Book Review — Age Of Empires

For Canadians who recall when the U.S. won its wars and paid its bills, it’s now popular to consider America as a wheezing empire in decline, to which Professor Tanner Mirrlees replies, ha! Mirrlees’ Hearts and Mines is a bird’s-eye view of a U.S. cultural industrial complex so vast its reach is taken for granted. It is a very sad Third World village that has never heard of Mickey Mouse or Marlboro cigarettes.

“The United States’ cultural reach is unparalleled,” writes Mirrlees, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. “The U.S. culture industry’s global economic power and the near omnipresence of American cultural commodities – news programs, motion pictures, TV shows, video games and interactive digital content – are facts.”

Pundits once marveled at the ascendancy of China though its cultural exports are unwatchable “opera” and Cantonese boy bands. Canadians of a certain generation still recall when schoolchildren celebrated Empire Day and everything English was deemed the epitome of culture, elegance and superiority. The mystique vanished with the British empire. Today the works of Rudyard Kipling are unread.

Not America. Those people know how to sell, Mirrlees writes. “Just because it does not now fit the profile of empires of old does not mean that it is not an empire.”

Its agents are McDonald’s and Microsoft, Pepsi and Coca-Cola, Google, Ford and George Clooney. “The U.S. government on behalf of powerful corporate lobbyists has largely established and enforced through law, policy and regulation a capitalistic mode of media and cultural control that extols markets, private ownership, the profit motive, advertising and hyper-commercial values.”

The reach is spectacular. Consumers from Irkutsk to Bangkok to Cardston, Alta. equate American products with primacy. Nike shoes are not merely footwear, they are a celebration of can-do sportsmanship and individual athletic achievement. No Canadian shoe manufacturer stands a chance.

“At its core the ideology of American exceptionalism represents the United States as a unique liberal capitalist country in a world system of liberal and illiberal capitalist states,” Hearts and Mines explains.

It’s a claim that grates on the nerves, U.S. exceptionalism, though here Professor Mirrlees points to evidence hidden in plain view. America remains the world’s largest national economy, still home to the only world currency, still a “choice of destination for highly skilled workers.” Nobody wins more Nobel Prizes. Nobody files more patents. Nobody sells more pizza.

“The U.S. culture industry creates, coopts and commoditizes universal and particular stories, transnational and national symbols, and global and local motifs to strengthen its grip in markets everywhere,” Mirrlees writes. “It floods markets with goods that do not always appear to be agents of Americanization. Yet, in an era of endless market segmentation into smaller and smaller niches, and the resulting marketization of cultural difference, diversity sells.”

An empire in the decline? Not yet – not by a long stretch.

By Holly Doan

Hearts and Mines: The U.S. Empire’s Culture Industry, by Tanner Mirrlees; University of British Columbia Press; 336 pages; ISBN 9780-7748-30157; $34.95

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