Understanding Uncle Sam: getting to grips with the culture that the British just love to hate

December 14, 2001

Britain has a tradition of anti-Americanism while embracing much US culture. George McKay ponders this apparent contradiction and its place in American studies.

I'm so bored with the USA!
I'm so bored with the USA!

I'm so bored with the USA!

British punk band The Clash (1977)

From cultural dopes to dumbing down, it could be said that the 20th century was the anti-American century. Our first war of the 21st century confirms that, despite rhetoric about globalisation and post-nationalism, anti-Americanism thrives. Yet the extent and significance of anti-American sentiment and expression, by left and right, West, East and South, has not always been fully interrogated.

Teaching and researching on the cultural politics of Americanisation, I encourage my students to engage with questions of anti-Americanism, particularly in the British cultural context. Doing so has required extra sensitivity since the events of September 11. I have been teaching anti-Americanism for some years. I used to let the topic speak for itself, presenting it as a periodic counterbalance to the more positive views of the United States and its culture that are generally inscribed in the discipline of American studies. It is a tricky area, at least for American studies students. But as hegemonic or imperial powers frequently display both energy and excess, it has seemed reasonable to explore the excess as well as the energy.

My final-year American popular culture module includes a block of study on Americanisation. For me, the love-hate aspect of the special relationship between the US and the UK can be traced back to the switching of imperial prowess from Britain to America early in the 20th century. A high period of cultural hegemony from the 1930s to the 1950s showed US export culture at its most confident, dynamic and fun, from Hollywood to rock 'n' roll. The shift in anti-American sentiment over the past three months has undoubtedly made discussion of the subject more difficult. Has it also made the discussion more essential?

To illustrate the shift, I present my class with two British newspapers. First, the front page of The Guardian from October 2001, which features a large close-up photograph of an anti-US demonstrator in Jakarta wearing a bandanna. On the bandanna is written, in clear red capitals, "GO TO HELL USA". It is a stunning alternative headline. The second example comes from the back pages of The Sun , September 1999, reporting on the climax of the Ryder Cup transatlantic golf tournament, which Europe lost. "Disgusting. AmericansI belong in the gutterIJthe most disgraceful scenes of rabid patriotism the event has witnessed".

That such anti-American expression is now on the front rather than the back pages is recognised as a sign of its shifting importance, although since it is popular culture we study, ironically we are more used to scouring the back pages, the marginalia, for material. We recognise, too, that US patriotism is not readily characterised in the media as disgraceful, rabid or disgusting at the moment. But what is interesting for us is the fact that the 1999 anti-American language is British. This provides my cue for a brief survey of the tradition of anti-Americanism in British culture - from Matthew Arnold on the limitations of 19th-century America ("in the things of the mind, and in culture and totality, America, instead of surpassing us all, falls short") through the BBC's frequent sidelining of jazz during the music's most innovative decades, from the British Communist Party attacking American comics in the 1950s to today's anti-McDonald's protesters, whether retired colonel in seaside resort or eco-activist in urban gear. Mapping out left and right anti-American discourses, it is possible to identify a nostalgia for a working-class community, for the British Empire or an English cultural consensus. More generally, anti-Americanism can be viewed as a symptom of countermodernism.

I asked my third-year students on the popular culture module what they thought of studying anti-America in the wake of September 11. For Tom Hildyard, 22, the issue of transatlantic relations is personal as well as cultural. "Having an American mother and a vast family of Yanks, I can take the best of both cultures. I have to put up with a lot of hate towards America, not directly, but until I mention that my family are American some people say some seriously cynical things about the place. I think that anti-Americanism is a viable area for American studies to teach - it would be very naive and maybe very American to ignore it."

Kevin Stranex, 56, takes American studies and history. He remembers one particular seminar on the negative aspects of Americanisation held a few weeks after September 11, which was followed by an impromptu discussion. "For me the sense of shock was alleviated only by the group's perception of the responsible way in which the American government was behaving then, in that there hadn't been a knee-jerk response."

Stranex also recognised the role cultural theory played in the discussion. "Without the knowledge we've gained during the past three years - about semiotics, the media, the place of the US in globalisation - would we have fully appreciated the moment? The importance of the World Trade Center being the target, the use of American aeroplanes, those symbols of freedom and mobility, the deadly pause between the first strike and the second to heighten media impact? Our discussion of this massive anti-American act was a necessary part of the course and provided a much-needed release."

In collaboration with Derby University and King Alfred's College, Winchester, the University of Central Lancashire runs a Higher Education Funding Council for England fund for the development of teaching and learning project on Americanisation and the teaching of American studies (Amatas). Whereas American studies has traditionally been concerned with understanding the culture and society of the US, the Amatas project, like my own seminars, is focused on the impact of the US overseas, framed in cultural terms, and offers free workshops to interested lecturers. Project manager Alan Rice explains: "Topics range from exploring the continuing desire for things American to expressions of resentment or active resistance to the process of what's been termed 'coca-colonisation'. In many ways, unfortunately, the events of September 11 and beyond have made Amatas extraordinarily timely. But it is primarily a cultural project, specifically concerned with the export of culture: if we are interested in, say, Elvis, we are almost more interested in the idea of Elvis impersonators.

"It is theoretical: we want to put elitist European cultural critic Theodor Adorno - railing against what he called the 'rhythmic obedience' of American pop music - next to a 'How to' line dance video. We're hoping students will enjoy the joke, but we're also inviting questions about the internationalisation of American pleasures, and about pop cultural representations of US history, the idea of the West as mediated through cowboy films and country and western music."

There are pedagogic issues here. Looking at Americanisation invites critical reflexivity on the part of students about their learning experiences: how far does American studies contribute to the process of Americanisation? Indeed, is that its purpose? If I ask my students whether my job is to be an imperialist lackey, they laugh at what they perceive as outmoded terminology, but they are also interested in considering the extent to which American studies replicates rather than challenges assumptions of American exceptionalism. In the US, American studies has to a greater or lesser extent reconfigured itself around the politics of identity and representation. Outside the US, the discipline inherently carries greater ideological baggage as an export rhetoric: of empire, cultural and economic power and the energy of desire.

What is on the schedule for the following week? America as European fantasy, as zone of liberation, as locus of pleasure. Why not start with The Clash? A few years after "I'm so bored with the USA", the band's song "Should I stay or should I go?" is used on a Levi's ad. Now there's a neat retreat from Little Englander rebellion to grabbing the Yankee dollar. In what ways and to what extent do American pop pleasures offer promise and construct desire? Discuss with reference to a specific cultural text or moment.

George McKay is professor of cultural studies at the University of Central Lancashire. For information on how the Amatas teaching project can contribute to your curriculum, go to: www.amatas.org .

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