Co-editors: Seán Mac Mathúna • John Heathcote
Consulting editor: Themistocles Hoetis
Field Correspondent: Allen Hougland


The American Planet
Vicente Verdú

Vicente Verdú


Vicente Verdú (born Elche, Spain 1942) is a writer and journalist. He earned a doctoral degree in Social Sciences from the University of the Sorbonne, and is a member of the Nieman Foundation of Harvard University. He writes regularly for El Pais (Madrid), where he has been both Opinion Editor and Culture Editor. He is the author of several books that have become best-sellers in Spain, including his emblematic look at the relationship between couples, Engagement and Marriage in the Spanish Bourgeoisie (in collaboration with his wife, Alejandra Ferrándiz); and a work that ranks as a classic among soccer fans, Soccer: Myths, Rites, Symbols. His book Days Without Smoking was a finalist for the Anagrama Essay Prize in 1988. Verdú wrote Planet America while living with his family for two years (1993-1995) in Haverford, Pennsylvania, USA.


The twentieth century has given birth to a lot of myths. But there is one myth (now that others have died and the century is drawing to a close) that rises up above all the rest: The United States.

The United States is quite a bit more than just movies and cars, music, Westerns, multimillionaires, skyscrapers, Calvin Klein and the NBA. No item in this grab-bag any longer fascinates as an isolated element: the phenomenon now consists in the entire American gestalt, which matters as a complete lot. Not only lifestyles but the substance of life; not only ways to have fun but fun itself; not only a catchphrase but also a language; not only a recipe but the actual meal; in the end, family spirit, ways of buying, ways of loving, dressing and dining, study plans and plans for retirement, and even sects - all are part of the American nature. It makes no difference whether the phenomenon draws attention in Great Britain, in France, in Italy or in Spain: under a single idea, the unified market and the global village fashion themselves American-style, from Indonesia to Chile by way of Beijing.

This book was written with the aim of demonstrating that just because this expanding social, political and economic agenda is consistent with the founding ideals of the United States and its particular idiosyncrasies, we non-Americans do not on that account have to embrace it all. Even a large part of America's own inhabitants no longer benefits from it.

Now that the world seems disarmed of its ideologies, a powerful idea reappears in the name of liberty, of the quality of human life and the well-being of culture: don't surrender to the fate of an American planet.



It is not unusual for some American high school seniors, at the height of their final term, to confuse the location of Australia and Russia on an unmarked map, place the Mediterranean Sea in the waters of the Indian Ocean, to not know whether Europe extends below the Straits of Gibraltar and conceive of Spain as a country near Guatemala. One must not take it the wrong way: at times they also totter over the location of the United States.

Geography matters less in America than in other parts of the world. For residents of America, the nation is rounded off as an exclusive area that seems unrelated to anything else. The average education in the United States does not in fact distinguish itself by yielding a heavy load of knowledge, be it mathematical, historical or geographical. Instead it functions as a practical training that succeeds, above all, in raising dedicated citizens, with high doses of self-esteem and self-confidence &endash; strong and able to prosper within the territory of the United States, where not only they happen to be but also where one assumes the entire world will end up being.

Seen from an American perspective, the outside world is a stage whose theatrical repertoire every passing day incorporates more and more of the performances of Planet America. It is others who need knowledge of the essence and exemplary way of life of the United States. That is, just as subordinates know and concern themselves more about the spirit of their chief than chiefs about the mood of their subordinates, the rest of the world will lend (and now lends) its attention to what happens in America and not the other way around. American television, radio, and newspapers offer proof of this disavowal of knowledge day after day. Unless something truly sensational happens &endash; or, at very least, American citizens, troops, or capital become involved &endash; the news in the papers or on TV is domestic news. No other modern society lives so lost in thought about its domestic affairs and reduces to so little importance the events of others.

In popular American sentiment, the foreigner is a product that must sometimes be endured with his strange differences and other times must be tolerated by virtue of his inexorable procession towards conversion. In the end, in time, he will end up being recycled into American fabric, given that America (why kid oneself?) is the sublime essence of modernity. It follows that the outside world grows less interesting, except for troubling those who think about the inopportune immigration it generates or about the incomprehensible military and ideological tangles it occasionally provokes. No doubt many Americans would feel better without foreigners, calmer and free from the conflicts that have nothing to do with their lives.

The Americans have been famous as interventionists, placing their hands on whatever chunk of land suits them economically or does not suit them ideologically. But one must accept that in a good number of cases they have done so in spite of themselves &endash; contrary to their vocation of keeping themselves isolated.

Americans are extremely home-loving and fear getting lost farther afield. The so-called Lost Generation did nothing other than write about their home, and around the world one will see few Americans &endash; always very rare &endash; enjoying a site outside their borders. Nothing seems more significant to Americans, nor promises them more abundant rewards, than the inside of their home. The founding ideal of the country was to build a cosmos from scratch, freed from the contamination that smoked in the outside world: a modernity stripped of the sombre bonds of old European history and cemented in such a way that nothing or no one could triumph over it.

