How American Culture Ate the World: A Review of Sam Lebovic’s “A Righteous Smokescreen”


But even without direct state interference, American culture had inward-looking tendencies, many of which predated the 1940s. The media ecosystem in particular, writes Lebovic, constituted an “Americanist echo chamber.” Few of the films shown in American theaters were foreign (largely because of the Motion Picture Production Code, which the industry began enforcing in 1934; code authorities cautiously disapproved of sexual mores in European films). Few television programs came from abroad (about 1%, in fact, in the early 1970s, compared to 12% in Britain and 84% in Guatemala). Few newspapers subscribe to foreign press agencies. Even fewer had foreign correspondents. And very few pages of these newspapers were devoted to foreign affairs. An echo chamber indeed.

In-person contact with foreigners was also limited thanks to travel controls. A racial quota-based immigration system built in the 1920s—though borrowing heavily from earlier legislation that excluded Chinese immigrants—made it nearly impossible for Africans, Asians, and many Europeans to immigrate to the states. United States, plunging immigration levels to historic lows and thus reducing the potential. links with the rest of the world. In 1910, almost 15% of the American population was born abroad, but by 1960, this proportion was only 5.4%. Likewise, the burgeoning national security state bureaucrats have blocked a variety of radicals from entering and leaving the country. Since World War I, foreign anarchists, communists, and others—ranging from German spies and saboteurs to black internationalists—have found America’s door locked. Likewise, Americans whom the State Department has identified as having so-called “extraterrestrial” beliefs have been barred from exiting. The border was a two-way ideological filtering device.

The onset of the Cold War strengthened law enforcement, as indicated by the setbacks of two artists attempting to cross the border: In 1957, the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a retrospective exhibition on the fifteenth birthday of Pablo Picasso, who, in his fifties, had turned to communism. Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, Moscow hosted its own exhibition marking the seventy-fifth birthday of another artist, Rockwell Kent, a now almost forgotten American painter whose work celebrated the role played by immigrants in American history. Two exhibitions, one in the United States, the other in the Soviet Union: however, neither artist was able to attend his own exhibition because of American border policies. The State Department had denied Picasso a visa in 1950 on ideological grounds, and he refused to issue a passport to Kent due to his alleged communist sympathies.


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