America Seen Darkly

As films were making culture more universal, a 1923 New York Times Magazine article discussed the medium’s potential role in changing foreigners’ perception of Americans… both for better and for worse.

First, for worse:

Day by day and week by week, the world wonders at what seems to be the boundless wealth and wicked extravagance of American citizens. At dawn the hero is penniless; by evening the uncle has died, the well has gushed, the invention has been marketed and he is a multimillionaire, with a glorious Swanson in his arms, and endless orgies in prospect, at Atlantic City, Palm Beach, and Monte Carlo, where the moon shines all the year round.

This young man’s ideals are, perhaps, disputable. It is not work or merit that has made him a millionaire, but sheer luck. He recognizes no social duty… Of the responsibilities of parentage there is not a hint.

On the other hand, the article also suggests that shared culture could reduce international tensions and potentially even prevent war — a pressing global priority only a few years after World War I.

The influence of the movies on foreign affairs is doubtless important, but if what is going on between America and England is “unfriendliness,” then, one may ask, why not let the quarrel continue?

As long as nations read the same books, smile at the same slapstick, shimmy over the same syncopation, and weep over the same wooings, they are unlikely to shed any fluid more serious than one another’s ink.

Indeed, the combatants in America’s subsequent wars after 1923 very much did not share culture. (Although Osama bin Laden was a huge fan of Whitney Houston.)

America Seen Darkly

Published: Sunday, May 20, 1923

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