The echoes of "Yankee Go Home" could not correspond better with what the American family desires: to go home. Not to take trans-Atlantic voyages, but to celebrate Thanksgiving in the seclusion of their home, to live their life without having to confront the babel of the surrounding humanity speaking its different languages, invoking its age-old civilisations and pitting complex ideas (in the end difficult and unproductive) against American pragmatism and clarity.

In spite of the accusations of meddling that have been brought against America, one ought to take into account how bored Americans have been when they have ventured out from their home, and how bad-tempered when they have dealt with matters removed from their circumstances. Their mistakes committed abroad, the proverbial ignorance of their leaders in international politics, their botched military actions and other failures have now restored their national ideal to its longing for seclusion. There's no place like home, given that it alone is big enough, dynamic enough and prosperous enough to satisfy any request. Other countries may be attractive outlets for doing business, propitious for selling, but in the end devoid of any entity worth emulating. Only Japan since the seventies and Germany shine like two beacons before which the American economy has no alternative but to keep its eyes peeled. Almost all the others form an aggregation where the only things shining are the decorative twinklings of Italy and France. Asia, Latin America, and Australia are simply markets. Some stranger than others, some dumber than others, but all, in short, are vast agglomerations of real estate and potential clients.

Out of character with the imperialist zeal that the anti-capitalist Left attributes to Americans, Americanism has put its stamp on the world more with the inspiration of a businessman or commissar than with the epic poetry of a conqueror. There is no American Napoleonism, but rather marketing ambition or the desire to cleanse the ideological suburbs on the edge of town. When it comes to acquiring territory, Americans have had enough of their own frontier myth and have shown no interest in everyone else's borders. If they have infringed on others, they have done it not so much to add them to their map as to ward off their possible threats. Far from being warlike expansionists, which they in no way seem, they are first of all managers or (if need be) policemen. Never are many customers enough, nor are plentiful markets too many. Nor will ideological or pathological delinquency catch them disarmed. But they do not possess the spirit that moved empires, and the path of heroes does not attract them. American history is full of deserters, strategic errors, and deaths caused by friendly fire. The American is a colonist, a man of enterprise, a bold businessman or, at times, a psychotic serial killer &endash; but never a warrior who risks his life in foreign conquest. The rest of the world is just a hazy shadow that in the future will no doubt try to creep over the natural light of America. One need look no further than one's own surroundings.

While in Europe not a day goes by when one is not informed of American happenings in some sphere or another, in the United States the rest of the world is hardly seen; and there are nevertheless groups who would like to see still less of it.

Overall, the United States thinks of itself as sufficiently autonomous and enchanted with its domestic furnishings. Whenever Americans have discussed ways to improve their judicial, educational, or sanitary system, it has never occurred to them to put forward the example of another country where a model has been successfully tried out, no matter how impressively.

In contrast with the numerous admiring evocations of the United States that are heard in Europe, for the United States Europe is a past from which one can hardly expect ideas for the future. It is true that, when trying to call attention to the American crime rate, the experts do mention the lower figures of other parts of the world &endash; but only to emphasise the magnitude of the domestic problem. Nothing having to do with expounding the preventive system of other Administrations or the dialectics of another archetype. The American system seems to have nothing to learn from outside itself, and even less to copy from the second sons that surround it.

All the socialist whims of the Thirties faded away after World War II and, later, the reformers of the Seventies disappeared during the Reagan Administration. Now the pieces are mostly in place; the cultural, political and economic pulse of the planet already beats an American rhythm. Why bother copying others? What good can be got from that, when everybody else, through their governments and through their culture, are busy adopting American patron saints? The American operates at these heights like a true Church &endash; with its good and its evil &endash; that has received the recognition of its rival Churches and has little by little converted the pagans, from Portugal to Singapore. It has converted them to the politics of the central banks and the institution of the jury, to the privatisation of public enterprise, the models of the labour market, and the deposit system; to the malls, the music, the clothes, the fast food; to the mimicry of its sports or performances.

From time to time Europe puts up small resistance to the American tide, but it does not concern itself with barriers that all its countries might share; nor do its measures seem like anything but lamentations on the eve of a final surrender. From the growing loss of the welfare state to the politics of employment, from the competitive sense to the sense of the family, the European continent seems to be fashioning its future more as a reflection of the United States than with its own distinctive plan. The ideal of a single language in the European Union (EU), which will wind up being English, corresponds with the aim of a single currency in the style of the dollar and a flag that copies the star-spangled design of the first American banner. And besides the EU, the old Soviet Union, the Pacific East, the states of Latin America, and the Mediterranean shores accentuate their orbital movement around the productive image of Planet America.

