My Greatest Generation grandfather spent his latter years fulminating about the creep of American slang and table manners into British norms. What he was really fulminating about, though, was the decline of Britain in favour of America. As the British Empire disintegrated, American hegemony went from strength to strength — not through direct colonisation, but by exporting American products, lifestyles and worldviews.
The internet, and social media in particular, has accelerated that export by collapsing any feeling of distance between events and debates either side of the Atlantic. Since its inception, though, America has shifted from exporting leisurewear and processed food to exporting a crisis of confidence among its elites over its own entitlement to global hegemony.
From this side of the pond, it’s grimly ironic to watch America using its one-way cultural loudhailer to broadcast its internal elite disagreements over whether America should be entitled to possession of a one-way cultural loudhailer. But what if the lion’s share of that disagreement is driven not by insuperable ideological differences so much as personal relationships, and personal beef?
Take, for example, the blue-tick dogpile over the weekend on conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan, who recently resigned from his New York Magazine column. The feeling is of a New York media bubble that’s expelled an irritant and is now publicly closing ranks, through the medium of uncharitable attacks on Sullivan’s new venture.
Or take the other brouhaha to make it across the pond over the Bank Holiday: the promotion by American public radio station NPR of a 2019 book arguing for looting as a positive, radical act. A brief dig reveals that the book’s author, Vicky Osterweil, is married (with suitably radical disavowals of anything so stodgy and conventional as marriage) to Sophie Lewis, whose 2019 book Full Surrogacy Now argues for abolition of the family in the name of feminist progress.
Leaving aside the irony of a male/female married couple (Osterweil is a trans woman) agitating for the dissolution of the nuclear family (traditional core unit: male/female married couples), the sense is there once again of a revolution that in truth mostly preoccupies a fairly small and rarefied group of people. But the preoccupations of that small group, magnified through the funfair mirrors of social media, are percolating out to become The Discourse for much of the English-speaking world.
Perhaps it was ever thus, and cultural transformations will always involve an ideological vanguard playing out personal relationships through the medium of ‘the cause’. But there’s little sense right now that America’s revolutionary elite has much interest in the grotesque shadow cast worldwide by its internal politics.