[NYT] Salman Rushdie defends Pax Americana

Rohit Khare (rohit@uci.edu)
Fri, 5 Mar 1999 13:01:04 -0800

[I agree strongly with S.R. -- see the complementary trait from the=20
"American Anti-Americanism" thread last month -- and it also aligns=20
with his introduction to Mirrorwork, an anthology of the best Indian=20
writing up to the 50th anniversary of Independence: namely, that the=20
best writing was in English, and rather than being horrified about=20
the exclusion of the other 700-odd languages on the Subcontinent,=20
rejoice in the co-evolution -- no, co-option -- of English by the=20
ruled into its own language and its own rhythm. After 400 years,=20
something is no longer foreign -- it is an integral part of one's=20

But only 5% of Indians speak English... RK

PS. Choice quote: "to cease to believe in our gods is not the same=20
thing as commencing to believe in nothing."]

March 5, 1999
Rethinking the War on American Culture

LONDON -- A couple of years ago a British literary festival staged a=20
public debate on the motion that "it is the duty of every European to=20
resist American culture." Along with two American journalists (one of=20
whom was Sidney Blumenthal, now more famous as a Clinton aide and=20
impeachment witness), I opposed the motion. I'm happy to report that=20
we won, capturing roughly 60 percent of the audience's vote.
But it was an odd sort of victory. My American co-panelists were=20
surprised by the strength of the audience's anti-Americanism -- after=20
all, 40 percent of the crowd had voted for the motion. Sidney, noting=20
that "American culture" as represented by American armed forces had=20
liberated Europe from Nazism not all that many years ago, was puzzled=20
by the audience's apparent lack of gratitude. And there was a=20
residual feeling that the case for "resistance" was actually pretty=20
Since that day, the debate about cultural globalization and its=20
military-political sidekick, intervention, has continued to=20
intensify, and anti-American sentiment is, if anything, on the=20
increase. In most people's heads, globalization has come to mean the=20
worldwide triumph of Nike, the Gap and MTV.
Confusingly, we want these goods and services when we behave as=20
consumers, but with our cultural hats on we have begun to deplore=20
their omnipresence.
On the merits of intervention, even greater confusion reigns. We=20
don't seem to know if we want a world policeman or not. If the=20
"international community," which these days is little more than a=20
euphemism for the United States, fails to intervene promptly in=20
Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, it is excoriated for that failure. Elsewhere,=20
it is criticized just as vehemently when it does intervene: when=20
American bombs fall on Iraq, or when American agents assist in the=20
capture of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Clearly, those of us who shelter under the pax Americana are deeply=20
ambiguous about it, and the United States will no doubt continue to=20
be surprised by the level of the world's ingratitude. The globalizing=20
power of American culture is opposed by an improbable alliance that=20
includes everyone from cultural-relativist liberals to hard-line=20
fundamentalists, with all manner of pluralists and individualists, to=20
say nothing of flag-waving nationalists and splintering sectarians,=20
in between.
Much ecological concern is presently being expressed about the crisis=20
in biodiversity, the possibility that a fifth or more of the earth's=20
species of living forms may soon become extinct. To some,=20
globalization is an equivalent social catastrophe, with equally=20
alarming implications for the survival of true cultural diversity, of=20
the world's precious localness: the Indianness of India, the=20
=46renchness of France.
Amid this din of global defensiveness, little thought is given to=20
some of the most important questions raised by a phenomenon that,=20
like it or not, isn't going away any time soon.
=46or instance: do cultures actually exist as separate, pure,=20
defensible entities? Is not m=E9lange, adulteration, impurity,=20
pick'n'mix at the heart of the idea of the modern, and hasn't it been=20
that way for most of this all-shook-up century? Doesn't the idea of=20
pure cultures, in urgent need of being kept free from alien=20
contamination, lead us inexorably toward apartheid, toward ethnic=20
cleansing, toward the gas chamber?
Or, to put it another way: are there other universals besides=20
international conglomerates and the interests of superpowers? And if=20
by chance there were a universal value that might, for the sake of=20
argument, be called "freedom," whose enemies -- tyranny, bigotry,=20
intolerance, fanaticism -- were the enemies of us all; and if this=20
"freedom" were discovered to exist in greater quantity in the=20
countries of the West than anywhere else on earth; and if, in the=20
world as it actually exists, rather than in some unattainable Utopia,=20
the authority of the United States were the best current guarantor of=20
that "freedom," then might it not follow that to oppose the spread of=20
American culture would be to take up arms against the wrong foe?
By agreeing on what we are against, we discover what we are for.=20
Andr=E9 Malraux believed that the third millennium must be the age of=20
religion. I would say rather that it must be the age in which we=20
finally grow out of our need for religion. But to cease to believe in=20
our gods is not the same thing as commencing to believe in nothing.

There are fundamental freedoms to fight for, and it will not do to=20
doom the terrorized women of Afghanistan or of the circumcision-happy=20
lands of Africa by calling their oppression their "culture."
And of course it is America's duty not to abuse its pre-eminence, and=20
it is our right to criticize such abuses when they happen -- when,=20
for example, innocent factories in Sudan are bombed, or Iraqi=20
civilians pointlessly killed.
But perhaps we, too, need to rethink our easy condemnations.=20
Sneakers, burgers, blue jeans and music videos aren't the enemy. If=20
the young people of Iran now insist on rock concerts, who are we to=20
criticize their cultural contamination? Out there are real tyrants to=20
defeat. Let's keep our eyes on the prize.
Salman Rushdie is the author of "The Satanic Verses," "The Moor's=20
Last Sigh" and the forthcoming "The Ground Beneath Her Feet."