Without raiding parties, calling home the troops and closing military bases, the Americans are now carrying out the most efficacious colonisation of any age. Families everywhere eat Kellogg's for breakfast and Oscar Mayer's at dinnertime. And in between, from morning to night, they are bombarded by media blasts &endash; debates over ethics and health, financial quandaries, computer programs &endash; American idols and merchandise.

The European cultural market is already a market of business à la Americana; the publishing and film industries, the radio and TV stations &endash; all adopt the prototypes of American space, and young people work and play with models imported from over there. In Europe the assassins already murder in McDonald's just like in the United States, and European travellers stay more and more in one of the hundreds of Holiday Inns or Ramadas that are opening up near the old cattle tracks. American-style pragmatic culture induces the elimination of humanities courses from curricula in college or before. The "experts" are American or at least inspired by the United States. European youth dream about finishing their training in the United States while the European university has followed a managerial drift towards resembling its American counterpart.

The World Cup of football was played in the Unites States in 1994 with the hope of "footballising" America. The result, before and after, has been to Americanise football; just as pizza, Chinese food, croissants and hamburgers were Americanised before. American high school football does not follow the rules of the whole world these days. It is played with two referees and no line judges, as in basketball. There are four periods, and players are changed every few minutes, as in basketball or hockey. Managers prepare their players in lines, coaching separately the defence and offence, as in American football. Even the ball of FIFA has been modified in weight and composition. In time the whole world will probably do it their way. Why worry about learning what is practiced elsewhere?

In contrast with American cultural power over Europe, European cultural output fails to reach the United States beyond the university circuit and, even there, with a time lag that in and of itself qualifies the interest as limited. Structuralism and deconstructivism reached Harvard ten years later than it rose up in France (and always reduced to collective semi-secrets). American publishing houses report poor sales of translated books, even world-wide best-sellers such as Sophie's World, simply because they are not American. Even fashion in clothing is adopted with calm delay, and foreign films hardly count in a medium inundated with Hollywood productions. There are merciful exceptions and, for example, in 1995 they remembered during the Oscars to pay tribute to Antonioni; before that they put the death of Fellini and Truffaut on the front page of the largest national newspapers. But these are, as one may infer, posthumous gestures fit for the appreciation of the exquisite in extinction.

The Americans reached America having left Europe behind and pronouncing its physical and moral degeneracy. What has come to pass in the following two centuries tends to be, in their opinion, a legitimisation of that farewell. Europe is burning up on its hot coals. The Middle Ages, Gothic cathedrals, and Baroque palaces are smoke signals from some embers proclaiming their own carbonisation. There is still time to visit Europe, to hurry before it winds up turned into ashes; with summer coming, Americans see promotions for tours to England, France and Italy, but they do not seem to get that excited about the idea. On the eve of the end of the century, only 2% of Americans have ever been to Europe, and not because they are unaccustomed to moving around: 20% of them change residence within their own country every year. Although they do not travel abroad much, their domestic mobility is greater than that of any other country in the world. They do not visit other countries because they believe they have the interesting part of foreign countries, the future of foreign lands, stored away at home. Twice as much. It is at home in the heterogeneity of religions, ethnic groups and cultures that reside there. And it becomes ever more accessible, seeing that everything abroad is itself, day by day, merely a reproduction of American products.

And so, just who are the Americans and the American? In Spain or in Europe people may argue about national or continental identity, but in the United States the issue has in recent years become an obsessive debate. The difference in the discussion is that in Spain or in Europe, "to be or not to be" raises spirits from their graves; while in the United States the questioning has a certain healthy tangibility. In the first place, nobody disputes the existence of America; how could one have doubts about this entity? America exists like a god: immanent, omnipresent, unchallengeable. America is a utopia in living flesh, its territory enclosed by providence, without a glimmer of confusion. All the same, if we agree on that, then who are the true Americans? Are white Anglo-Saxon Protestants American, but not blacks or the latest wave of immigrants? Are the Koreans who have been selling fruit for thirty years American, but not Colombian taxi drivers or first-generation Polish manicurists? How many descendants must an immigrant have to attain the true condition? How much evidence of American blood must one present in order to be assimilated into the veins of the fatherland? None of this has been precisely fixed. America may be one and distinct, but the American people are an agglomeration.

