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Not All American Exports Can Be Weighed or Measured

Traditional U.S. exports included material goods like tobacco, wheat, and steel. Then American technology and information spread around the globe. But an even more profound export has been America's brash culture itself -- from superstar entertainers and clothing styles to fast food and uncensored exchanges on the Internet.

Almost two centuries ago, the French visitor Alexis de Toqueville pointed out that American culture is dynamic, insistent or even rude, unpredictable and entertaining, attuned to what markets want, and, even back then, fascinated by celebrity. As this culture has spread abroad, American movies, fashion, and standards of behavior have created both a demand for things American and protests against them. Ironically, such exports as American popular music were themselves the product of imports from Africa, Ireland, Jamaica, and elsewhere.

Critics fear that a result of the globalization of American culture will be a worldwide uniformity of what is acceptable and popular. But Charles Mann, a contributing editor to the Atlantic Monthly magazine, has written that while peoples of the world take things from other cultures, they make them their own: a Mongolian child drawing Mickey Mouse with Asian features, for example, or Bolivians setting up Internet chat rooms in the jungle, using Finnish computer programming.

So the global definition of culture is no longer just society's greatest works or the things it's most proud of. As U.S. motion picture association executive Bonnie Richardson has pointed out, in the 21st century, culture is also what she calls the everyday reflection of who we are, what we like, and what we find funny.