WETZSTEIN: U.S. seen as powerful yet vulgar

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In the 1830s, French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville came to America and described its new-fangled democracy as “exceptional.”

America has never been perfect, which is why, as we are counting our blessings and enjoying as much of the good life as we can this July Fourth weekend, we can still be critical of where we stand as a nation and a culture.

Two of my personal beliefs, held since I was a teen, have been “to thine own self be true” and don’t be afraid to take that “fearless moral inventory.” With that guidance in mind, I recently dove into a book about modern America.

“For better or for worse, America is the 800-pound gorilla in every room in the world,” begins “Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation,” issued this spring by American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

When America “has an itch, the world scratches. When it gets a cold, the world sneezes,” wrote editors Peter H. Schuck and James Q. Wilson. Despite this lofty perch, Americans, who are “marinating in their own society,” can’t seem to see themselves or others very clearly, they wrote.

For instance, Americans don’t realize that they are viewed as “exceptional” all right - “exceptionally vulgar, exceptionally materialistic, exceptionally imperialistic, exceptionally clumsy, exceptionally unfeeling, and exceptionally self-centered,” wrote Mr. Schuck and Mr. Wilson.

To be sure, there is a flip side: American music, books and films dominate the global cultural market; American consumer goods end up in houses, huts and homes worldwide; many countries still dial 911-Uncle Sam when violence stalks their lands; and self-absorbed Americans still give more generously than anyone else.

But who are we, really?

Let’s take a look at just the chapter on pop culture in this wonderfully readable book.

“Americans have long assumed that their popular culture was the country’s best ambassador,” wrote Boston College professor Martha Bayles. “But America’s typical export these days is not jazz composer Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Take the A Train.’” It is the works of rapper Eminem.

Diplomatic or not, Eminem and other emissaries of U.S. entertainment remain popular in the world. In 2007, a report by Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project surveyed 45,239 people in 47 countries and found that most people in most countries liked American movies, music and television.

The biggest dissents came from people who lived in Muslim countries, India and Russia, said the Pew report, “Global Unease With Major World Powers.”

The same report also showed that while American entertainment products are still largely acceptable, the ideas and customs of we the people are not. A whopping 42 out of 47 countries strongly agreed with the statement that “It’s bad that American ideas and customs are spreading here,” the Pew report said. That’s a startling rise in anti-American sentiment, said Ms. Bayles, who spoke at an AEI briefing on the book in April.

Ms. Bayles offered one more discouraging observation about how others see us. Since so much of U.S. entertainment shows Americans “routinely engaging in violent, sexually promiscuous, criminal and antisocial behavior,” more than a few people in the world think that’s who we really are.

In fact, said Ms. Bayles, “there is a mountain of anecdotal evidence” about how when people finally visit the United States, they are “astonished” by what they see - Americans who are family-centered, civic-minded, socially conservative and religious.

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