Whereas in Europe a distinction is still made between Europeans and immigrants, in America everyone is at the same time American and immigrant. The European stew appears done and freezing; the community in the United States finds itself at the height of the cooking stage. In the face of dozens of centuries of decantation, the United States is still being distilled. To begin with, the first man set foot on its domains only after the human species had already inhabited the Earth over a million years. Still in its youth, the two hundred years of its political history are opposed to the thousands of the continent that it renounced as obsolete. National inexperience corresponds with its domestic agility and the teeming mixture of its groups. Its very landscapes seem more open and wild &endash; unpredictable places that bring to mind untrained behaviour. A tornado on the plains, a flood along the Missouri, another earthquake in California, or a hurricane in Florida pummels a surface that, by comparison, seems inaccessible in Europe. If Europe's anatomy is set and its countenance carved in stone, America's features are still being drawn. A 1994 Time magazine cover used computer morphing to put together the future face of "America," mixing the features of Africans, Asians, Latinos, Anglo-Saxons, Chinese, and Vietnamese. In 1990 the population was 76% white, 12% black, 9% Latino and 3% Asian. By the year 2050 the Anglos will have fallen to 52% and the Latinos will have risen to 22%. Blacks will constitute 16% and Asians one tenth.

The ancestors of the current population were of all these types and more. Some 58 million have German forebears, while the ancestors of 39 million are Irish, 33 million are English, 24 million are African, 15 million are Italian, 12 million are Mexican and 10 million are French. Another 25 million claim roots in Poland, in Holland, or among the American Indians. Nowadays as much as 10% of the population was born outside the country and yet, in more than a few cases, these same immigrants proudly claim the United States as their homeland.

More than a hundred languages are spoken in the schools of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles by students whose families profess beliefs that cover every class of world-wide religion and subreligion. At the centre of the faith a dozen great Protestant denominations blend together, but nearby them swarm countless parachurches that are born, flourish, and fade away daily.

Seen this way, America is nothing specific, but precisely the unspecific and unexpected. What is nonetheless so essential that no one loses hope or gets confused?

America combines everything on the globe to mythically create a new world, and becoming an American does not mean so much to acquire a nationality as to embrace a superior mythology. In the past one may have been Romanian or Vietnamese, but now (once over there) one belongs to America. Its capacity for absorption and metabolisation inside itself is parallel to its powers of seduction outside. The American fantasy may suffer setbacks, but its ardour always runs deep and it is never completely lost. More than a nation in the European sense, America resembles a gigantic and privileged community of residents spirited by sharing a blessed space that will aggrandise the future of every individual.

As a matter of fact, the best days of the United States never appear to be in the past, with its unavoidable stains &endash; genocide, slavery, the Great Depression &endash; but rather always lie ahead, beaming bright and clear. In popular thought, the United States is not only modernity but the perpetual future and the beginning of the human superfuture. And why not adhere to that metaphor of optimism and immortality?

In the midst of the joy of this forward-looking faith, nothing seems unattainable for the power of the United States. The French were not able to finish the Panama Canal, but they were. The Russians sent the first satellite into space, but the United States was the first to put a man on the moon. The Americans won the crusade against evil in Europe, and in the end have achieved a round planetary hegemony with the fall of heretical Communism. They have also triumphed in their economic scrimmage with Japan after several years when the Orient was a menace. And not only conventional and accounted space is in their charge: cyberspace too is now falling into their hands.

A Spanish or French person may be patriotic, but an American is patriotic in a special way &endash; being a member of Number One. Nowhere more than in America does one see the constant flying of the triumphal flag. In gas stations, department stores, jewellery shops, restaurants, on house porches, America is celebrating itself as though it were at every moment occupying the podium of several never-ending world championships.

Twenty percent of Americans don't know how many stars array their national flag, but that fact (like geography) matters little with regard to the sacred. Presidents and candidates for whatever office display the national colours on their ties and on their banners. There are trousers, blouses, underpants, microwaves, pastries, condoms &endash; any object one can imagine &endash; sporting the red, white and blue of America. As many as 59% of homes keep a flag on hand to fly on their facades, and two thirds of the population declare themselves not only patriotic but "very patriotic."

The fatherland is loved like a beneficent deity and is revered with hymns and ceremonies in honour of the most insignificant occasions. Across the country one finds stores selling emblems, posters, postcards, buttons, pennants, and photographs of the history of the United States, its forefathers and its holidays. A button from Nixon's last campaign can cost 200 dollars; a figurine of Uncle Sam, 20 dollars; a red, white and blue coffee set, 70. These establishments recall souvenir shops on the one hand, but on the other they remind one of the stalls selling pictures and medals inside shrines. Americans who visit them seem at the same time tourists of their own land and the devout faithful of it. Belief in the prosperity that this environment offers and faith in a free land, beloved by God, are the two faces of the same religious ideal in which floats the stout peculiarity of America.

AMERICAN PLANET was published in Madrid in 1996 by Anagrama in Spanish. The English edition is translated by Allen Hougland and is to be published by The Zero Press in 2000. It is the Winner of Spain's prestigious Anagrama Essay Prize for 1996. It has also been at the top of the nonfiction bestseller list in Spain

Translation © 1997 Allen Hougland.