[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Irresistible Empire,' by Victoria de Grazia

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'Irresistible Empire,' by Victoria de Grazia
New York Times Book Review, 5.5.8

'Irresistible Empire': McEurope


    America's Advance Through Twentieth-Century Europe.
    By Victoria de Grazia.
    Illustrated. 586 pp. The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press.

    Victoria De Grazia slaps Europeans in the face with her title: face
    it, mes amis, you are part of the American empire. Zut alors! As a
    proud European, I confess to letting out a small splutter. Didn't we
    just snub the emperor-president, George W. Bush, by rejecting great
    swaths of his foreign policy? Don't we have a social democratic model
    that avoids the vertiginous inequalities of the United States? Aren't
    we free and self-determining democracies, building up our own
    superpower based in Brussels?

    Well, maybe -- but if Charlemagne or Napoleon could see their
    continent today, they would be with de Grazia. One glance at Europe's
    great capitals, and they would assume Europe had been conquered,
    occupied and settled by Americans. The men who dreamed of l'Europe
    profonde would curse the ubiquity of Eminem as they sat in the greasy
    KFC on the Falls Road in Belfast munching their Chicken Popcorn. They
    would stagger their way around Italy's most beautiful city, guided by
    a McDonald's map of McVenice.

    ''Irresistible Empire'' is the story of how this happened, of how an
    imperium came to Europe in the form of an emporium. Unlike the Middle
    East and Latin America, Europe has seen only the peaceful face of
    America's empire. De Grazia, a professor of history at Columbia
    University, shows how -- in just one century -- the Old Continent was
    subject to slow conquest by a million consumer goods.

    She talks us through the rise of a string of outwardly banal
    institutions: Rotary Clubs, supermarkets, the Hollywood star system,
    corporate advertising. With the careful skill of an expert defusing an
    explosive, she teases out the dense clusters of political ideology
    embodied in these seemingly everyday social institutions.

    The old European capitalism was epitomized by the small neighborhood
    store. At its core was ''a commercial ethic that still sought trust in
    the longevity of contacts and the solidarity of face-to-face
    contacts.'' Slowly, this model was eclipsed by an American capitalism
    epitomized by the out-of-town supermarket, big, anonymous and neon.
    The local, the diverse and the class-segmented were all ironed out in
    favor of a mass standard of consumption.

    Instead of the Great Man theory of history, de Grazia gives us the
    Great Bargain theory. It's startling just how rapidly Europe has been
    changed by this new model. Who knew, for example, that in the late
    1950's there was not a single supermarket in Milan, and this was by no
    means untypical for a European city? How many of us realize that as
    recently as 1954, only 9 percent of French people had a refrigerator?
    Yet in a work crammed with exhaustive research, the reader pines for
    analysis. All of contemporary European politics spins on the question:
    Were the developments de Grazia details good for Europe?

    The answer cannot be squeezed into the simple-minded good-and-evil
    story craved on both sides of the Atlantic. De Grazia concentrates
    primarily on the areas where Americanization has had a broadly
    positive effect. But even the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci wrote
    lovingly in his ''Prison Notebooks'' of how Americanism and Fordism
    were hollowing out the old feudal snobberies.

    Perhaps unwittingly, de Grazia steers away from the areas where
    corporate Americanization has been pernicious for Europe. I would like
    to see her turn her remarkable skills to charting the effect of
    American corporate buyouts on Europe's news and entertainment media.
    Nor does she mention the environmental impact of this economic system.
    And is any analysis of European supermarkets complete without
    mentioning the biggest public health scare on the continent for 50
    years? The supermarkets, relentless pressure for cheap food and
    industrial agriculture all pushed farmers to feed processed meat to
    cattle -- thus leading to Mad Cow disease.

    The other gap in de Grazia's narrative concerns a strange historical
    irony: Americanization gave birth to the idea of Europe. ''Henry Ford
    was as much a father of the European idea as anyone from Europe, given
    his company's pioneering effort to treat the European region as a
    single sales territory,'' she notes dryly. She's right, but the point
    is left hanging. Ford set in motion the conflict that will define the
    European Union over the coming decades. It can be summarized in a
    simple question: Does Europe exist to achieve Ford's goal -- one vast
    market for American goods -- or to resist this possibility and create
    a distinctively social democratic alternative?

    De Grazia focuses on one relatively minor European-resistance cause --
    the slow food movement -- and at first it seems an eccentric choice.
    Founded in the late 1980's, it has a simple purpose: to give everybody
    the time and space to eat good, unprocessed food slowly and carefully.
    When America waves a Big Mac, the Slow Foodies want Europe to wave a
    bowl of freshly cooked pasta al dente. But if they are few in number,
    their approach symbolizes the wider European reaction to American
    neoliberalism: slow down. Europeans want long vacations, generous
    welfare states and flexible work hours. They -- we -- are trying to
    articulate a different model of consumerism that values leisure and
    family as much as work, work, work. Can this work? Is there a way to
    combine America's dazzling consumer economy with social justice and
    environmental sanity?

    Like many Europeans, I have a dystopian vision of the death of Europe
    as an alternative to America. Far from resolving tensions across the
    Atlantic, the irresistible empire's blanding out would simply produce
    a long European grudge, a quiet rage that we had sold our identity for
    a bag of Doritos. I see it now: Napoleon and Charlemagne sit grumbling
    in a doughnut shop after a long day in the new Euro-America. Napoleon
    swallows hard on a Krispy Kreme, turns to a weeping Charlemagne, and
    whispers, ''Dude, I so hate America.''

    Johann Hari is a columnist for The Independent in London and the
    author of ''God Save the Queen? Monarchy and the Truth About the

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