I hope the second half of the year has started well for you. In case you missed it, I’m switching this newsletter to be monthly, not weekly. I’m still experimenting the format a bit so let me know what you think of this one!
Something I’ve been thinking about recently is whether America is still somewhere people aspire to go to?
Much has been written about how the current president has resulted in the US retreating as the de facto global leader, but will others fill the void?
The West is best
In listening/ reading up on things such as the Space Race and the oppression of Soviet communism there seemed to be this visceral pull to bright lights of America, or at least the free market system.
This clip of a woman trying to escape across the Berlin Wall shows the literal tussle between the two ideologies.
People would risk their lives to get to escape one part of the world, and be in the land of freedom, and McDonalds. This soft power seems to have continued through the 1990s and 2000s as more and more people sought the ideals embodied by America.
Is it all that great?
Compared to food shortages, a society of the American Dream would no doubt seem great.
As the years have passed and inequality has widened the cracks in the system have become more visible to see.
Historically, it was only white America on show (Friends famously has only 3 black characters across its 10 seasons) and so a lot of the downsides of the American/ Western way weren’t there to see.
Now that more diverse social groups have a louder voice, the ideology is perhaps not looking so aspirational..?
It’s difficult for America to argue its total ideological superiority based on its handling of the coronavirus and racial protests.
Other countries relish in mocking its response. There are no doubt areas where America is still a legitimate world leader (and universally admired for it), but it feels like these other aspects are chipping away at the sense of “West is best”.
The question then becomes, where in the world will fill the void?
My sense is that certain areas of the world will gain ground in building soft power in fashion, culture, innovation etc., no doubt driven by younger people who are less attached to historical precedence.
An early candidate would be (South) Korea who won the first non-English Best Picture at the Oscars, has international K-Pop fandom and (who knew) some of the best cosmetics in the world.
🤔 What do you think?
- In what categories can you think about “soft power”? And which parts of the world have the lead in each category?
- Will one country be able to dominate as much as America did in the past?
Now we’ll move on to some recommendations of things I’ve been listening, reading and watching
- Passion Isn’t Enough | Hidden Brain: an argument that people who constantly read/ talk about the news aren’t “engaged” in politics but instead treat it like a hobby. It gives a compelling argument for the importance of grassroots political activism if you want to change something about the world
- Can We Pull Back From The Brink? | Making Sense: if you haven’t heard of Sam Harris before, he’s public intellectual who writes a lot about philosophy, meditation, rationality and, more recently, the state of society. His approach is to seek the truth (or at least, his interpretation of it) unperturbed if it offends people. For him, being able to have (difficult) conversations rather than shy away from topics, or rely on outdated conventional wisdom is the most important thing. This episode is nearly 2 hours, but (to me at least) did a good job at presenting an argument that, despite George Floyd’s death, police in the US are not racist. It’s quite cerebral so perhaps not background listening
- Gimlet Academy: a mini-series about how Gimlet Media make podcasts. Maybe it’s because I spend a lot of time thinking about podcasts, but it was super interesting to learn how and why certain stories are much more compelling than others
- Gibson | AfroQueer: my friend in Kenya works on the team for this show. In my opinion, it’s really well made and tells important stories that many people might not normally think about
- Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus | Profile: back story of the head of the World Health Organisation
- Legal at Netflix | WeAreNetflix: using podcasts as a form of employer branding is becoming increasingly popular. Netflix do this really well as they scale their recruitment. Rather than have people actively seek out pages on their site, they can broadcast their company culture in a way that is interesting for people not actively seeking a job there
- The Nuclear Family was a Mistake | The Atlantic: a thought-provoking piece about how extended family can relieve the pressure on two people raising kids. Interesting to think about how, by being intentional about how who you live near, non-blood relatives could also play this role if “family” aren’t close by
- The World Until Yesterday | Jared Diamond: interesting book about the lives of “traditional” societies. Despite the upsides of proximity to nature our forefathers enjoyed, I’m glad to be living in a modern society
- Normal People: the Danish TV network got the rights to this early on, and quite a few friends here in Copenhagen have seen it. I thought it was good, though felt a few aspects could have done with more context/ explanation. Either way, it gets a bit depressing in the middle, so have some fun things lined up to lift you up
- Cuba and the Cameraman: recommendation from a friend. A really interesting narrative about the changing nature of the country. The reporter also has a great ability to build rapport (and get people to show him the contents of their fridge)
- Skam: this is basically the Norwegian version of Skins. It ticks of the box of “easy watching” despite covering some pretty hard hitting topics
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