This will probably end up being so much mindless blather, but here goes anyway…
I think that the reason American culture has been so successful, and the reason that so many people in other countries object to it, is because, stemming from a root objective of “freedom” and combining elements from so many other cultures, American culture filters out anything that entails self-sacrifice, suffering, discomfort, and, to a lesser extent, courage and bravery.
Most American cultural products are aimed at keeping an individual warm, cozy, well-fed, and mentally stimulated, but not to the point at which uncomfortable thoughts appear.
This is, of course, a very attractive place to be. Who doesn’t want to be comfortable, well-fed and happy?
Americans have succeeded, for the most part (let’s ignore the inner cities and poverty-stricken rural areas for the time being - they don’t produce culture like Hollywood or MacDonalds), in liberating themselves from all that is horrible in the world - hunger, political oppression, fear, discomfort, daily battles against nature, etc. Forgive the generalization, but that’s what the New World was for, wasn’t it? It was a chance to start over and get things right. (Once it stopped being a penal colony, that is.)According to popular culture, it’s worked.
Other countries have objections to American culture because it makes their long-held traditions of self-sacrifice, discipline and stiff-upper-lip attitudes seem at best irrelevant and at worst comical. These attitudes arose from a world in which life was (and still is, in many European nations) harder, in which many more people had to share far fewer resources, in which you didn’t get ahead by owning a bigger vehicle (horse, whatever) and in which living frugally was the best method of survival for everyone who wasn’t a member of the nobility.
Then along comes America - sucking resources in a manner that Europe or Asia never imagined, championing the idea that everyone can consume as much as he or she wants and be thought the better of for it. Naturally, this idea is attractive, but at the same time it goes against a way of life that Europeans and Asians have learned to take pride in.
I don’t know if humanity can handle American culture for much longer. It’s fun. It feels good. It doesn’t require thought, sacrifice, bravery, discomfort or anything else that our instincts tell us to avoid. It’s based on consumption and greed, the foundations of capitalism and the natural progression of our desire to be more successful as a species. However, logic dictates that given a finite supply of resources, something has to give somewhere.
Technologically speaking, we’re not all that far from a level at which we could almost sustain this type of American culture world-wide, indefinitely. We need to re-engineer all our toys to be more energy-efficient, use energy from the sun more than energy that will run out (fossil fuels), recycle much more than we are, and accept that if we want to keep going like this then we must give up on the idea of preserving wilderness. Really, the only sacrifices we’d need to make would be accepting a few limits on what one can do to make money and maybe a limit on the number of children an individual can have.
Unfortunately, the collective work necessary to accomplish this may already be outside of our capabilities, ironically, because too many of us have internalized the American “you can’t make me do anything I don’t want to do” ethic. If you want to know why Europe has had so much more success initiating environmental reforms, that’s it in a nutshell. If you want to know how Japan gets its workers to put up with more stress, fewer holidays, fewer benefits - again, less American ethic.
I’m not saying there’s anything intrinsically wrong with the American ethic. It may end up being our species’ limiting factor, which would make sense, given that it’s a very natural way to live and we don’t seem to have to try very hard to acclimatize humans to it. But I don’t think that at our current technological level, it’s sustainable. Picture us as a pack of wolves who have just come across a massive herd of caribou, and while we’re devouring them as quickly as we can, our furry girths expanding to an unhealthy level, we’re calling all of our friends and relatives from less caribou-dense areas, convincing them that they can come and just stand here and eat caribou until they die from lack of exercise and heart failure, happy as clams. Given the chance, any wolf would do this. I don’t think we’re any different. This hypothetical wolf population would grow tremendously and be technically very successful (although other wolves who didn’t join them might think that they were soft and fat and ugly, and lacked a connection to their old wolf cultural activies of hunting and travelling and starving periodically) but eventually, the fat wolves would eat all the caribou, unless they learned caribou husbandry techniques, which they really couldn’t be bothered to do because it would be hard and it would interfere with their caribou-eating techniques. Then they would all die, because they’d have no clue how to go back to running around looking for food.
So I guess that’s the problem with American culture, really - it’s just a little too attractive, and people on the outside looking in, people who were raised with different ideas about consumption and growth and materialism, are uneasy about that. Our instincts tell us that to live this way is good, but unless you were raised American, your cultural values tell you that maybe it’s not such a hot idea after all.
I think that’s enough babbling for one afternoon.