I spent a good chunk of my early career as a market researcher. It was and remains an absolute privilege of a job. I was in my 20s and at least a couple times a month, one project or other would take me to Jeddah, Manilla, Sao Paulo or Southport. We’d often be lucky enough to immerse ourselves in people’s lives, coming into their homes, following them at work or play, spending time with them and their families or friends. These ethnographic style interviews were a highlight of the role, but the bread-and-butter of our qualitative work, (and what you probably think of when you read market research) was the focus group.
The history of the focus group dates back to the 1940s when broadcasters were looking to improve radio soap operas for listeners. As a commercial tool they were refined into their modern form over the course of the long consumer capitalist boom of the post war decades. They have been around long enough and most of us are fluent enough consumers that we know the archetype; 6-10 people sitting in a room, perhaps round a table or sitting in a circle of chairs sharing their thoughts on a product, service, advert or event. Often these are held in specialist facilities, where those of us viewing would sit behind a two-way mirror. If you haven’t seen them used this way, it’s the same setup as any number of detective shows, where the other cops observe the battled-hardened investigating officer interrogating the recalcitrant suspect.
I’ve been thinking a lot about two-way mirrors recently. Particularly the one that America sits in front of, having just finished Tomiwa Owalade’s ‘This is Not America. It is one of the finest and most urgently needed books on race and society in Britain. Its title though could be on the cover of books on any number of contemporary subjects – on UK Politics and elections, language, or arts & culture. It’s a headline caveat that could apply to many other nations too, particularly within the global Anglosphere. Owalade uses empirical evidence, storytelling and empathetic and incisive prose to deliver a searing anatomisation of the race relations, racism and inequality in the UK as seen through the prism of the politics, history and demography…of the UK. The reason why this seemingly obvious approach feels so revelatory is nested in the title and the fact that it even needs stating, that the UK, its history of migration, its culture, the outcomes and attainment of various diasporic groups in the UK are not the same as America’s.
Janan Ganesh recently wrote a searing column on the nonsensical 21st century pivot west of British liberals, asking the question how, after previously priding themselves on their European cosmopolitanism, have they turned towards Atlanticist fetishism. He asks “How did that polite detachment from America turn into what is now total, cringing, round-the-clock absorption in its public life?”. Ganesh offers little in the way of conclusive answers – he is a columnist not a cultural theorist, but I have a few theories myself. It is the biggest single Anglophone market, for any product, including cultural ones. Its internet platforms dominate global communications and have become the primary channel for mass cultural distribution. All of our culture has become more globalised – look at the rise of K-Pop and Chinese period dramas beyond the Asian cultural loop that provided the initial flywheel that spun them up to planetary escape velocity. So if you speak English, your globalised cultural consumption will be dominated by American output, internationalising figures such as Oprah, Colbert, Seth Myers, and Trevor Noah. (I am aware that Noah is South African, but his US-centric orientation is shown in his comments Sunak’s premiership)
The problem is that they are creating for their main market. America. And, as Bowie knew, this is not America. But failing to acknowledge that, or very often even understand, means that we apply American diagnoses and American solutions to Very British Problems, which is one of the core assertions of Owalade’s book when it comes to race – particularly that though Black Lives Matter was an important trigger to start a conversation about race in the UK, there is no one ‘black life’ in Britain because of multiple migratory histories that make up the British ethnic story.
Race is just one example where we all suffer by watching America. The presidentialisation of UK politics – and increasingly our election cycle itself, or the Poundland Culture War that the current Tory party insists on trying to wage, despite our relative lack of polarisation in this country are two others I could give. The rest of the world, particularly the English speaking bit, is beaten into increasingly incongruous shapes on the anvil of Americana,, but for the US itself, living out her cultural life in front of the two-way mirror is equally detrimental.
Firstly as Ganesh points out in his article, having the rest of the world pile in with their opinions stokes an already overheated public discourse, especially when those piling on aren’t directly invested in the outcomes. The last thing the US needs is more shouting voices.
American discourse is the wrong diagnostic tool for problems in other Anglophone countries, as Owalade highlights when it comes to race, but it’s also highly reductive for America itself. The simplifying myths that America tells itself are dangerous.They ignore the heterogeneity of it’s cultures, its pre-Columbian history and the diverse reality of its population. In its late 20th century pomp it did little to acknowledge the growing (soon to be majority) minority and their place in the construction of ‘America’ from Jazz to the Railroads; the simplifying mirror arguably played a strong role in the polarisation and fragmentation that we see today. In trying to continue to tell a not-so-new country an old unifying story, that tale eventually tore it apart.
For White America, the historic hegemon within the populace, it has the equal and in some ways opposite effect – the myths are also self-fulfilling. Manifest Destiny for ‘The Greatest Country on earth’ (™) has created the expectation gap into which Trump and MAGA have rushed. It stops those who are not part of the vast plurality who were historically excluded from the discourse to see that the country needs to modernise desperately. The obvious flaws in the current justice system, starting from the very top, or the thousands of deaths perpetrated by the Second Amendment are just some of the examples. The USA is the modern nation with the most outdated working constitution because it has trapped itself in civic aspic. America is caught in its own culture trap.
The last consequence I want to touch upon of the US’s dominant cultural transmission is possibly the most consequential though one that is far above my pay grade. America’s legibility puts it at a severe disadvantage in present and future geopolitical tussles. Putin and Xi understand America better than Biden – or Trump, or even Obama – understands Russia or China. America, behind the two-way glass, is known and knowable to the rest of the world. This is amplified by English’s role as the global reserve language. It means that in a negotiation, whether business or political, there is a comprehension deficit that puts the US at a disadvantage. In the long run, this could undermine US global power, which many may see as a good thing, until we consider who might fill the vacuum.
Perhaps it is better for America and the rest of us too if we all spend a little less time gawking through the glass…