262 Cultural asymmetry

If information and knowledge are the decisive factors in international competition, the days of the present dominance of the United States are numbered. The rest of the world knows so much more about Americans than they about non-Americans that the US is a sitting ducks for competitors. The attacks of 11 September 2001 were facilitated by cultural asymmetry.

Insofar as the United States is in competition with Europe, the Middle East and Asia, it has already lost the race. Right now the US exerts more cultural and commercial impact on the rest of the world than vice versa, but that is going to change drastically in the coming decades. I base this confident prediction on one circumstance alone: the people in those continents know far more about the United States and Americans than Americans know about them. If knowledge and information are the name of the game, the citizens of the United States are at a hopeless disadvantage.

Memory may deceive – it has been known to do so – but I am convinced that when I was growing up in New York in the 1940s and ’50s this was simply not the case. Half my teachers in high school and college were first- or second-generation immigrants from Europe. At New York University many of my fellow students were ex-GIs with tours of duty in Europe or Asia behind them. These were powerful experiences for millions of young Americans, leaving them with memories of foreign places and knowledge of foreign languages that they brought back not just to sophisticated New York but to its three-by-two-thousand-mile large hinterland. Few Europeans or Asians of their age had first-hand knowledge of America.

In the decades that followed, those savvy Americans established a Pax Americana and made use of their foreign street smarts to sell their films and music, goods, services and politics abroad. Compare that to the world of a mere fifty years later. From a Dwight D. Eisenhower to an American president who had never been out of the country before he was elected, congressmen who cannot travel abroad because their security cannot be guaranteed, a passportless populace. All the savvy now belongs to millions of young people abroad who have spent time in America.

The 21st century had barely begun before the United States was successfully attacked on its own soil by an enemy whose very existence came as a surprise to most Americans. Whether or not the underlying grounds for the attack were a clash of civilizations, the weapons of the attackers were in a broad sense cultural. American society and its ways were an open book to them. Their counterparts in America were people like the country star Alan Jackson, whose comment on 9/11 went like this: “I watch CNN but I’m not sure I can tell you/ The difference in Iraq and Iran/ But I know Jesus and I talk to God."

This cultural asymmetry is more extreme and more devastating than the military asymmetry that the experts tell us about. In part, it is an inevitable result of American success in cultural export. Thanks to that success, English has become the language of globalization. Foreigners only have to learn one language to delve into the inner doings of America. Americans would have to learn dozens in order to achieve the same, and they don’t. For another part, which may be equally inevitable, the imbalance is nothing but the arrogance of power and its attendant self-blindness.

Because I do not believe that this trend can be reversed in this century, I extend the following free advice to my former fellow countrymen: quietly remove the chip from your shoulder and do everything in your presently vast power to become trusted friends of the hordes of people who know you better than you know yourselves.


Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 19 August 2006

Something of the same applies to Israel in its relations with the Arab world. Perhaps the shock of their failed war against Lebanon will bring Israelis to realize that time is not on their side.

In a month from now, Loekie and I take off on a trip around the world.
17 September: New York, for the memorial service on the 18th for Wim Smit, at St. Paul’s Chapel of Columbia Univeristy
20 September: Savannah, to lecture on Rembrandt at the Savannah College of Art and Design
24 September: New York again, for the launching at Sotheby’s of the US edition of my book on Rembrandt. Date and details still in discussion.
30 September: Ketchum, Idaho, where my sister and her family live. A talk on Rembrandt at the art gallery in Sun Valley that sells her work.
6 October: San Francisco, to open an exhibition of Rembrandt etchings at Christopher-Clark Fine Arts.
10 October: Seoul, on the invitation of the Dutch embassy, for three lectures. On the 12th to the Korean and Dutch business community, the 13th to university students and general public; the 14th to art historians and art critics.
16 October: Hanoi, to catch up with our son Baruch and his family, during a half-year they are spending in Southeast Asia. Discussions proceeding on giving a lecture for the Dutch embassy.
24/25 October: Back home.

If you live on the route, it would be a pleasure to see you at one or another of these events. (The presentation in New York will have a limited invitation list.)

Responses to


Other columns on the Schwartzlist

Please whitelist schwartzlist@garyschwartzarthistorian.nl in your Internet browser and spam filter. Think of the Schwartzlist when you change your e-mail address.