Fallen Arches

Reports that American cultural imperialism has enforced a Pax McDonald's turn out to be greatly exaggerated.

Published April 5, 1999 8:46PM (EDT)

"This ain't rock 'n' roll. This is genocide!" -- David Bowie, "Diamond Dogs"

If you thought rock music was dead as a force of rebellion, Slobodan Milosevic just proved you wrong: It just so happens that nowadays it's the "ethnic cleansers" who are kicking out the jams. This became clear last week when the Yugoslav government announced, after the first successful Serbian rock rallies in downtown Belgrade, that it would continue to inflict punishing salvos of Europop on its own people until the NATO offensive ended.

From the temperate precincts of NPR to the told-ya-so carousel of cable news, last week was the week the word "failure" came on strong in the round-the-clock coverage of the Kosovo war: the failure of American intelligence, the failure of aerial warfare, the failure of interventionism. But here's another one for you: the failure of American cultural imperialism.

After all, weren't we supposed to have turned the planet into Disney World by now? It's long been a near-universal truth for left, right and middle scribes, pessimists and idealists alike: An inexorable tide of consumer goods, trends and information, pushed by American business and media, has for decades been just about this close to turning Swedes and Senegalese alike into Illinois mall rats, imposing a Pax Americana of MTV-watching, advertising-numbed global citizenship through infusions of Sprite.

It's funny, however, what the detonation of actual weaponry does to put idle speculation about Mickey Mouse's iron glove into perspective. Yugoslavia, after all, has had a sizable dose of the black oil of American culture, from movies to TV to fast food, yet that didn't stop Milosevic -- "obsessed" with American culture, in the words of a 1995 New York Times Magazine cover story -- from aggrandizing himself, like some genocidal Bill Graham, with a Western-style protest concert. Political scientist Benjamin Barber has darkly outlined a world conflict between "Jihad" (regional fanaticism) and "McWorld" (global capitalism and the "infotainment telesector"). But in Milosevic's Yugoslavia, Jihad and McWorld seem to coincide just fine. As Steven Erlanger noted in his fine New York Times reportage, a kid in a Chicago Bulls cap danced on the wing of a downed American jet, while Belgrade anti-NATO protesters enjoyed the pop stylings of Ceca, the "Serbian Cher" and wife of paramilitary leader Arkan.

What gives? Clearly there are still precincts of the world where Quarter Pounders and the blood of one's rival ethnic group are two great tastes that taste great together. Remember the Golden Arches theory of international relations? In 1996 the New York Times' Thomas Friedman advanced the following dictum of Big Mac pacifism: "No two countries that both have a McDonald's have ever fought a war against each other ... when (a country) has a middle class big enough to support a McDonald's, it becomes a McDonald's country, and people in McDonald's countries don't like to fight wars." Turns out, however, that there were numerous Belgrade Golden Arches that had scarcely finished unloading the shamrock shakes (or the local equivalent) when an armada from McDonald'sland itself began delivering super-sized orders of munitions, at which point the Serbian citizenry smashed up their Mickey D's along with the American cultural center (sparing, however, the Levi's store).

Now Friedman himself says that his theory was "tongue in cheek," a gambit he used to argue for the peacemaking power of economic development. But it's also true that Friedman has had something of a fixation on the man in the red afro as free-market and -society symbol, putting on his paper hat to serve such plugs as "if there are no rights for Wang Dan there will be none for Ronald McDonald" (and, just months later, "when there is no rule of law for Wang Dan there will be none for Microsoft, Mickey Mouse or Ronald McDonald"); "Bosnia needs big tanks, big roads and Big Macs."

Perhaps the theory simply needs refinement. I suspect, for instance, that no two countries with access to the limited-markets-only McRib sandwich have ever fought a war. Or maybe the answer lies in a different area of pop culture. For instance, no two countries that have served as the setting of a Whit Stillman film have ever gone to war with one another. Well, not since 1898 -- OK, the 1930s, if you count the Abraham Lincoln Brigade -- but the general principle stands that a nation that can support an urban comedy of manners exploring the social mores of prep school graduates is a peaceful nation, and we should be signing up Chris Eigemann and Chloe Sevigny for "The Last Days of Kim Il Sung" pronto.

In any event, Friedman is hardly alone in assigning such power to the Ameri-cult beast, a favorite, but darker refrain of the left press that recently surfaced in a Mother Jones cover package, "America: The Brand." Instead of societies "influencing and being influenced in equal measure, creating a kind of global melting pot," the lead artcle argues, "the world has Americanized at an unprecedented rate." (And why exactly would there be a precedent for Americanization?) The piece makes a convincing argument for the worldwide spread of American business practices, but turns to borderline-condescending laments (what a shame tribesmen in Borneo are watching TV wrestling) and off-key cultural assessments (marveling at posters of "second-tier NBA player" Kobe Bryant in Paris, though Bryant is all over American ads here at home) before its sweeping conclusion, all the more ironic after a week of airstrikes: "If the bulk of the 20th century was defined by American military might, its last decade may be summed up by this maxim: 'We are all Americans now, like it or not.'"

By this logic, in Yugoslavia we are now carpet-bombing, um, ourselves. Well, why not? In his "Big Mac" column, Friedman argued that there would continue to be wars in those lands where citizens break Fillet-o-Fish together, but that they would, increasingly, be civil wars. Maybe the definition of "civil war" is changing.

Or maybe the relation of the rest of the world to Uncle Sam/Uncle Walt is actually more complicated than we usually give it credit for. Take a look, for instance, at the MP3 Web site of Serbian pop duo Projekat Lesly, where you can download, along with the group's self-produced techno singles, a four-plus-minute recording of an attack on Belgrade on March 26, complete with bowdlerized liner notes -- "F*** NATO F***!" -- describing a strange, touching clash of American music and the NATO percussion solo outside: "My mother missunderstod [sic] music for alarm. Goga is complaining about ventilation was still not on and telling my mother that explosions can't be heard in the shelter. My mother shouting 'Turn it Down'. Music she ment. I wonder if she ever listened to F. Zappa."

Well, superfan Vaclav Havel did, but somehow he still ended up on the other side of the weapons-delivery system from this Belgrade popster (backing up a pop-culture lightweight who maybe heard "We're Only in It for the Money" once, while coughing his way through an oregano joint at Oxford). Perhaps our misguided faith in -- or fear of -- American cultural remote control is of a piece with our misguided faith in our remote-control weapons: Hoping for a quick anti-Milosevic reaction, maybe we somehow believed the seeds of Western emancipation, some heady blend of dance-pop, burgers and video games, would override the human tendency to side in any dual choice with the party who is not blowing up your hometown. Just so, we fantasize that we can civilize the conflict out of conflict, the war out of war, making it a slightly aggressive demolition project where nobody dies on camera.

The reality, evidently, is that men are still willing to take up arms even against other men who have also seen "Titanic." And that even the most succulent of all-beef patties and the most special of sauce will not keep another billion kilotons from being served.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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