The Cool War
Thesis: America is transitioning from the coolest country in the world to the holiest country in the world. From blue jeans & counterculture to blue checks & cancel culture.
— balajis.com (@balajis) November 25, 2020
America’s soft power remains, but it’s of a very different type, and more vulnerable in the long run. Converting all these soft power institutions like Hollywood into instruments for propagating a very American form of secular gospel may open up space for competitors.
The rise of TikTok is instructive. Twenty years ago, the idea that a Chinese app could outcool Hollywood & SV to win millions of US teenagers would be laughable.
Is it a national security threat? Maybe, but the soft power issue may be a bigger deal than even the data collection.
The closest analogy to US posture vis-a-vis TikTok may be France’s reaction to Anglo-American hegemony. The Académie Française has waged a campaign of cultural protectionism against foreign influence for years, acting literally as the language police.
There is actually a common logic behind the French campaign against Franglais, the American campaign against TikTok, and even the Chinese campaign against Facebook. Namely: “There is more power in rock music and blue jeans than in the entire Red Army.”
Cultural protectionism arises when a culture is insecure. That’s not to say it’s all bad, or always bad. For a small country or community to pass down its ancient culture and language intact in the face of global American cultural hegemony requires a determined effort.
The US still thinks of itself as effortlessly culturally dominant, so the recent wave of cultural protectionism & wariness of foreign influence hasn’t been recognized as such. It focused first on politics (the Russians), then on social media (the Chinese), but won’t stop there.
When did America become the coolest country in the world? (I’d define cool as whatever appeals to ages 13 to, say, 29.)
To the American Midwesterners Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Cole Porter, Paris was still the coolest city in the world in 1919. But in 1946, Paris had by then fallen behind New York.
I’m guessing the first American song to become a global hit was Stephen Foster’s “Oh Susanna” at the time of the California gold rush in 1849. I presume the popularity of the American song was linked to the excitement generated by the news of the gold rush.
When did American pop music become the leading type of music? 1920s jazz? 1930s big band swing?
The first cool American was likely Ben Franklin when he arrived in Paris as ambassador of the American Revolution. Franklin, who had dressed in the height of gentlemanly fashion in London in 1774, invented a new look for himself in Paris as a long-haired backwoods sage, practically a Noble Savage, which the French went crazy over.
The American cowboy era of 1865-1875 was hugely appealing to the world’s young (e.g., the novels of Karl May).
Silent movies were popular all over the world. Was Charlie Chaplin, the biggest star, seen as English or American?
The Wright Brothers invented the airplane in the U.S. in 1903, but nobody in Europe much believed them until Wilbur flew laps at Le Mans in front of a vast, ecstatic crowd in 1908. Around the same time, Henry Ford made the automobile affordable.
In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 New Wave movie Breathless, the premise is that, even to a Frenchman, Humphrey Bogart was cooler than any French movie star. So that marks a date by which we can assume that America is the coolest country would have gotten wide acceptance in Europe.
Could America have become the coolest country in the world without winning WWI and WWII?