The Taste Business

What foreigners love to hate about America is also what they love to buy

The spring issue of the literary quarterly Granta carried essays on America from twenty-four non-American writers. Most of the essays were thoughtful, perhaps because most of the essayists had been thinking about America for much of their lives. Almost all of them wrote of their first exposure to America as an epiphany never really gotten over.

"I still remember America coming into our neighbourhood, our house, when I was a child," the Lebanese Hanan al-Shaykh wrote. "The full moon's fuller in America," was the saying Yang Lian remembered from life in China in the 1940s. "Ever since I was a child I have been losing friends and relatives to America," Raja Shehadeh wrote from the West Bank. "There was something so free, so untethered about them," the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif recalled of her first encounter with American short stories.

Cassandras of our times are necessarily and fundamentally Cassandras about America, because America so permeates our times. Left-leaning Cassandras find America appalling because it is imperial. "It is a fully-fledged, award-winning, gold-plated monster [that] has effectively declared war on the world," was how Harold Pinter put it, in the only really stupid essay in the Granta collection. Right-leaning Cassandras find it appalling that America is not imperial enough. But on the matter of American culture the left and the right find common ground. This is a matter more of intellectual and aesthetic values than of ideological ones: America is appalling because it is simply appalling. Here Gore Vidal and William J. Bennett and Susan Sontag and Norman Podhoretz can agree to agree. Here is where it seems even France has a point.

It is true that there is a perpetual wonder to the richness and the variety of the aesthetic awfulness of America. It is not just Bill and Monica and reality TV and talk TV and trash TV and Ozzy Osbourne on MTV and eyebrow rings and the spectacle of a people setting world obesity records who choose this precise moment in history to expose more of their flesh than ever before. It is everything and everywhere and evermore.

A few years ago, at the once stuffy, now trashy, yet inexplicably still stuffy White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, in Washington, D.C., George magazine—Exhibit 7,432,514 in the case for the decline and fall of it all—invited as one of its guests the pornographer Larry Flynt. As it happens, Flynt once published nude paparazzi photographs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the mother of the man who brought Flynt to dinner, George's founder and editor in chief, John F. Kennedy Jr. I thought then that this moment had to be some sort of unsurpassable low: the son of a former President bringing to a formal dinner with the current President a man who put his mother, the former First Lady, in a skin magazine. Of course it wasn't an unsurpassable moment; it was hardly even a moment.

When those of us who are at least social members of the Everything's Going to Hell school speak about what is wrong with America, what we most often have in mind is the thing that brought Flynt and Kennedy together—the mass culture of entertainment and celebrity. It can be argued that this culture isn't all that new or different. As the better class of visitors to America has long pointed out, we have always been oafs. Lamentations about the current abysmal state of American culture invite the response "When, exactly, was that Golden Age? Before or after Jerry Lewis?"

Still, it is a fact that we made Rugrats. We made Fear Factor. We made American Pie. We make things that make parody impossible—did you catch the Celebrity Boxing match between Tonya Harding and Paula Jones? Of course, that's our low culture. In our defense it must be said that we have a high culture, too. In recent years alone we have given the world the novels of Bret Easton Ellis, the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, the films of Oliver Stone, and the political philosophy of Michael (Stupid White Men) Moore. A big high-concept art moment a few years ago was a photograph called Piss Christ, featuring a crucifix submerged in urine. This season it's a musical called Urinetown. The mind boggles contemplating sequelae. As the lawyers say, let's just stipulate here.

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