American Cultural Colonialism
The story is that someone said to Levy Eshkol, the prime minister of Israel during the 1950s, “There is a drought.”
“Oh, no!” he shouted. “Where?”
“It is in the Negev, the Israeli desert.”
“Oh my,” he said, relieved. “I got worried. I thought it was in America.”
Many countries depend on and look up to America. America is a model that young people especially try to copy. It is a country with freedom for economic activity, the sense that the sky is the limit. But economic freedom is not the only characteristic people perceive as part of America’s desirability—America’s cultural freedom attracts people worldwide as well. Its culture looks new, modern, open to change, and exciting.
America is the benchmark—the cultural benchmark, the political benchmark, and the economic benchmark. However, culturally it has, for me, some negative outcomes. I call it American Cultural Colonialism.
When I was in Russia in 1991, when the Soviet Union was on the brink of falling apart, I went to the one and only McDonald’s in Moscow. The line was around the block. I waited for more than an hour. There were hundreds of people standing in line to buy a hamburger, an American hamburger. Today around every other corner you find a McDonald’s, a KFC, a Domino’s Pizza, but hardly any original Russian restaurants. With Russian music. With Russian décor.
In small countries like Macedonia, where I was born, you have to look to find a restaurant playing national music. Instead, there is piped in American music playing. Young people don’t dance national folk dances to national folk music anymore, except at a wedding once in a blue moon. They would rather dance in discos to American music.
In Guadalajara, Mexico I cannot find one great restaurant with good food AND good mariachi music, even though Guadalajara is the origin of mariachi music. However, if I want jazz music, if I want rock, if I want rap, I can find plenty.
One day on my lecture tour, I landed in Lima Peru all excited to visit a foreign country and experience their food, music, and national dress. As I was walking through the airport, I noticed that music was being played on large speakers. I listened. It was playing I left my Heart in San Francisco.
In Belgrade, Serbia, where I grew up, I have been looking for a local delicacy called burek, a pastry made with spinach and feta cheese, which I look forward to eating as soon as I land.
It used to be available on every street corner. Not anymore. Now it is all pizza and hamburgers, whether they’re from McDonald’s or Burger King.
Even in Iran, considered America’s enemy today, young people prefer American music and American dress. Local national music embarrasses them and they would not be caught dead wearing a national dress.
I call this phenomenon “cultural colonialism.” And it seems to me that the fascination with American culture is destroying local foods, music, and dances. As people try to become more American, they suppress their national identities.
UNESCO should protect not only buildings and historical sites for posterity, but also protect national foods, music, and dances so that diversity can continue to thrive. We should ensure that cultural colonialism does not destroy the beauty and richness that every country and every ethnic group can contribute.
Ichak Kalderon Adizes
Founder of Adizes Institute Worldwide