Monday, September 21, 2009

Hi my name is Rachel and I believe in cultural imperialism.

According to Sinclair, one of the fallacies of cultural imperialism is that the power of free will is not given any credit. He mocks the specter of the pernicious influence of American culture in LDCs. He also points out that people's identities are not one dimensional but exist on multiple, dynamic levels, allowing them to identify with different cultures or facets of the world around them without abandoning the precious "native" culture that the dependency theorists and cultural imperialists are so worried about (I'm channeling his disdain here, not my own). Whether one thinks that globalization is a phenomenon induced with intent or a naturally occurring postmodern process, the resulting dispersion of populations allows for free flows of culture all across the world. Sinclair says that this in turn gives people the chance to "maintain cultural identifications brought from outside that nation . . . no longer obliged to assimilate themselves to a national culture."

I do agree with Sinclair's demand that people take responsibility for themselves, taking the time to probe their personal values and beliefs and cultivate a dynamic identity that rings true to them. I bring the story below, however, as a purely relative example of how the critics of cultural imperialism underestimate the appeal of a culture of entertainment:

When I got married and moved to Israel two years ago, I never thought to buy a TV. The few shows I watched with any regularity could be found on the Internet, and the same went for movies. Plus, the majority of the channels would have been Israeli programming unless I paid for cable. A lot of talk shows, variety shows, and knock offs of reality shows like Survivor and American Idol. Not interested. I liked shows with stories, plots that I could escape into and turn my overactive brain off for all at the same time.

Over the course of those two years, I experienced a strange dissonance between the values and worldview of the people around me in Jerusalem and the values and worldview expressed in what I was watching on my computer. I found myself disturbed by the gratuitous sex, caustic language, glorification of the wealthy and general mindlessness in a lot of American entertainment, particularly when I thought about my younger teenage brothers being exposed to this smut fest (oldest siblings out there know what I am talking about). But who cares, right? It's just entertainment. It doesn't affect you, it's just fun.

Coming from a religious Jewish community in the U.S., there were certain customs and values that were daily givens in my life but never made me feel less a part of the general cultural milieu. So I only wear skirts and shirts with sleeves in mixed company, and started covering my hair as well after I got married. Those were just "ethnic" things, the uniform, and my faith was an internal thing and no one else's business. Being Jewish had no impact on the music I listened to, the movies I watched, my dating habits, or anything else I did for fun. American culture was my parents' culture, my friends' culture, and my culture. In my mind, being a modern Orthodox Jewish American did not get in the way of anything but my love of tank tops, and that was liveable.

Once I was in Israel, however, the space between my external expression and spiritual beliefs-- my mind, my intellectual identity-- became a cultural battleground. I was no longer being entertained by what I watched or did for fun. Instead, I was constantly evaluating, parsing, wondering if I shop or talk or conduct my marriage the way I do based on the influence of a culture that demands pleasure, encourages consumption, and puts the beautiful (who is beautiful?) on a pedestal as if beauty is some sort of accomplishment. These were not the values in the Jewish community around me; there was a congruence between their spiritual beliefs and day-to-day culture that seemed to endow them with a sense of peace and positivity.

Don't get me wrong: I am not saying that there is something inherently American about materialistic or hedonistic values, or that Jews or Israelis are a bunch of holy rollers, or that my little rant above did not refer to characteristics that lie at the base of human nature regardless of a person's background, religion, whatever. What I am saying is that mainstream international entertainment, the basis of which is American entertainment, is promoting a worldview by presenting it to audiences as an innocuous, fun given, a given that I myself only began to question when immersed in a society that encourages a different attitude towards love, life, and self.

If there had been faster or more omnipresent access to American entertainment in my apartment, maybe I would have taken in enough to subdue any discomfort I was experiencing from the dissonance, numbing myself with fun. I still watch TV and movies, but I do try to pick through my options, a call to conscientiousness that sometimes annoys me. After all, I still just want to be entertained. We all need a break once in a while. But I am trying to steer clear of entertainment that is not in tune with my values-- if I don't, I know Sinclair will say I have no one to blame but myself.

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