UNESCO's attempts of regulation
The attempt by UNESCO to regulate a more equal flow of communication between the North and the South, to protect cultural diversity and to protect countries from cultural imperialism unfortunately resulted in the withdrawal of the United States because it did not correspond to its financial interests. Since 1984, which is the date of the American withdrawal, UNESCO keeps trying to influence and give recommendations to governments, but it has no power over the main country that owns most of the communication flow in the world: the United States of America.