America, America

Following the Battle for America strand at the Battle of Ideas festival in London in November 2008, Culture Wars is exploring the past, present and future of the USA by bringing together new and old reviews of books, films and more.

Europeans sometimes disdain the USA as the land of soulless materialism, religious fundamentalism, chronic obesity and high school shootings. But is there still something in the American idea to inspire the rest of the world in the 21st century?

Friday 14 June 2013

When America ran out of West

Mission Drift, Shed Theatre, London

It is so useful to see America’s history boiled down to this simple journey with a tangible end point. It renders the complex bleedingly obvious. Of course America was going to hit a dead end – it’s written down in the map of the world! America’s arrested development was never a question of if – only when.

Saturday 8 June 2013

The Ascendancy of the Ass-Backwards Masses … and How We Can Still Turn It Around

Culture itself is now our counterculture … or it can be and must be if we still entertain any hope of combating the boorishness and buffoonery eating away at our life, public and private alike.  It is time for a groundswell.  We need a new protest movement centred around the notion that we must demand more of ourselves and each other, that we cannot be satisfied or complacent in the face of the culture of trash besieging us on all fronts.

Wednesday 31 October 2012

The jury is still out

Obama and the Middle-East: The End of America’s Moment?, by Fawaz Gerges (Palgrave Macmillan 2012)

Gerges contends Obama’s handling of the Israel-Palestine conflict has been a ‘striking policy failure’, which will be remembered as Obama’s ‘missed opportunity’. Indeed, in the end, he could not even curtail the hawkish Netanyahu’s desire for settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Saturday 19 May 2012

A surplus of subjectivity and conviction

A History of the World Since 9/11, by Dominic Streatfeild (Atlantic Books, 2011)

After the invasion, once it was shown there were only weapons of prosaic destruction ‘the administration decided it was best to assume they had never been there’. The compound where the conventional weapons were stored, in Yusifiyah, near Baghdad, was by-passed by the Americans, and then comprehensively looted by insurgents. One source in the book estimates that of the violence following the invasion, 90 per cent was facilitated by this looting.

Friday 24 June 2011

Should the United States help drive global development?

Delivering Meaningful Results in Global Development’, a lecture by Dr Rajiv Shah, LSE, London, Tuesday 14 June

USAID is currently undertaking several projects around the world, two of which Dr Shah spoke about in considerable detail. One of them is helping impoverished places in Africa, and elsewhere, to decrease the percentage of malnourished people while aiming to stimulated their economy at the same time.

Saturday 26 February 2011

Back to the clinging soil

American Rust, by Philipp Meyer (Pocket Books 2010)

Meyer chose as his setting the Mon Valley near Pittsburgh, a wasted post-industrial region, where the relics of the abandoned steel industry stand rusting in the landscape, and there is no employment for the next generation. So this turns out to be the antithesis of the Great American Dream: no job prospects, no optimism, and the only way up is out.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Canned laughter?

Andy Warhol and the Can that Sold the World, by Gary Indiana (Basic Books, 2010)

Any work that doesn’t have a Romantic artist forcing it out of his tortured consciousness is seen as somehow invalid. But whilst Pop Art may have been loaded with varying degrees of well-meant pretentious theory by academics, at heart it is straightforward representational art which gives people something which they understand: and that is what they want to see.

Thursday 26 August 2010

You can hear it in my accent when I talk

An Englishman in New York: Photographs by Jason Bell, National Portrait Gallery, London

The real highlights of the exhibition are the small cultural insights of the sitters New York stories displayed beside the stunning photographs. Their concerns and motivations highlight what it means to be English, to be an immigrant and where the two intersect.

Friday 23 July 2010

Gets your motor running

The Case for Working with Your Hands or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good by Matthew Crawford (Viking, 2010)

Crawford’s well-aimed blows at scientific management principles, staff team-building exercises and the resistance of modern machinery to home servicing will strike chords with many, and he synthesises a fresh and thought-provoking outlook from his experiences. However, alongside the ambition of his remit, his basic argument - that we can make the world a better place by fixing stuff - is pretty modest.

Thursday 24 June 2010

Guilty fantasies

The Tyranny of Guilt, an Essay on Western Masochism, by Pascal Bruckner (Princeton University Press, 2010)

Moreover, it’s noteworthy that for all his shrewd criticism of the way the left projects its fantasies onto the Israel-Palestine conflict, Bruckner himself was a keen supporter of the break up of Yugoslavia and the punishment and demonisation of Serbia during the 1990s. Bruckner failed utterly to understand that the left (and indeed many on the right such as himself) were projecting a fantasy onto the Yugoslav break up and war.

Friday 18 September 2009

Sound bites from a revolution

A New World: A Life of Thomas Paine, Shakespeare’s Globe, London

Although we follow Paine through the upheaval of two revolutions, however, seeing him succeed and fail in his struggle to influence their direction, and meet some great historical actors along the way (Jefferson, Danton, Burke), we leave the play surprisingly ignorant of the content of his arguments

Friday 26 June 2009

They’re kids! They tell people!

Columbine, by Dave Cullen (Old Street Publishing)

An interview with Dave Cullen, author of a definitive new account of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, exploring what really happened, the role of the media in perpetuating myths, and the peculiar truth about psychopathy, terrorism and self-aggrandizing violence.

Friday 5 June 2009

Jazz and the myth of authenticity

Really the Blues, by Mezz Mezzrow

The counterculture never did have any time for aspiration. Jazz, for some, may have been a form of cultural slumming, but for many blacks, working at monotonous, low-paid jobs and paying high rents to live in overcrowded apartment buildings, the music and its performers offered a glimpse of a better life that was demonstrably within the grasp of black Americans. Music was one arena in which blacks could be seen to excel.

Friday 22 May 2009

The politics of rap in a changing America

Somebody Scream! Rap Music's Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power, by Marcus Reeves (Faber)

To the extent that rap substituted for the Black Power movement, it must be judged a failure as a political movement. Marx’s famous aphorism about the first time tragedy, second time farce, is relevant here. While Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Panthers leaders like Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale mixed canniness at exploiting media image with organising on the ground, Public Enemy, or Kanye West, epitomised the former with nary a trace of the latter.

Thursday 30 April 2009

Obama Poetry: the Politician as Muse

Seen through the poems, President Obama is emphatically not a blank screen. He has come to represent the possibility of American redemption, the possibility of reclaiming the moral high ground— and he is valued by people, and poets, as a way to elevate their own views by associating them with him.

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